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June 19, 2007

A year of local eating

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: By Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. HarperCollins; 370 pgs., .95.“As much as possible of the food that is consumed locally ought to be locally produced on small farms, and then processed in small, non-polluting plants that are locally owned. We must do everything possible to provide to ordinary citizens the opportunity to own a small, usable share of the country.” —Wendell Berry, “Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community”In “The Poisonwood Bible,” Barbara Kingsolver wrote about a Southern Baptist mission family clinging to survival in Africa and posed a stupefying question: Are humans any more entitled to the earth than plants, other animals or microorganisms? For an answer — the answer Kingsolver eventually came to — think of the imbalance between the ways disease is fought now in America and Africa; then consider the notion that in one way, AIDS or malaria or green mamba snakes is how Africa, The Continent, is winning against the human disease.Never forget your place in the world, someone wise once said. Kingsolver’s latest, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” (written with her husband, Steven L. Hopp, and daughter Camille Kingsolver), chronicles her family’s experience as “locavores,” or those who eat locally grown, raised, picked or bred meat and produce. The book is another attempt by Kingsolver to understand and interpret the complex relationship between the land and its people. It’s also a cookbook, food diary and work of agriculture journalism a la Bill McKibben (“Deep Economy”), Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”), Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”) and virtually anything you pick up by Wendell Berry, Kentucky’s moral arbiter.In the folksy, innocent voice of a middle-aged mother from Appalachia pointing out nothing but the obvious, Kingsolver assails the American food industry, beginning by suggesting that America has no real food culture at all. This premise is actually sinister: Because the country didn’t naturally develop a culture of eating like, say, France or Italy, advertisers and corporations created one — based entirely, dangerously on profit — and sold it to us. And, as the recent deluge of agriculture journalism pouring into the mainstream suggests, we barely even realize it.There are scary facts, many introduced in Hopp’s erudite asides that supplement the case for squaring a few plots in the back yard, hitting up biweekly farmers markets and swearing off Kroger forever: Six companies control 98 percent of the world’s seed sales, and they will sue and cripple you if you mess with their protected vegetable strands — something that can happen naturally if you’re a “seed-saver” who is into heirloom vegetables (it’s irrefutable that they taste better). We’d save 1.1 million barrels of oil per week if every American citizen ate a meal a week of local and organic food, Hopp reports, because of how much gas it takes for us to enjoy, say, bananas in Kentucky. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), now the norm of Big Ag, are used to make food of animals in the most economically sensible way for a corporation: pack in as many as possible and spend as little as possible on them before they’re “produced.” An 8-by-6 foot room, Hopp reports, could house as many as 1,152 chickens. This style of meat production is one way that mad cow disease spread through the United States: some CAFOs make cannibals of cattle and chickens. If you feed the carcass to the next cattle, you don’t have to buy feed or waste disposal. Of course, most of this information is available in books more intensely focused on the food production industry. Kingsolver mostly keeps to her own task at hand. After three years of drought, the family moves from their longtime home in Arizona to a summer home, on a farm in Virginia’s Appalachian region. They spend a year preparing soil, crops and future meat dinners — youngest daughter Lily, who may be the most culturally advanced 9-year-old on the planet, takes charge of a hen operation, eventually turning it into a (very) small local business, and helps breed turkeys. A daughter of Kentucky’s Appalachia whose family farmed tobacco, Kingsolver has an innate sense of land and farming issues, and isn’t afraid to put her hands in soil. With a profound knowledge of the amateur agriculture operation her family is running, she shames those afraid to really acknowledge where food should come from: You have to kill a turkey to eat it, after all. Here’s the thing: The book is slow. Nothing ever really goes wrong for the family, and they can spend more time than most raising and harvesting every meal. They always get what they don’t grow from some farmer down the road. It’s one chapter after another of detailed descriptions of meals and how to grow them, and the plot really never strays, not even when they successfully mate remarkably long-living turkeys and coerce one into rearing the young.Thankfully, Kingsolver is not sanctimonious, and at the very least she succeeds in creating some harmony in the discord that is American food culture. Or lack thereof. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com