Back to na­ture for our meals

An­i­mal, Veg­etable, Mir­a­cle

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - By Susan Sal­ter Reynolds

A Year of Food Life

HarperCollins: 370 pp., $26.95

IT has been a re­mark­able year for books on eat­ing: Mar­ion Nes­tle’s “What to Eat,” Peter Singer’s “The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Mat­ter,” Michael Pol­lan’s “The Om­ni­vore’s Dilemma,” Thomas McNamee’s “Alice Wa­ters and Chez Panisse” and Eric Schlosser’s book for teens, “Chew on This.”

All share a dis­tinctly here-are-thefacts-now-you-de­cide tone, an­a­lyz­ing what we eat through po­lit­i­cal, sen­sual, prac­ti­cal, eco­nomic and his­tor­i­cal lenses. All show how mar­ket­ing has dis­torted our choices. And all con­tend that healthy food isn’t just for the wealthy. As Alice Wa­ters puts it, “food shouldn’t be cheap, and it shouldn’t be fast.” De­cid­ing to pay more and spend more time cook­ing, turn­ing the Ti­tanic of our life­styles, is an­other mat­ter. None of th­ese au­thors is im­mune to the dif­fi­cul­ties of change — par­tic­u­larly with chil­dren, the most im­por­tant ben­e­fi­cia­ries.

“An­i­mal, Veg­etable, Mir­a­cle” is Bar­bara King­solver’s chron­i­cle of her fam­ily’s one-year “food sab­bat­i­cal.” King­solver, her hus­band, Steven L. Hopp, and daugh­ters Camille, 19, and Lily, 9, vowed to eat only lo­cally grown, or­ganic food. “We only knew, some­what ab­stractly, we were go­ing to spend a year in­te­grat­ing our food choices with our fam­ily val­ues, which in­clude both ‘love your neigh­bor’ and ‘try not to wreck ev­ery bloom­ing thing on the planet while you’re here.’ ” The book is writ­ten mostly by King­solver, but there are sev­eral in­ter­ludes by Camille (who sounds very much like her mother) and a few by Hopp, a bi­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor who grew up on the Vir­ginia farm where the fam­ily now grows a quar­ter-acre of fruits and veg­eta­bles and raises chick­ens and turkeys.

The book is in­ter­spersed with sec­tions on fuel econ­omy, hunger and nu­tri­tion around the world, pes­ti­cides and tox­ins, in­dus­trial an­i­mal food pro­duc­tion and recipes. For ex­am­ple, 400 gal­lons of oil a year per Amer­i­can are con­sumed agri­cul­tur­ally. If ev­ery­one ate one meal a week of re­gion­ally grown, or­ganic food, that would save 1.1 mil­lion bar­rels of oil a week, she writes.

It be­comes clear that King­solver and her fam­ily had long en­joyed the din­ner hour to­gether and the meal prepa­ra­tion be­fore mak­ing the de­ci­sion to eat only lo­cally and or­gan­i­cally. They were not, in other words, switch­ing from di­ets high in McDon­ald’s and white sugar.

They be­gin their ex­per­i­ment in the spring, when the first as­para­gus pops up. And much of the book is a pleas­ant ram­ble through the sea­sons on the farm: wild mush­rooms, onions, cher­ries, zuc­chini, toma­toes (can­ning, dry­ing, mak­ing sauce). Lily is re­spon­si­ble for the roost­ers, hens and eggs. Not sur­pris­ingly, it is ex­tremely la­bor-in­ten­sive, al­though part of King­solver’s point is that this la­bor brings us closer to na­ture, closer to the peo­ple we love and closer to our com­mu­nity. “I’d say 75 per­cent of my cru­cial par­ent­ing ef­fort has taken place dur­ing or sur­round­ing the time our fam­ily con­venes for our evening meal.”

King­solver ac­knowl­edges that some work­ing women may not feel like mak­ing homemade moz­zarella at the end of the day. They might not be mar­ried to a man who likes to make bread. They might not like cook­ing. “It’s a rea­son­able po­si­tion,” she writes. “But it got twisted into a patho­log­i­cal food cul­ture. When my gen­er­a­tion of women walked away from the kitchen we were es­corted down that path by a prof­i­teer­ing in­dus­try that knew a tired, vul­ner­a­ble mar­ket­ing tar­get when they saw it. . . . They threw open the door and we walked into a nu­tri­tional cri­sis and gen­uinely toxic food sup­ply. If you think toxic is an ex­ag­ger­a­tion, read the pack­age di­rec­tions for han­dling raw chicken. . . . We came a long way, baby, into bad eat­ing habits and col­lat­er­ally im­paired fam­ily dy­nam­ics. No mat­ter what else we do or be­lieve, food re­mains at the cen­ter of ev­ery cul­ture. Ours now runs on empty calo­ries.”

A work­ing mother may agree with much of this strong lan­guage. King­solver’s un­der­ly­ing as­sump­tion, which may well be true, is that women, whether they work out­side the home or not, are pri­mar­ily re­spon­si­ble for feed­ing their fam­i­lies. No par­ent wants to feed chil­dren toxic food. So we can go to farm­ers mar­kets, we can join or­ganic pro­duce de­liv­ery clubs and or­der food on­line. We can fight the con­stant bat­tle against the Coca-Co­las and Ga­torades, the Pop Tarts and hot dogs that “ev­ery­one else gets to eat.” We can try to make more money so we can pay not only the babysit­ter and the mort­gage but also save a lit­tle on the side to buy a few acres some­day. Then we can up­root our kids (King­solver moved her girls from Ari­zona to Vir­ginia) and help them learn to live in the coun­try. We can try. Therein lies the heart­break­ing qual­ity of “An­i­mal, Veg­etable, Mir­a­cle,” be­cause King­solver and her fam­ily have al­ready made the leap. Still, it’s a lovely book. One wants with all one’s heart to sit with her on the porch at the end of the day and shell peas.


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