Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

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Angelika and I took a short trip to Corning today to give a talk on Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life at the Southeast Steuben County Library's Books Sandwiched In program.

I started out by talking about the book, and a bit about related books. I probably talked too much about making food central in life and central in culture as a food center, but overall I think it went pretty well. (I've put my notes in the extended part of this story.)

I like the book as a whole, though I can see where it rubs some people the wrong way. It's not exactly a novel, not exactly a gardening book, not exactly a cookbook, not exactly a nonfiction book on food. It's not where we got the idea of eating locally - that was Deep Economy - but it's a good place to look if you're thinking about it.

After talking about the Kingsolver experience, we talked about the St.Laurent experience. We hadn't particularly planned out what we were going to say, but our improvisation worked out pretty well. I think the most interesting part was realizing that most of the things it seems like we should have missed, we really don't miss. We've had a few problems finding things like NY or PA oils and oats - I need to try looking harder - but the one and only thing that's proven genuinely impossible to substitute for is chocolate. Nutella, especially, but being able to gather chocolate only as a gift from other people has really changed the way we relate to it.

One fun part was a bit of a shift from talking about our gardening (we passed around pictures of the chickens, and currants, and other fun things) and eating to talking about Angelika's plans for the orchard. That attracted a lot of interest from the audience.

In questions, people were interested in a lot of specific things, like which seed catalogs we'd recommend, and I meant to bring a pile but forgot. I did bring some books to share. There were a lot of questions about fruits and nuts, which Angelika was better at answering.

Since the talk, I've been thinking about a question we had about what we'll do when the year is over. I don't think we'll change much, though I doubt it'll be formal rules. We're eating better and more diverse food than we were before, and I've learned a huge amount about what I like to eat that's going to find practical implementation in our garden. Moving explicitly to things that can grow around here changes the way I think about food, but more specifically the way I think about my own garden plot. That list of possible things to plant includes a lot of things I hadn't considered in the past.

It was a lot of fun to get to talk about gardening and local eating in the place where I first felt like a local, and who knows? Maybe there'll be more blueberry bushes and nut trees springing up around Corning.


Notes for the book review part of the talk - these are my own opinions mixed with the story of the text, so please don't blame Kingsolver for anything here.

One of many books on the subject, but a good place to start. The tone doesn't always go over well with readers, even readers who agree. That's not especially surprising, given that it's an ambitious effort at evangelizing through personal story.

Kingsolver is a novelist, so tells story as narrative.

Opens with departure from Tucson, a place with water problems that are hard to comprehend in Upstate NY. Departure starts firmly in the old world of convenience store - the clerk would prefer to wash her car than end a drought.

"Sense of place," being in the right place - ecologically as well as family history and connectedness.

Lack of emphasis on food in our culture. Food has become a specialty subject, while we're all expected to understand and remember algebra, geology, and the insides of frogs.

Food has become industrial - and don't look in the factory! Knowing where it comes from changes our relationship to it, and making it ourselves can be transformative.

We started our local eating in August (decided in June), while they started in March. They had the advantage of asparagus planted four years earlier, which gives them a head start on a harbinger of spring. Kingsolver has fun noting that asparagus was actually the first frozen food - the Romans buried it in snow in the Alps.

"The main barrier between ourselves and a local-food culture is not price but attitude. The most difficult requirements are patience and a pinch of restraint... waiting for the quality experience." (31)

Early April shopping hard. Start with what you can get. Meat, dairy, eggs, grain, nuts. Saved by rhubarb. (Here, that would be later, but stored apples cover gap.)

They aimed for food from their own county, but allowed far-off grain, plus one luxury item each. Coffee, oil, dried fruit, hot chocolate.

Joys of seed-shopping, and problems of GM seeds, disappearing varieties. (I'd add patented varieties, hybrids.)

The "Vegetannual" as a way of describing a year of crops. First leaves (spinach, kale, lettuce), then leaf heads (broccoli), then young fruit (peas, cucumbers), beans/peppers/tomatoes, bigger fruits, large hard-shelled fruit, root crops.

Mushrooms and gathered food, deeper connections to an area. (Ramps, ginseng, wild asparagus, too.) Some of the more emotional stories are around poultry - chickens, turkeys. Daughter wanting to start egg business, realizing quickly that slaughter a necessary part - "We'll only kill the mean ones." Peeping chicks.

Challenge of throwing a Memorial Day party for lots and lots of guests, while staying within the rules. Called the farmers, visited markets, grew sprouts. "Lamb kabobs on the grill, chicken pizza with goat cheese, asparagus frittata, an enormous salad of spring greens, and a strawberry-rhubarb crisp. To fill out the menu for vegan friends we added summer rolls with bean sprouts, carrots, green onions, and a spicy dipping sauce." (104)

The strange problem of American cheapness on food: "Grocery money is an odd sticking point for U.S. citizens, who on average spend a lower proportion of our income on food that people in any other country, or any heretofore in history... It's interesting that penny-pinching is an accepted defense for toxic food habits, when frugality so rarely rules other consumer domains.... Insisting to farmers that our food has to be cheap is like commanding a ten-year-old to choose a profession and move out of the house now." (115-6)

Visiting farmers, farmer's markets. "Locally grown" less corruptible because things are visible.

Cooking culture - efficiency, dedication, changing priorities. Moving deeper into ingredients, making your own cheese. Learning about the strange barriers of our food safety rules (134), which are set up for factory-scale operations.

The Farmer's Diner - "Food from Here" - http://www.farmersdiner.com/

Slow Food Nation - fighting back against "Get Big or Get Out", Amish farm family. Emphasis on building soil as key to long-term success.

Battling weeds, but rewarded with huge returns of vegetables. Commitment to feeding themselves increased value of crop, intensity of being out there.

Return of small farming seems counter to many other trends, but "back to the land is an option with a permanent, quiet appeal. The popularity of gardening is evidence of this; so is the huge growth of U.S. agritourism, including U-pick operations, subscription farming, and farm-based restaurants or bed-and-breakfasts. Many of us who aren't farmers or gardeners still have some element of farm nostalgia in our family past, real or imagined: a secret longing for some connection to a life where a rooster crows in the yard." (179)

Rooster and turkey stupidity a recurring theme, though.

Zucchini - formerly exotic, now explosive, overwhelming, reverse thievery. Tomatoes - 50 pounds in July, 302 in August. Tomatoes taking over the kitchen.

Canning, drying. "Canning doesn't deserve its reputation as an archaic enterprise murderous to women's freedom and sanity." (199-200) Canning with family and friends.

Challenges of creating local packing, distribution. Co-ops, battling supermarket expectations of consistency over quality. Farmers now see 19% of every food dollar. Competition over price drives a downward spiral leaves farmers without markets.

And then we get to the hard part - "You can't run away on harvest day". Quotes Wendell Berry - "I dislike the thought that some animal has been made miserable in order to feed me. If I am going to eat meat, I want it to be from animal that has lived a pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture, with good water nearby and trees for shade. And I am getting almost as fussy about food plants." (221-2)

"Most humans could well consume more vegetable foods, and less meat. But globally speaking, the vegetarian option is a luxury. The oft-cited energetic argument for vegetarianism, that it takes ten times as much land to make a pound of meat as a pound of grain, only applies to the kind of land where rain falls abundantly on rich topsoil."

Then the details of slaughtering and plucking six chickens and six turkeys with friends and family.

A trip to Italy - "where fish wear crowns". Food taken seriously.

Fall - battling pumpkins, storing potatoes. Curing garlic. Stocking a root cellar.

Chickens start laying, Lily's business takes off.

Thanksgiving as America's one real food holiday, a meal whose contents fit its season.

What do you eat in January? What you grew last summer, of course! More carnivorous, more frozen, preserved. "I wish I could offer high drama, some chilling tales of a family gnawing on the leather uppers of their Birkenstocks." (299)

Fits with recent calls for food security.

"Between April and November, the full cash value of the vegetables, chickens, and turkeys we'd raised and harvested was $4,410... The value-added products, our several hundred jars of tomato sauce and other preserved foods, plus Lily's full-year egg contribution, would add more than 50 percent to the cash value of our garden production.... Our second job in the backyard, as we had come to think of it, was earning us the equivalent of some $7,500 of annual income... that is only $1.72 per person, per meal... [plus] in cash, our year of local was costing us well under 50ยข per meal." (305-7)

"Spending every waking hour on one job is drudgery, however you slice it. After an eight-hour day at my chosen profession, enough is enough. I'm ready to spend the next two or three somewhere else, preferably outdoors." (307-8)

February/March "hungry month", but still enjoying past food. Turkeys attempt breeding, however stupidly.

Conclusion: no weight loss. Making things from scratch meant a lot of learning. Ate from a 40'x22' spread, per person. "any year in which no high-fructose corn syrup crosses my threshold is pure enough for me." Ends with turkey hatching.

Book could really use an index. Americans not always fond of hearing about how other countries are better, which doesn't always go over so well.

Book more a starting point than a conclusion - lots of good info, recipes, but not so much on how to actually do the gardening. (That's actually pretty reasonable, given variation.)

Bringing it home, Upstate NY has great potential to make this work - downstate a much harder problem. Especially in long term, with higher energy prices and issues around climate change, we're very well-positioned for this.

Local local food heroes - Walter Taylor, Konstantin Frank

Our own eating local experiment...

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This page contains a single entry by Simon St.Laurent published on February 6, 2008 9:43 PM.

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