I finished Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life over the long weekend, and enjoyed it very much. It's warm, funny, and includes recipes, including one for mozzarella cheese in 30 minutes that seems ridiculously simple and inordinately tempting. What remains with me is not so much Ms. Kingsolver's passionate argument in favor of local and especially seasonal food -- she is, of course, preaching to the converted over here -- but her thoughtful discussions of food and family, and even food and homemaking. For more on the local food aspect, see JoVE's post on the book, with good links to places such as Liz's blog, Pocket Farm (and its new offshoot blog, One Local Summer); and also Mother Crone's review. My only quibble with the book -- the lists and references at the end are helpful, but even better would have been an index.
What makes this book different from some of the other current titles on the subject, especially those published on the heels of inconvenient truths, is that it's written by someone who obviously delights in and attaches importance to her roles as wife and mother. No coincidence that her co-authors are her husband Steven Hopp, who wrote the investigative, informative sidebars, and her 19-year-old daughter Camille, who wrote a nutrition and recipe sections at the end of each chapter. No doubt their year of food life was so successful simply because it was a family project. Ms. Kingsolver begins with an observation not overly common in North America:
Pushing a refrigerated green vegetable from one end of the earth to another is, let's face it, a bizarre use of fuel. But there's a simpler reason to pass up off-season asparagus: it's inferior. Respecting the dignity of a spectacular food means enjoying it at its best. Europeans celebrate the short season of abundant asparagus as a form of holiday. ...And there's more, much more:
The main barrier standing between ourselves and a local-food culture is not price, but attitude. The most difficult requirements are patience and a pinch of restraint -- virtues that are hardly the property of the wealthy. These virtues seem to find precious little shelter, in fact, in any modern quarter of this nation founded by Puritans. Furthermore, we apply them selectively: browbeating our teenagers with the message that they should wait for sex, for example. Only if they wait to experience intercourse under the ideal circumstances (the story goes), will they know its true value. "Blah blah blah," hears the teenager: words issuing from a mouth that can't even wait for the right time to eat tomatoes, but instead consumes tasteless ones all winter to satisfy a craving for everything now. We're raising our children on the definition of promiscuity if we feed them a casual, indiscriminate mingling of foods from every season plucked from the supermarket, ignoring how our sustenance is cheapened by wholesale desires.
Waiting for the quality experience seems to be the constitutional article that has slipped from American food custom. If we mean to reclaim it, asparagus seems like a place to start. And if the object of our delayed gratification is a suspected aphrodisiac? That's the sublime paradox of a food culture: restraint equals indulgence.
I haven't mastered the serene mindset on all household chores ... but I might be getting there with cooking. ... Cooking is definitely one of the things we do for fun around here. When I'm in a blue mood I head for the kitchen. I turn the pages of my favorite cookbooks, summoning the prospective joyful noise of a shared meal. I stand over a bubbling soup, close my eyes, and inhale. From the ground up, everything about nourishment steadies my soul."Finally," Ms. Kingsolver writes,
Yes, I have other things to do. For nineteen years I've been nothing but a working mother, one of the legions who could justify a lot of packaged, precooked foods if I wanted to feed those to my family. I have no argument with convenience, on principle. I'm inordinately fond of my dishwasher, and I like the shiny tools that lie in my kitchen drawers, ready to make me a menace to any vegetable living or dead. ...
But if I were to define my style of feeding my family, on a permanent basis, by the dictum, 'Get it over with, quick," something cherished in our family life would collapse. And I'm not talking waistlines, though we'd miss those. I'm discussing dinnertime, the cornerstone of our family's mental health. If I had to quantify it, 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. I'm sure I'm not the only parent to think so. A survey of National Merit scholars -- exceptionally successful eighteen-year-olds crossing all lines of ethnicity, gender, geography, and class -- turned up a common thread in their lives: the habit of sitting down to a family dinner table. It's not just the food making them brilliant. It's probably the parents -- their care, priorities, and culture of support. The words: "I'll expect you home for dinner."
I understand that most U.S. citizens don't have room in their lives to grow food or even see it growing. But I have trouble accepting the next step in our journey toward obligate symbiosis with the packaged meal and takeout. Cooking is a dying art in our culture. Why is a good question, and an uneasy one, because I find myself politically and socioeconomically entangled in the answer. I belong to the generation of women who took as our youthful rallying cry: Allow us a good education so we won't have to slave in the kitchen. We recoiled from the proposition that keeping a husband presentable and fed should be our highest intellectual aspiration. We fought for entry as equal partners into every quarter of the labor force. We went to school, sweated those exams, earned our professional stripes, and we beg therefore to be excused from manual labor. Or else our full-time job is manual labor, we are carpenters or steelworkers, or we stand at a cash register all day. At the end of a shift we deserve to go home and put our feet up. Somehow, though, history came around and bit us in the backside: now most women have jobs and still find themselves largely in charge of the housework. Cooking at the end of a long day is a burden we could live without.
It's a reasonable position. 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. "Hey ladies," it said to us, "go ahead, get liberated. We'll take care of dinner." 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 from a CAFO [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or feedlots/factory farms]. 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 ever culture. Ours now runs on empty calories.
When we traded homemaking for careers, we were implicitly promised economic independence and worldly influence. But a devil of a bargain it has turned out to be in terms of daily life. We gave up the aroma of warm bread rising, the measured pace of nurturing routines, the creative task of molding our families' tastes and zest for life; we received in exchange the minivan and the Lunchable. (Or worse, convenience-mart hot dogs and latchkey kids.) I consider it the great hoodwink of my generation. ...
Eating preprocessed or fast foods can look like salvation in the short run, until we start losing what real mealtimes give to a family: civility, economy, and health. A lot of us are wishing for a way back home, to the place where care-and-feeding isn't zookeeper's duty but something happier and more creative.
"Cooking without remuneration" and "slaving over a hot stove" are activities separated mostly by a frame of mind. The distinction is crucial. Career women in many countries still routinely apply passion to their cooking, heading straight from work to the market to search out the freshest ingredients, feeding their loved ones with aplomb. ...
Full-time homemaking may not be an option for those of us delivered without trust funds into the modern era. But approaching mealtimes as a creative opportunity, rather than a chore, is an option. Required participation from spouse and kids is an element of the equation. An obsession with spotless collars, ironing, and kitchen floors you can eat off of -- not so much. We've earned the right to forget about stupefying household busywork. But kitchens where food is cooked and eaten, those were really a good idea. We threw that baby out with the bathwater. It may be advisable to grab her by the slippery foot and haul her back in here before it's too late.
cooking is about good citizenship. It's the only way to get serious about putting locally raised foods into your diet, which keeps farmlands healthy and grocery money in the neighborhood. Cooking and eating with children teaches them civility and practical skills they can use later on to save money and stay healthy, whatever may happen in their lifetimes to the gas-fueled food industry.She's sensible, practical, passionate, and I'd trust her to feed or look after my kids any day of the week. For our family, how we eat, and how the kids learn, not to mention how we make our family decisions, are all of a piece. We don't often defer to the corporate choices for society's status quo, and, from the time the kids were in (cloth) diapers, that has pegged us around here variously as nonconformists, free thinkers, and weirdos. On the subject of home educating our children, it's not uncommon to be quizzed about the reasons behind the choice: "Why bother," some folks ask, "when the local public/private/parochial school is good enough?" Much as many people now ask about those seeking more local, seasonal, home-grown, or organic foods, "Why bother when the supermarket is good enough?" The answer, of course, is that for many of us, "good enough" isn't good enough.
Reading Barbara Kingsolver, I was reminded of the late Laurie Colwin, another writer in the kitchen. From the introduction to her second and last volume of essays and recipes, More Home Cooking (1990):
These days family life (or private life) is a challenge, and we must all fight for it. We must turn off the television and the telephone, hunker down in front of our hearths, and leave our briefcases at the office, if for only one night. We must march into the kitchen, en famille or with a friend, and find some easy, heartwarming things to make from scratch, and even if it is but once a week, we must gather at the table, alone or with friends or with lots of friends or with one friend, and eat a meal together. We know that without food we would die. Without fellowship life is not worth living. ...Go ahead. Give a little.
The table is a meeting place, a gathering ground, the source of sustenance and nourishment, festivity, safety, and satisfaction. A person cooking is a person giving: Even the simplest food is a gift.
Updated to add: My other, early thoughts on Animal, Vegetable, Miracle posted here.