I just finished reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver over the weekend, and it’s hard to overstate how much this book has already changed the way I think about food.
It was more than ten years ago now, but I still remember it vividly. I was in college and backpacking through Europe with friends. We arrived in Germany first thing in the morning, bleary-eyed from too much plane and train travel, weary from too much sight-seeing. We started hiking through the center of Munich in the hopes of finding some bread to eat. Or, at least, a beer.
There was one stand at first. And then two. We turned another corner and there were more. Ten stands lined the street. The street gave way into a square, and there were dozens. Tables and tents and vans and trucks, all overflowing with white stalks and exuberant signs announcing the arrival of “SPARGLE!!!”
Eight in the morning after an ten-hour train ride is no time to get excited about albino asparagus.
It was mid-May in Europe, and asparagus was suddenly available after the long winter, a taste of springtime itself, fresh and local. The Spargle Festival was in full swing.
We were less than impressed.
“Why didn’t we come here for Octoberfest instead?!”
We snickered at the weirdness of the Germans and their penchant for white asparagus, and moved on.
What a shame.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle explains in full detail the sheer joy one should have at the arrival of asparagus in the springtime.
It follows one family’s efforts to eat locally for one year. In doing so, it celebrates the seasonality of food and, indeed, of life itself. Ecclesiastes (or the Beatles, if you prefer) comes to mind.
“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” -Ecclesiastes 3:1
As it turns out, it was just the right time and season for me to read this book.
On Thanksgiving, I shared with my guests after the meal that each of the ingredients I used to make our side dishes was locally grown. This information was met with eye rolling. Just one more insufferable hippie / yuppie concern. Save the whales, or whatever it is this week. Must be nice to have the time and money to worry about such things.
They, admittedly, had me feeling a bit down, and a bit self-conscious, about this locavore endeavor.
But Animal, Vegetable, Miracle perked me right up by proving that fresh, local, seasonal produce is not the domain of hippies or yuppies. It is, and should be, the domain of normal people.
Flying in your asparagus from South America in November is for pretentious foodie twits. Eating a local butternut squash from a farm a few miles away is for the rest of us.
Insisting on fresh tomatoes and strawberries in the dead of winter is for the entitled and the spoiled. Waiting till spring for such treats is for the rest of us.
Paying $6 a pound for imported, off-season produce is for the rich. Buying what’s available locally and inexpensively is for the rest of us.
I wish I could share this information with my family. But I won’t. Because Animal, Vegetable, Miracle also makes the case that food choices are like politics and religion -- not for polite conversation. People’s beliefs and practices about food are deeply held and emotional. It’s not worth destroying relationships to prosthelytize about the inherent wisdom of the local cauliflower.
So I will not talk about it (except on this blog…). But I am changed.
I now walk into a supermarket produce department and see an absolute embarrassment of riches.
It’s December, and there are “fresh” strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries piled high. There is an entire section of shelves just for watermelons.
How pretentious. How entitled. How expensive.
It is not the time of year to eat these things. They don’t grow here, and the cost (environmental and otherwise) to get them here, for our out-of-season “enjoyment,” is enormous. I put “enjoyment” in quotes because these off-season fruits are not even likely to be tasty. I can’t even count the number of times in the last few years I’ve ignorantly purchased fresh berries out-of-season (not even realizing what the season for berries is…) and been dismayed to find that they tasted like air and molded too quickly. I had the thought many times: “These are not the berries I remember from when I was a kid…”. And, indeed, they are not.
Those berries will be back around this summer.
Just because I can buy berries now doesn’t mean I should. Or that I even want to.
I walked through the produce section of the Trader Joe’s in Annapolis this weekend. I made it past the berries, and the tropical bananas and citrus.
I actually shuddered when I saw it.
There it was. “Fresh” asparagus. In December. Jet-flown from Peru to my local store.
In the same produce section, there were no winter squash. Not one butternut. Not a single spaghetti squash. No delicata. All of the “in-season” foods -- the onions, carrots, and kale -- were from California.
We got to the register. The cashier asked: “Did you find everything you were looking for?”
My husband beat me to it: “Yup, thanks!”
Because of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, next time I’ll be the insufferable hippie / yuppie that says, “No, actually I was hoping to find more local produce.”