"Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver
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, or 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.”
[If you haven’t already read this book -- which you probably have, as it seems I am the last person to have done so -- you should run and get yourself a copy.]
It is the perfect book to read in the week before Thanksgiving.
If not the perfect book to read while on a flight home from Paris.
Let me explain.
“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” explores the environmental and moral implications of various food choices. It manages to do so in a an existential way that had me questioning the very meaning of what it is to be human. This is not an exaggeration. This book is no mere indictment of industrial food; it is instead a surprisingly spiritual exploration of what it means to nourish oneself.
I learned from “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” that to be fully conscious of how and where our food was grown, fully aware of the true costs of putting it on our tables, and fully “in the moment” when we eat it, is to be fully thankful for it.
An excellent lesson to have learned in the week before Thanksgiving.
Which brings me to my flight home from Paris yesterday.
Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, more than 30,000 feet above the earth, in a cramped, darkened economy-class cabin, I turned the pages of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” I felt a certain kinship in those moments with the industrial chicken, and a certain longing to be the pastured cow. But, more than anything, as I read Michael Pollan’s beautiful treatise on connectedness to the earth, to food, and to fellow humans, I felt suddenly so lost, hungry, and alone.
And then, as if on cue, the stewardess delivered a tray full of industrial glop as my “meal,” including a warmed chicken sandwich wrapped in cellophane, stamped with an expiration date well into 2012. I couldn’t recognize anything she put in front of me as “food.” I couldn’t trace it from farm to table (or tray, as the case may have been). I couldn’t feel a sense of communion with the soil, the chicken, or even my fellow passengers.
This was not what it is to be human, or to nourish oneself.
And yet, I was hungry, so I ate it.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, indeed.
Except that she didn’t.
She was exclusively breastfed until she was nearly four months old and starting on solids. My husband and I personally cooked all of her baby food, which included a wide variety of plant-based whole foods. She loved spinach (still does). She began eating dairy at eight months, but her chronic ear infections began long before that. I introduced her to meat around a year. She never ate it (still doesn’t). She never ate anything that was sweetened or salted until after she was a year old.
So, what gives?
According to Dr. Fuhrman, it was my poor diet in pregnancy. Or my poor diet before I was pregnant. Or my mom’s poor diet when I was in the womb. Or her mom’s poor diet when she was in the womb.
He doesn’t actually take it that far, but a certain fatalism is implied in his argument that the effects of poor diet accumulate over lifetimes.
As is a certain amount of blame. It’s empowering to know that, by eating vegetables and feeding them to my family, I’m making it a lot less likely that any of us will suffer from heart disease or cancer. No one wants those things, and it’s nice to know there is something we can do. But he takes the argument so far that when a friend’s husband, who is in his thirties, was diagnosed with cancer on the day I finished the book, I couldn’t help but think, “If only he ate more kale!”
Sometimes bad things happen to good people, no matter how much chard they eat. And that’s the point Dr. Fuhrman misses.
The thing I most appreciated, though, was Dr. Fuhrman’s approach to teaching kids to eat healthy, and warning them about the dangers of unhealthy food. He makes the point effectively that it is socially acceptable to speak to your kids about the dangers of alcohol, drugs, and smoking, but not about the dangers of high-fat, sugar-laden, processed food. Fair enough, Dr. Fuhrman, and time for a change.
I already started speaking to my two-year old about the differences between veggies and candy. I would love to get her to a point where she says, “no, thank you” to unhealthy foods all on her own.
In the meantime, I’ll be incorporating more plant-based, whole foods and doing my best to incorporate Dr. Fuhrman’s good advice overall. Even if I don’t quite buy his full argument because he takes it too far, I’m left with the knowledge that there is something I can do to prevent disease. Now that I know, I feel compelled to do it. That way, if someone in my family is diagnosed with a chronic disease (because bad things happen to good people), I will at least know that I did everything I could to prevent it.