Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: One year of seasonal eating

Faber and Faber

Who would have thought turkey sex would provide such a highlight? The turkeys really come up with the goods. If ever a tale needed a bit a prod in its narrative structure, it’d be an account of one family’s year of eating locally and ethically. Worthy topic, but dullsville?  Not in the earth-lovin’ hands of Barbara Kingsolver.

Kingsolver’s family makes the effort to know exactly where their food comes from, avoiding the unnecessary consumption of “food miles” or the untenable cruelty of factory animal farming methods. The bestselling writer and her family relocated from her beloved Tucsondesert to become a “locavore” in southern Appalachia, and to write about it. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is the story of their first year spent deliberately eating food grown near where they lived: if not by them, then sourced at nearby farmers’ markets.

Sailing a sea of zucchini and corniness, this journal has the potential to end up all wet. However, Kingsolver at the helm avoids capsize. And not just because she’s invited the turkeys on board.

In the USA (and this book is well rooted in the USA; Australians will have to turn the calendar upside down to learn when to sow your veges), 99 per cent of turkeys consumed are from a single breed, the Broad-Breasted White, a “quick-fattening monster bred specifically for the industrial-scale setting”, incapable of flying, foraging, or mating. Slow FoodUSArecently launched a campaign encouraging more people to order heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving; that is, trying to save rare breeds by eating them. Kingsolver’s family decided to try farming Bourbon Red turkeys. Their turkey breeding flock is now one of the only ones in the world that reproduces the old-fashioned way, rather than relying on a lot of sticky human intervention.

Global capitalistic farming practices can be pretty distasteful, not just from the point of view of a professional turkey sperm wrangler. Six companies control 98% of the world’s seed sales. Seventy percent  of all Midwestern US agricultural land has shifted gradually into singlecrop corn or soybean farms. You can find factory farming facts many places, usually on dry websites, but Kingsolver’s gift is to wryly make them more compelling.USfarmers produce 3900 calories per citizen per day – twice what’s needed, and 700 calories more than what was grown in 1980. “The food industry figured out how to get them into the bodies of people who didn’t really want to eat 700 more calories a day. That is the well-oiled machine we call Late Capitalism” she writes.

Kingsolver also grasps a new environmental etiquette. Elsewhere, she has described her generation’s lack of action on climate change a form of child abuse. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, she writes of bizarrely inconsistent human manners. We are allowed to steal from future generations, as the conspicuous consumption of limited resources is not considered bad manners, let alone a spiritual error. We are allowed to decline foods presented to us socially on religious (or sometimes, health) grounds, but not because that food is the product of environmental destruction, energy waste, or the poisoning of workers.

This is not told in preachy tones; in fact, Kingsolver scores her points with self-effacing wit. As a guest at a winter’s meal inNew York, she agonized over a raspberry desert, fruit that must have travelled half the world to her plate, and chose grace over PC objections: Seven raspberries are not the end of the world.

This is where Kingsolver’s reader is meant to gaze well into, and behind, their navel. When did we forget about seasonal produce? How much of that well-travelled un-seasonal stuff is really necessary? Learning what grows near you and when is the wannabe locavore’s first lesson.

Kingsolver, an evolutionary biologist with a maternal eye on culture, writes with friendly humanity that nudges cheesy but never quite descends to plain hokey. Where Animal, Vegetable, Miracle avoids preaching, it does have its smug moments, particularly when Kingsolver’s teenage daughter grabs the pen. Wholefoods Camille Kingsolver means well, but she writes like most 18 year-olds, which should have been reason enough for her mum to put aside the nepotism and leave her out. But this is a family’s tale, and we hear not only from precocious daughter but husband too. Steven L Hopp is a serious scientist who provides the industry ecofacts. (Luckily, a second daughter was “too young for a book contract”, otherwise presumably we would have endured a blow-by-blow account of raising chickens. In texta.) Now Steven seems like a good bloke, and his facts are interesting. But he writes like a geek.

A book-length farming story set in a valley in the Appalacians was never going to have the charm of Kingsolver’s fiction, stories like the rite-of-passage girlpower roadtrip The Bean Trees or sequel Pigs in Heaven, bestselling Congo epic The Poisonwood Bible, or saucy eco-minded Prodigal Summer. Nor would it resemble her collections of essays, which in their brevity prove Kingsolver’s strength is restraint with her words.

But that’s why Kingsolver, a skilful storyteller, adds some not-too-contrived plot flourishes: a brief Italian holiday allows discussion of European rural landscapes and the Slow Food movement, a road trip provides other American diversions of the farming persuasion, and Kingsolver invites us to her 50th birthday party to show off her ability to entertain as a locavore. Then, of course, there are the turkeys, scratching along and popping up every now and then, or shuffling off this mortal coil come harvest day – for this is no vego utopia.