the kitchen reader: animal, vegetable, miracle

by Stacy

The August selection for the Kitchen Reader was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, chosen by Karen of Shortbread South.

Kingsolver is usually a novelist, probably best known for writing The Poisonwood Bible, but this was the first book of hers that I have read.

The non-fiction work subtitled “A Year of Food Life” begins in a convenience store in Arizona with a situation that resonates with me more after moving to the Southwest. Kingsolver, her husband, and two daughters are stocking up on snacks for a car trip that will move them from Tucson to Appalachia. As a rainstorm threatens for the first time in over 200 days, the gas station cashier grumbles that the first rain in months could ruin her only day off.

Kingsolver’s book tracks the year-long journey of her family from desert-dwelling suburbanites to self-sustaining farmers in Virginia. It’s a family project, not taken on lightly. Kingsolver’s husband, Steven Hopp, interjects in the way of small sidebars on various topics. Then-19-year-old daughter Camille adds her perspective plus recipes. Even the youngest daughter, Lily, makes a sizable contribution.

The plan? To only eat food grown and produced locally. They start at the farmer’s market in town, gradually shifting to their own large garden plot as the season wears on. They plant seeds, weed beds, and raise chickens. It isn’t a project in deprivation or perfection, and they are allowed some items like spices and coffee that can’t be grown everywhere — but they keep it organic and fair-trade.

What I love about this book (other than the quality of writing which is lovely) is that it doesn’t sugar-coat the experience. Do they learn a lot? Yes. Are the lessons valuable? Yes. Is it easy? No. Kingsolver acknowledges that it is an experiment and a challenge, they have struggles and failures, but they learn and grow.

Kingsolver also includes plenty of information on food miles, factory farming, and other debates about the locavore movement. She is quick to point out that the extreme example of her family is not a normal goal for most people and she does not expect it to be. Instead she focuses on what they learned from the experience both as a family and as individuals.

While acquiring/producing food is one challenge, making meals of it is another, and both are part of the book. I really enjoyed young Lily’s participation in raising chickens and selling eggs. Working out seasonal menus was another interesting facet. A chapter that really struck me was called “Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast,” chronologically referencing the June of their year-long experience. Kingsolver writes about her experience as a modern working mother, relying on pre-packaged convenience foods to save time. There is so much I love about this chapter I could quote about four pages, but I’ll limit myself to just one.

“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 earn the right too forget about stupefying household busywork. But kitchens where food is cooked and eaten, those were really a good idea.”

The book provides great research and information about farming and food systems, a wonderful narrative and personal account of a year in the life of a family, and some wonderful insight into the experience and reasoning behind taking on such a project. I could blather on longer, but you should give up on me and get a copy of this to read yourself.

Have you read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? What did you think?

For other opinions check out the blogroll at The Kitchen Reader for more reviews.

little blue henKeep up with Little Blue Hen: get updates via email, subscribe through an RSS feed, connect on Facebook, or say hello on Twitter.
Comments? I love feedback and suggestions! Leave them below or email me.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Bridget August 31, 2010 at 8:51 am

I read this last winter – ironically, while I was moving from Pennsylvania to the middle of the desert in New Mexico. I loved it. I wish I could make more of the changes, but living in a small, isolated mostly lower-class town has made it difficult. The few organic produce items in the grocery store are wilted, there is no humanely-raised meat for sale, the farmer’s market mostly sells crafts. For what it’s worth, I almost always cook my beans from scratch now, thanks to this book. And I want to make cheese (with what spare time?!). I have to keep reminding myself that I live in such an isolated area because I work at a nuclear waste disposal site – and no one wants that near where their food is grown.


Kate H. August 31, 2010 at 11:02 am

I own and love this book. (I’ve also read most of her novels, and own her two books of essays, which are amongst my favorite books — and I have read and loved a LOT of books.)

I too loved her honesty and openness — it wasn’t always (or often) idyllic, or easy, and she was totally upfront about it. She’s also very cognizant that their experiment isn’t something many, or most, could duplicate, and isn’t holier-than-thou about the choices “everyone should make.” Hallelujah for healthy perspective!!! :)


Kathie August 31, 2010 at 12:11 pm

I loved this book too! I read it a while back and fell in love.


Jennifer August 31, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Your review is wonderful! I skimmed the book and found it interesting-how daring to grow and eat locally!

Thank you for being a part of The Kitchen Reader this year!


Jennifer August 31, 2010 at 3:25 pm

I love, love, love this book! I have only tried one recipe out of it (Zucchini Chocolate Chip Cookies) but I really enjoyed hearing about their experiences and imagining myself in their places. I certainly couldn’t do it 100% like the author and her family did, but this book motivated me to put a little more thought into shopping locally and eating seasonally, and appreciating everything!


Teri [a foodie stays fit] August 31, 2010 at 6:23 pm

I’ve heard about this book but didn’t know what it was about. I was skeptical since I only knew about Kinsoliver as a novelist, but now I’m definitely intrigued. I’ll have to check it out. Great overview!


Karen August 31, 2010 at 6:30 pm

I totally agree with you about changing our kitchens to ones where real food is cooked and eaten and enjoyed. This book really resonated with me also, and I’m glad our group could share it.


Jill August 31, 2010 at 6:33 pm

I enjoyed this book! I appreciated that she was so realistic about the experience. I also enjoyed the seasonal menus and Lily’s egg business. I’ve never read any of her other books either, but I’m curious now.


Erika August 31, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Loved this book. For whatever reason, the scene of her plucking chickens has stuck in my mind and pops up whenever I’m doing something dirty and difficult. :)


Rachel September 2, 2010 at 1:03 pm

I really liked this book!! It is one of the few books that mid-read I had the thought “I need to read this book again!” While reading it I was in a tiny condo with only a balcony and a dead plant. Since I could not see a way to implement many ideas, I made my family read it as they had yards. Amazingly about a year and a half later we are on half an acre with chickens and dairy goats. This book certainly got me thinking, and I have used the pizza recipe many times since then. Who knew that you could make your own pizza crust and sauce!?… well YOU probably did, but it was news to me. As a side note, I very much enjoy your lovely site. Thank you for it!


Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

Previous post:

Next post: