I decided to riff on Barbara Kingsolver's most recent book, ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE partly because the book is such fun, but also because of the insights on what eating and food production were like in the not-too-far distant historical path.
Part memoir and part a journalistic exploration of our food system, AVM chronicles a year when Kingsolver, her biology professor husband, Steven Hopp, and her daughters Camille and Lily, became locavores–living on food grown within a hundred miles of their home, a good amount of it raised on their own small farm. Barbara's husband and older daughter coauthored the book, with Steven contributing sidebars on food science and production and 19 year old Camille writing monthly updates and seasonal recipes.
As most of you probably know, to be a locavore—that is, to eat food produced locally— is a new wave of food interest. Many parts of the world have never gotten away from eating mostly local foods, but in modern America, most of us think nothing of eating fruit from South America, salad from the Imperial Valley, lamb from the Antipodes, and salmon from the waters off Alaska.
And it’s not just food. My local Trader Joe's currently has small bunches of just opening daffodils from England for a mere $1.50 each. I told myself not to think about the jet fuel involved in shipping daffodils across the Atlantic and I bought a bunch because I fell in love with those first daffodils of springtime when I lived in England. But it's a long way for flowers to come.
Still, it was living in England that made me much more conscious of the pleasures of seasonal eating. The first strawberries of spring are exquisite, with a flavor and texture far superior to the year-round berries that come from far places. The knowledge of brief seasons makes fresh food taste all the more special. I came to appreciate the winter vegetables that dominated English markets in the cold season. (Yes, I confess it: I like Brussells sprouts. The kind I cook quickly so they're still green rather than the gray, over-boiled variety.)
I've always loved Barbara Kingsolver's essays, which are smart, funny, and have the self-deprecating charm of sharing a cup of coffee with an old friend. After years of spending the school year in Tucson and summers in Appalachian Virginia, she and her family moved permanently to Virginia. The move was partly to be closer to family (Kingsolver grew up in nearby Kentucky), and partly because the land could better support their experiment in locavore living than the deserts of Arizona.
Barbara's family shared a mutual interest in food, both producing and consuming, so they all agreed to the year's experiment. Not only would it be educational, but fun, and they got a bestselling book out of it. <g>
Each member of the family was allowed to choose one non-local "luxury" item for the year. Steven chose coffee (Barbara said that if he had to choose between coffee and his family, it would be a tough call. <g>) Camille chose dried fruit, Lilly hot chocolate, and Barbara the spices and flavorings needed for her cooking. (You can grow garlic and onions in Virginia, but not cloves, turmeric, and cinnamon.) Plus, there was no local source for flour or olive oil. So those they bought, but in all cases, the specialty items were purchased from fair trade sources that benefited the producers and the land where they were grown.
AVM is great fun to read even for people who don’t know how to boil an egg. The chapter on turkey sex is hilarious. Barbara wanted to start a breeding flock of Bourbon Red turkeys, a heritage breed. Heritage breeds of vegetables, fruit, and farm animals are some of the survivors of what used to be a vast area of varieties.
If you’re raising apples for yourself and your neighbors rather than for distant markets, you aren’t concerned with whether it’s tough enough to shipped three thousand miles in a crate. You go for flavor and other characteristics. Our farming ancestors didn’t order from catalogs—they took cuttings or seeds from neighbors.
A lot of those older farm varieties had better flavor, better disease resistance, and other superior characteristics to what is currently available through agribusiness. These days, a small but growing band of farmers are raising heritage plants and animals to preserve these older varieties. Hence, Barbara’s choice of the Bourbon Red turkeys. The average American table turkey is a Broad-Breasted White—lots of white meat, no sex life, and zero ability to survive on their own. These commercial turkeys are conceived through in artificial insemination, so turkey sex has practically vanished except among the wild cousins.
The turkeys Barbara raised from hatchlings still had their inbred ability to forage, fly, and survive, but they were all young and not quite sure how to go about mating, Hence. Barbara’s possibly unseemly interest in turkey sex. (She defends herself on the grounds that they don’t have cable tv. <g>) That chapter alone was worth the price of the book.
Having grown up on a farm myself, and with a pretty good sized garden, too, I have a fairly good understanding of where food comes from, but fewer and fewer people have hands on experience of food production. As a historical novelist, I can say it’s a great advantage to have been raised in farm country when one is writing about a 19th century agrarian society.
Kingsolver and her family had to calculate how much food they would need to get through the hungry months of winter—and they came perilously close to running out of garlic. Is there enough feed to get the livestock through until spring? Younger daughter Lilly has a flock of chickens and an entrepreneurial streak foreign to the rest of the family, so they had their own supply of eggs. But other supplies were running low by the end of the hungry season.
Winter squashes keep well and taste delicious, but the first rhubarb of spring was a delight. There was Kingsolver tomato sauce in cans and lots of produce in the freezer, including containers of pesto sauce made from their own basil crop. Plus, the family had local sources of milk, and Barbara makes her own cheese. (Soft cheeses are dead simple, she says.)
But even with their planning, the year was an education in growing food and eating it. It’s a reminder of how life was for people in our historical romances (when a pineapple grown in a glasshouse was an amazing luxury), and for our own grandparents in many cases. These days, a locavore who runs out of food can go to a well-stocked supermarket, but for pioneers on prairies, or in other remote areas, it was a very different matter. Survival required constant attention and work.
The locavore movement wants to encourage people to eat locally because the savings in fuel for shipping food are enormous, and that’s becoming critical in these days of energy concerns. Local food is usually fresher and tastier, too. There are plenty of good reasons for becoming more aware of where our food comes from.
In Britain, citizens were encouraged to plant “Victory Gardens” during WWII. (Ironically, the population ate more healthily during the war than before or after.) Gardening plots called allotments are common in Britain, with some people cultivating the same allotment for years. Relaxing, fun, and saves money, too.
Not everyone has a farm, or a desire to turn the back lawn into a garden. (Though even apartment dwellers may be able to grow tomatoes or herbs on a balcony.) But farmers’ markets are proliferating. Once, there was maybe one in the Baltimore metro area where I live. Now there are three within 15 minutes of my suburban home. That’s not counting the farm stands that sell corn and tomatoes and fruit during the summer months.
Personally, I think it’s worth paying a little more for quality food, and also supporting the hard working farmers who grow it. The results are good for our bodies, for the land, and for the environment in general. Plus, I grew up among hard-working farmers, so this is an issue that has personal resonance for me. (Not directly relevant, but Kingsolver mentions a Garrison Keillor story about how in Lake Wobegon, churchgoers lock the doors of their cars in the summer for fear of coming back and finding that boxes of zucchinis have been left inside. <G>)
I’m not about to become a full fledged locavore—I wouldn’t want to give up bananas, among other things. But these days I’m more aware of where my food comes from, and more willing to go to a little extra effort to buy the fruit of local labors.
I have friends who are pursuing the locavore life with considerable energy. One who lives in a Philadelphia Main Line town has seriously considered where she might be able to raise chickens in her backyard.
Another, Romance writer Val Taylor, became interested in local eating. Since there didn’t seem to be a local food network in her Cincinnati area—she created one. Her blog, Cincinnati Locavore, which “celebrates the Ohio Valley Foodshed,” is one of the top ranked blogs in the Cincinnati area.
Eating locally is an intriguing subject, one that is becoming more and more visible. There’s lots of interesting information and sources out there. In some places, it’s possible to buy produce shares from local farmers, which aids cash flow for the farmers, and produces regular box of fresh fruit and veg throughout the growing season. If the box is mostly fresh beets—it’s motivation for learning new beet recipes. <g> Other folks seek out markets that carry as much local produce as possible—or ask their own supermarket managers if more local food is available.
Are you a locavore? An aspiring locavore? Someone who hasn’t thought much about it, but may start making more of an effort to eat locally? Or do you consider the microwave mankind’s highest achievement? I'd love to know!
Mary Jo, who likes to eat from the edges of the supermarket, which is where the less processed foods tend to be located.