I live in a tiny apartment, with something rare: a balcony that gets full sun almost all day. It’s seriously one of the only reasons we’ve stuck it out here, with the promise that we will have an out-of-control awesome balcony garden that will impress all the other kids in the balcony garden yard. We tried last year, but got discouraged when all of our plants died. It was our fault – we didn’t read up enough on winters and frosts and transferring seedlings to living outside. Anyway, the point is, we have big green dreams that we hope to make a reality this year. I’m itching to get started, but since our seedlings are still just seedlings and we don’t have much to do, I’ll have to settle on reading books about gardening and gardens and plants.
Reading Animal Vegetable Miracle has been on my to-do list for a long time, so when Debi suggested food and gardening reading for March, I put this one on hold at the library right away. Barbara Kingsolver certainly didn’t disappoint. Animal Vegetable Miracle is about her year growing her family’s food or finding it locally in the Virginia mountains. It is a collection of essays that are arranged chronologically that sometimes focus primarily on their farming efforts and often connecting it to a wider discussion about food and farming in the US. This is a book that I absolutely enjoyed reading and that I loved very much, but there were also things that I disagreed with and things that I wish Kingsolver had discussed more.
I was happiest when Kingsolver stayed focused on her farm and her local community. I learned so much about the actual workings of a family farm and specific plants. I was particularly fascinated by the asparagus chapter. A whole chapter on asparagus! It is lovely. I also loved reading about her and her youngest daughter’s chickens and turkeys. Kingsolver writes beautifully about their experiences. I miss Virginia and all her different landscapes especially in the Spring, so it was nice to read a book that completely transported me there.
What surprised me most about reading Animal Vegetable Miracle was that a lot of the information and some of the references seemed dated. The book is only five years old, so let’s say it was written at least six years ago, maybe more, but clearly the food culture in the United States is already changing drastically. Even if not everyone is eating locally all the time, people are much more aware of what is in season and where their food is coming from. Farmers markets and CSAs are huge in the summertime. When we lived in North Carolina, we were spoiled by a year-round farmer’s market that I dream about. Now that we’re in New York, finding local organic vegetables is very easy in grocery stores and there are countless options for CSAs and farmer’s markets. Honestly, I’m glad that the book felt a little dated because that means we are making progress!
While Kingsolver occasionally noted that their lifestyle is not feasible for everyone, she never really acknowledged head on the privilege inherent in this idea that you can completely change your way of life and only grow your own food. Kingsolver and her husband have jobs with a lot of flexibility. They can be home to tend full-time to a farm while still earning a living outside the home. And since Kingsolver wrote a bestselling book based on her experiences, she was essentially paid to take on this project. I don’t know the timeline, if she pitched the project and then did it or the other way around, but that’s a lifestyle that’s simply unattainable for a lot of people.
My problem, I guess, is that the scope of the narrative was always much too small or much too large. It was either so focused on Kingsolver and her family’s farming, which is idealistic and improbable for most people, or focused too broadly on food across the US. I think if she had narrowed the focus a little bit and talked instead about what the options are for people, instead of berating them for loving bananas or out of season tomatoes. That’s not fair, Kingsolver never berates. I just wish there had been a little bit more practical advice for things. Kingsolver and her family went into this project with a lot of knowledge about gardening. It would have been helpful for readers, I think, if there had been more information about how to get started gardening, even if it’s just on a little balcony.
If nothing else, Kingsolver makes you excited for planting your own food. She is genuinely in awe of the process and a loving champion for the garden. Her enthusiasm is infectious and I found Animal Vegetable Miracle to be compulsively readable. Even though I didn’t agree with everything in Animal Vegetable Miracle and I wish it had been structured a little bit differently, I enjoyed it.