I've been wanting to write more about this book for a while now, and am not entirely sure how to do it. Quite simply, this book covered so much ground, and it was so thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, it's difficult to cull out highlights. At it's heart it is the story of one family as they attempted to "wring the petroleum from their food supply" (more on that here) by buying all of their food for one year from local producers or growing it themselves. It is a wonderful combination of personal narrative, well-researched facts, cooking and gardening tips, hilarious insights into family life, ecological wisdom, an ode to rural life (though not a sentimental one) and a stirring call to action. Barbara Kingsolver is at her best in this type of material, though I confess to loving her fiction as well. She really lays out the case for why our current food habits are not only bad for us, but bad for the economy, bad for family farms, bad for the environment, and bad for the future of our planet. Pretty much, they're only good for large corporations like Monsanto. Kingsolver's training is as an environmental biologist, and her science background comes through in her writing. She is very thorough as she builds her case, but winsome, too. Ultimately, she concludes that the irony of making our eating practices more sustainable is that it is anything but deprivation:
Doing the right thing, in this case, is not about abstinence-only, throwing out bread, tightening your belt, wearing a fake leather belt, or dragging around feeling righteous and gloomy. Food is the rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure. Why resist that?
People will write her off as being too extreme or naive or elitist. Let me assure you, she is not remotely extreme. Her family chooses their "splurges" such as coffee, olive oil, whole wheat flour from Vermont, dried fruit, hot chocolate. I found her perspective to much more "down to earth" (literally) and common-sensical than what we usually hear about food supply. She exposes the insanity of our unsustainable and in-humane consumption patterns. As she says, "Pushing a refrigerated green vegetable from one end of the earth to another is, let's face it, a bizarre use of fuel!" The Kingsolver/Hopp family's project hinges mostly on hard work and restraint, qualities that should not be considered extreme under any circumstances.
The main barrier standing between ourselves and a local-food culture is not price, but attitude. The most difficult requirements are patience and a pinch of restraint--virtues that are hardly the property of the wealthy. These virtues seem to find precious little shelter, in face, in any modern quarter of this nation founded by Puritans. Furthermore, we apply them selectively: browbeating our teenagers with the message that they should wait for sex, for example. Only if they wait to experience intercourse under the ideal circumstances (the story goes), will they know its true value. "Blah blah blah," hears the teenager: words issuing from a mouth that can't even wait for the right time to eat tomatoes, but instead consumes tasteless ones all winter to satisfy a craving for everything now. We're raising our children on the definition of promiscuity if we feed them a casual, indiscriminate mingling of foods from every season plucked from the supermarket, ignoring how our sustenance is cheapened by wholesale desires.
What could possibly be elitist about mucking around in your own backyard growing tomatoes and "processing" chickens? Somehow "organic" has come to be equated with "snobby" but it's how the entire human race has survived for millennia! What we have failed to realize is that the artificially low prices we "enjoy" at the supermarket (deflated by government subsidies and monopolies of agribusinesses) are costing us hugely in environmental degradation and health care costs. When Kingslover comments on the novelty of enjoying fresh raspberries in the middle of winter, her host replies, "This is New York! We can get anything we want, any day of the year." Kingsolver insightfully muses (emphasis mine):
So it is, And I don't wish to be ungracious, but we get it at a price. Most of that is not measured in money, but in untallied debts that will be paid by our children in the currency of extinctions, economic unravellings, and global climate change. I do know it's impolite to raise such objections at the dinner table. Seven raspberries are not (I'll try to explain to my grandkids) the end of the world. I ate them and said "Thank you."
Human manners are wildly inconsistent; plenty of people before me have said so. But this one takes the cake: the manner in which we're allowed to steal from future generations, while commanding them not to do that to us, and rolling our eyes at anyone who is tediously PC enough to point this out. The conspicuous consumption of limited resources has yet to be accepted widely as a spiritual error, or even bad manners.
Our culture is not unacquainted with the idea of food as a spiritually loaded commodity. We're just particular about which spiritual arguments we'll accept as valid for declining certain foods. Generally unacceptable reasons: environmental destruction, energy waste, the poisoning of workers. Acceptable: its prohibited by a holy text. Set down a platter of country ham in front of a rabbi, an imam, and a Buddhist monk, and you may have just conjured three different visions of damnation. Guests with high blood pressure may add a fourth. Is it such a stretch, then, to make moral choices about food based on the global consequences of its production and transport? In a country where 5 percent of the world's population glugs down a quarter of all the fuel, also belching out that much of the world's waste and pollution, we've apparently made big choices about consumption. They could be up for review.
Okay, it's time for me to stop illegally quoting huge portions of the text and go to bed. It's way past my bed time, and I'm losing my ability to be cogent. Did you get the message that I loved that book and that I think it's an important read for anyone who cares about food or the future? It's pretty popular right now, and I guarantee you can pick up a copy at your local library. Here is a delightful review by my friend Byron Borger who owns a bookstore and is a wonderful choice of someone to support other than the conglomerate, Amazon. I'll close with this quote about what we have to lose when choosing local:
Concentrating on local foods means thinking of fruit invariably as the product of an orchard, and a winter squash as the fruit of an early-winter farm. It's a strategy that will keep grocery money in the neighborhood, where it gets recycled into your own school system and local businesses. The green spaces surrounding your town stay green and farmers who live nearby get to grow more food next year, for you. But before any of that, it's a win-win strategy for anyone with taste buds. It begins with rethinking a position that is only superficially about deprivation. Citizens of frosty worlds unite, and think about marching past the off-season fruits: you have nothing to lose but mealy, juiceless, rock-hard and refusing to ripen.
For more information, check out their website which has tons of resources for eating locally, excerpts from the book, responses from readers, and recipes for eating in season.