By Helen Thompson
Barbara Kingsolver isn’t one to give advice, she says. She’s more the sort to listen to a problem for a while and reply with, “Well, I don’t know, what do you think you should do?” On Tuesday night, she greeted a crowd of hundreds who had come to Washington National Cathedral to hear her discuss her family’s new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Her challenge to the audience was for them to hear out her story—for she is quite a storyteller—and then decide what they should do.
Kingsolver and her family had moved from Tuscon, Arizona, to Southwestern Virginia for the typical reasons: work and family. But there was another reason: food. They wanted to eat deliberately, Kingsolver said, in “the promised land, where water falls from the sky and green stuff grows all around—and to begin the adventure of realigning our lives with our food chain.”
The irony of leaving Tuscon via a pit stop for “junk food and fossil fuel” was heightened when a store clerk started to complain about ominous storm clouds outside. Kingsolver noted how much the desert area needed it, but to no avail: Rain was going to ruin the young lady’s plans—to wash her car. Even though Kingsolver has now lived in a world where rain is looked for, even prayed for, she noted the disconnect. “What are the just desserts for a species too selfish or preoccupied to hope for rain when the land is dying?”
Over the course of two generations, America’s population has dramatically shifted from rural to urban. Along with that shift has come an increasing abstraction in the nation’s attitude toward its food. This stems in part from the correlation Americans perceive between getting an education and “moving away from dirt and manual labor,” Kingsolver said. This isn’t exactly a good thing, she explained. “Isn’t ignorance about our food causing problems as diverse and serious as our overdependence on petroleum?” Obesity, and the likelihood that today’s youth may actually have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, are just two of the indicators.
By eating “out of season” and depending heavily on shrink-wrapped, precut meats from supermarkets, Americans are purchasing produce bred for shelf life over flavor and meats from animals bred exclusively for rapid weight gain. “A fair definition of American food is that it travels farther than most Americans do,” Kingsolver said. “An average food item covers 1,500 miles to reach us. Because of industrial farming and food transport we are now putting almost as much gasoline into our diets as into our cars.” Adding to the problem is the U.S. Government, which superficially touts eating fruits and vegetables while subsidizing agribusinesses that produce prolific amounts of high fructose corn syrup and “feed lot grain for cheap burgers.”
Each anecdote from the book is interspersed with fascinating commentary on the monolithic approach to eating that many of us take for granted—for instance, the difference between a Butterball turkey and one of the heritage breeds (yes, like heirloom tomatoes), or determining the number of seeds to plant to feed a family or just what’s in that Farm Bill our legislators happily sign off on every few years (hint: it’s Pork Plus). She explains the complete that the disconnect between country folks and city folks is not political so much as it is a subtle distrust of outsiders, born of past days of exploitative carpetbagging.
And nothing could be worse, she added, than watching her farmer neighbors who had gone through three years of certification and training to become organic farmers—because that’s what the city consumers wanted, they were told—only to watch consumers scoop up the cheaper produce brought from distant lands (the foodway with “a double yellow line down the middle”). Appalachian Harvest, the co-op behind the initiative to get these folks growing green, found a way to donate the un-purchased food to area food banks, but, as Kingsolver observed, these farmers were barely getting by. “It always seems like the people who have the least, give the most,” she said.
Ultimately, however, her book is not so much political as domestic—the story of how her family’s lives were transformed. Joined by her husband, Steven, and her daughter Camille, Kingsolver journeys back and forth between memoirist and investigative reporter as she unfolds a year of mindful eating. “Plenty of consumers are trying to get off the petroleum-driven industrial food wagon,” Kingsolver said. “This book is about how our family joined that small revolution, trying to integrate our food choices with our family values, which include both ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘Try not to wreck every bloomin’ thing on your planet while you’re here.'”
Helen Thompson, known on the faithblogging circuit as Gallycat, is a writer living in the northern Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.Visit her on the web at Gallycat’s Lounge.