Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle- Book Review

The book is overdue as is the review, but it's already past my bedtime, so I'm going to have to keep this short and sweet.

I enjoyed Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver's lyrical tale of eating locally. It's well-written and engaging, and I warn you, after you read the book, you will suddenly be filled with the demented desire to make your own cheese.

It's a book I fully recommend. And yet ... yes, there is an "and yet."

And yet the book made me uneasy. The book begins as Kingsolver, her husband Steven L. Hopp, and her two daughters Camille and Lily decide to move away from Tucson, Arizona to make their permanent home in Appalachia. Once they're settled into their new home and farm, they embark on a year-long project to eat as locally as possible. The resulting story is sweet, profound, and just a tad too idyllic for my taste.

Because, frankly, running the farm, cooking from scratch, killing your chickens, and making your own pasta and cheese seems damn hard. I can't imagine the hours that must have gone into canning tomato sauce, drying fruit, and making sausage, not to mention the planting, weeding, and harvesting.

Kingsolver acknowledges that farming is hard work, and suggests that farmers should be paid more for such back-breaking work. While I'm on record saying that I can't in full conscience support higher food prices, I do agree with her that farmers should get paid more. Farming seems to be a never-ending fairly thankless job, and I have to admit, I am happy not to do it.

But oddly, Kingsolver never seems to fully acknowledge the hard work cooking entails, nor does she seem to think that cooking is a job that really deserves compensation. She writes:

"Cooking without remuneration" and "slaving over a hot stove" are activities separated mostly by a frame of mind. The distinction is crucial. Career women in many countries still routinely apply passion to their cooking, heading straight from work to the market to search out the freshest ingredients, feeding their loved ones with aplomb. (127)

I sort of get where she's trying to go with this here. I understand that she's trying to reframe cooking, so that we see it less as a housewifely duty, and more as a fulfilling, and pleasurable pursuit. But, man, it still bugs. Yes, I think cooking can be meaningful and fun. Yes, I think you can be a liberated feminist, and still cook a delicious meal for your man. Yes, I think there are plenty of people, men and women included, who simply enjoy cooking as a hobby.

But not everyone is like that. I enjoy good food, I enjoy complicated cuisine, and I love tasting new dishes. But I'm a reluctant cook. I always have been a fairly reluctant cook, and I suspect, to a certain extent, I always will. Cooking for me is a novelty that's enjoyable on occasion, but on a daily basis becomes drudgery. But Kingsolver never seems to understand that not everyone achieves the level of self-gratification that she receives from cooking.

It frustrates me when she writes, "We gave up the aroma of warm bread rising, the measured pace of nurturing routines, the creative task of molding our families' tastes and zest for life; we received in exchange the minivan and the Lunchable." (127) Because personally, I must admit that I receive more satisfaction in the workplace than I do in the kitchen. I concede completely that not everyone has the same experience, but to reduce the successful, enjoyable careers many women have to "the minivan and the Lunchable" seems rather unfair. (And really, does Kingsolver, celebrated author, feel the same way? Or does she not, simply because as an author who can work from home, she neither had to give up the bread rising nor the meaningful paid work?)

I appreciate that Kingsolver attempts to dispel some of the myths of the rural American South, and I admit that I know very little about the area or the people. Still, she doesn't particularly endear me to rural life with her explanation that country folk tend to view people as either "insiders" or "outsiders." She writes:

I am blessed with an ancestor who was the physician in this county from about 1910 into the 1940s ... But even a criminal ancestor will get you insider status, among the forgiving. Not so lucky are those who move here with no identifiable family ties. Such a dark horse is likely to remain "the new fellow" for the rest of his natural life, even if he arrived in his prime and lives to be a hundred. (209)

Well! How very comforting and amusing! Except when your parents arrived in this country in the 1970s and there is not a chance in hell that any of your ancestors, former convicts and all, ever stepped foot in the rural South. But hey, at least any "outsider" to the American South would get the same treatment, including a Bostonian whose family had lived in Massachusetts for generations. See, that's TOTALLY not racist or xenophobic!! Awesome. I feel better already.

Heh. I don't mean to rag on Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It's a book well worth reading, and at the very least, Kingsolver definitely makes you think about your food and where it came from, which is always a worthwhile pursuit. In fact, when you come down to it, I think Kingsolver and I agree more than we disagree. I believe food is important. I believe good food is worth the money. I believe we should know more about how and where our food is grown. And hell, I think everyone should know how to cook, even if they don't enjoy it. In the essentials, I believe in the same things as Kingsolver.

But I can't quite shake the feeling somehow, that Kingsolver's idyllic America is one to which I don't have complete access. And so, as much as I enjoyed Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I can't quite join the club of those who loved it without reservation. I guess I'm okay being an outsider on this after all.


Joyce said...

Arduous, I had exactly the same feelings when I read AVM. I had the big garden; it was a full time job ( with four little kids under foot) and I have indeed "slaved over a hot stove". Not my idea of fun. I think Kingsolver was really looking for the rural mid-South life she had grown up with, and I'm glad she found it, but it's not for everyone. I'm going to be reviewing this book too.

Anonymous said...

Amen, sister. I didn't read the book but the points you raise are why a lot of the living lightly stuff out there rubs me the wrong way. The olden times had a lot of things wrong with them.

And my boyfriend-husband-partner is going to be the one doing the cooking. Or we're hiring an organic chef.


Cath@VWXYNot? said...

I had to laugh at this because last night I did indeed go straight from work to the market and then come home to cook a lovely meal for my man! But this is not the regular routine.

Is this the same author who wrote the Poisonwood Bible? I loved that book.

Green Bean said...

You make really great points, Arduous, but I was one of those who loved AVM without reservation. Yeah, I guess I could never move to the rural south but, for me, that wasn't the point. It was more reconnecting with the land and with the food we eat. Is cooking and gardening hard work? Yes. Is it incredibly rewarding to eat a pea straight off the plant, pluck a strawberry from its stem and toss it into your mouth, bury your hands in a hill of soil searching for potatoes? Rewarding to haul those treasures in to transform them into something delicious and lasting? Yes. Those are some of the most rewarding experiences I have had. And unlike children, my picked fava beans don't say "I love Daddy better than you!"

I won't lie to you, though. Sometimes, it is hard work and sometimes I'm too tired and then we eat super simply or eat leftovers or even go out to eat. Sometimes I don't feel like making jam and then I don't. I refrigerate the strawberries and make them tomorrow night. Making your own pasta sauce, that wasn't so bad and eating your own pasta sauce - 12 times better than anything store bought - in January? Talk about rewarding!

Don't forget that Kingsolver also shared her duties with a husband and a teenage daughter who enjoyed cooking. Cooking with someone you love and trying something new and adventurous, like cheese making, must be beyond fun. I don't have that experience because my husband doesn't cook and my kids are little but I imagine it is a very connecting and pleasurable experience.

I still believe that we can live very green lives in the cities, though. As Melinda's experience demonstrates and as Joyce's comments on my post yesterday show, it is sometimes much easier to be green in a city. We don't all need to be growing our own food - that's what farmers' markets are for - and we don't need to all enjoy cooking twelve course meals - that's what Beany and local food restaurants are for. Still, AVM is a beautiful dream.

Thank you for bringing home, though, that AVM is not for everyone.

Chile said...

Add me to your club, Arduous. Although very few people have the same complaint that I do, which is her attitude towards vegetarianism and especially veganism. I don't have a problem with her giving up those ways of life. I did have a problem with how much energy she, and her daughter Camille, put into justifying their choice. Camille put forth several nutritional myths about why veganism is a bad choice that will unfortunately influence people as much as the ill-conceived myth of food combining*. People respect BK and will therefore believe what is in her books.

*Adele Davis later admitted that she made up the need for food combining (lentils & grains) and recanted this. It is totally unnecessary to do the combining, yet millions of people still believe this to be true. Which is why I get so irritated with Kingsolver for spreading vegan misinformation.

Anonymous said...

When I was single, cooking for myself seemed like an unnecessary chore. I never enjoyed cooking, honestly still don't. Perhaps a large part is that in my mind the return on investment is fairly low.

After I had children, I thought I would change because now I had someone to cook for. Alas, it did not turn out to be true :(

So daily/weekly cooking fell on the shoulders of my husband, and I am grateful for that.

I think the other limiting factor is time. If I had hours of leisure everyday, I might be more inclined to make food. However given a few hours of non-working, non-sleeping time a day, I have other priorities, like going for a walk or reading a book.

Thanks for pointing out this fact of life.

ruchi said...

Joyce, yeah, I think Kingsolver found what worked for her, and that's fantastic. But I felt a little like she seemed to assume what worked for her would work for others, and it rubbed me the wrong way a little.

Megan, to be fair, her husband Steven did enjoy cooking as well. So it was something that they both did together and it was fun for them. And if you have that set up, where both of you love to cook, that's great. When the King and I lived in the same city, he would cook 80% of the time, and I would cook 20% of the time and it worked okay. But sometimes neither partner enjoys cooking much, and I'm not sure that women need more guilt that they SHOULD enjoy cooking.

CAE, yes it is the same author. And to be fair, she writes beautifully. And honestly I loved most of the book, just with reservations.

GB, yes, I think for Kingsolver cooking was absolutely a wonderful experience to be shared with her husband and children. And I think it's a lovely life for her. Just not a lovely life for me. ;) I get what you're saying though, and I do think that she raises a lot of great points, and her writing is just gorgeous. I'm still really glad I read AVM, I just had a few reservations.

Chile, I see what you're saying. I think it's the same thing that bugged me about the cooking and the living in the rural South. I completely respect Kingsolver's choices, but I felt like there was a tinge of her justifying those choices in a way that rubbed me personally the wrong way.

Cindy, yes I'm with you. I would rather read a book than cook. Which is why I end up eating strawberries and toast for dinner sometimes.

hmd said...

I loved the book. My favorite chapter was the one where she's trying to get the turkeys to mate. I laughed through the whole thing.

I'm not one to move out to a rural location either. I like to be able to walk or bike anywhere I need to go but I did learn a lot from the book about reconnecting with the environment and with our food. My favorite quote from the book is "Eaters must understand, how we eat determines how the world is used." That's what summed the book up for me.

Melissa said...

I haven't read the book, but it's an interesting take. I have lots of thoughts whizzing through my brain about valuing traditionally "women's" work equally with traditional "men's" work; and the lines between women doing things because they enjoy them and women enjoying things because it is their expected role. I don't have a coherent set of thoughts yet though...but thanks for a thoughtful review!

Joyce said...

I'm afraid I'm becoming a comment hog, but you've had me thinking. Regarding whether you would be accepted in Appalachia, I agree it would be hard and you would feel like an outsider for a good while. It's not all racism, though (though that can certainly be found!). Some of it is the Scotch-Irish subculture that underlies the area. When they arrived here, they were used to operating in family clans, and living in an isolated area, they kept that culture far into the 20th century. When they ask who you are related to, they are just trying to place you. It's even common in Southern Illinois, settled by some of the same people, to ask if I know a certain person from Champaign, or if I'm related to so-and-so (same last name). My town has 150,000 people in it, so, no, I don't usually know that person, and no, I'm not usually related to that guy with the same last name. I find it something to chuckle about. They just want to be able to place you in context, and knowing your people would help them with that. It's not meant to be unfriendly.

Sam said...

You raised some very good points. Many of which I agree with...but didn't mention in my review b/c I try to follow the rule: if I can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.

I love cooking...and this is an interest that only gradually developed. I hated it when I was younger. Of course for me its because I hate being told to do anything. So because my parents expected me to learn how to cook to be a good wife, I resented it and refused to do it. Now that I don't have to do it, I actually love it.

Re: the point about being an outsider...I think I am having some sort of delayed reaction to my move to the U.S. And I suspect part of it is from my realization that things are not equal. Its disheartening for me because I never fit in back home, and I sort of don't quite fit in here either. Plus I am a black sheep married to another...so we aren't quite accepted within our families.

I still don't know where my set point is regarding environmental actions/behaviour...so I am trying to figure that out. And while I realize that this is completely irrational...I am afraid to live in certain areas of the country. This past weekend (the week of multiple tragedies), I had to attend a funeral and driving through middle PA we were struck by the sheer beauty we were seeing. And while I am no country girl..I couldn't help but feel that me living in these picturesque settings wouldn't be a realistic option for us. I'm sure our jokes about me getting lynched were waay off base...but on the other hand...it was just a bit of a hyperbole to reality.

Chile...I must have overlooked Camille's arguments against veganism. I am still an on and off vegan but the argument that you can't get all your vitamins/minerals/etc from a vegan diet is BS. I still haven't figured out how to be a vegan without attracting attention to what I'm eating...especially at public events. And not being embarassed by my diet choices. Although I've demonstrated to friends via dinner parties that veganism does not equal deprivation

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

When I moved from Chicago(real city, not no stinkin' 'burbs) to a tiny town in South Dakota many winters ago a teacher colleague complained that since she was from Egan,a neighboring town, she was still treated as an outsider although she had lived in Flandreau for 20 years. So it isn't just the rural south. I was surprised, but I couldn't understand what difference it made. Decades later, I still can't. People in Appalachia, where I have also lived, are like most rural folks, friendly, helpful and neighborly even though you WILL always be an outsider. Of course I am a white male and have always rather enjoyed being an outsider so I can't feel the racism, sexism and stand offishness the way a brown female might. My colleague was also white and couldn't specifically say what it was she felt.

ruchi said...

Heather, yeah the turkey mating was hilarious. Honestly, I think the reason her discussion about rural America was particularly fraught for me, is that I, as a minority, tend to feel unwelcome in rural America. Not sure if it's fair, it may not be, but there it is.

Melissa, I think you touched upon something very profound here:
"and the lines between women doing things because they enjoy them and women enjoying things because it is their expected role"
One could argue that if I cooked more, and became more skilled at it, I'd enjoy it more, which is probably true. One could argue the same for most people including men. However fewer men cook than women, thus perhaps fewer men find cooking enjoyable? I don't know, definitely something to think about. I do think there is a lot of pressure on women to "enjoy" cooking. Housework, no. Cooking, yes. Is that fair? Again, I don't know.

Joyce, you make a good point. And in fact when I lived in the Midwest, I had to remind myself that when people said things to me like, "I work with a girl from India," or some such, they weren't trying to be offensive, they were trying to find common ground. The Midwest is culturally different than much of California in that regard, because in the Bay Area and LA, it's more common to assume that people DIDN'T grow up here. It's always a surprise to meet an LA native.

Beany, that's a good rule. I guess I'm more crotchety than you are. I share your feelings about rural America. Sometimes I look at how beautiful those areas are, but I don't see living in rural America as a realistic option. Because even if those areas are more inclusive and tolerant than they are in my mind, I simply can't live in an area where I'm the only minority. I just won't do it.

EYB, I think the idea of being an outsider is very touchy for 1st and 2nd gen immigrants because we've been labeled as outsiders our whole lives. To a certain extent, I'm an outsider in America, the land I was born in, but I'm also, of course an outsider in the motherland. Of course, eventually most of us immigrants just accept the dual outsider-thing, but Kingsolver's description of being an outsider hit too close to home for me and brought up some of the painful identity issues I've been struggling with my whole life.

Anonymous said...

Its interesting what you point out about the outsider thing, and even more interesting now that I've read the comments. Thinking about this, I realized that one of the reasons that I am so attached to NYC is that its the only place where I am not an outsider. Although I am white, I was not born in the US and have strong ties to my home country. However, I am only a small part (by blood) of the ethnicity of my home country. What this means is that while on the outside I "fit in," as in, people don't pick me out as an outsider on first glance, I feel that I don't. People (outside of NY but in the US) have made many many offensive anti-immigrant comments to me, not realizing that I am an immigrant (my English is as good as anyone's) and people in my home country often make negative comments about many of the ethnicities that I am part (I am six different things in different proportions, including 1/8 gypsy, and no one likes gypsies).

I've noticed a lot of talk lately about sustainability in relation to urban versus rural areas and the debate can get pretty heated - I wonder how much of that has nothing to do with the environment at all?

Melissa said...

why thank you, arduous - it's not every day somebody calls me profound ;) this whole issue reminds me of something I heard Cornel West say about ten years ago - he was speaking in the context of racism, but it applies to issues of sexism too I think - the thought basically went like this: "I'm a black man, and I have internalized racism, so when a white person tells me they are not racist at all, I just don't believe it - we're all racist at some level because that's what we've learned." A rather depressing thought, but I do believe that we all have internalized a certain amount of sexism as well - hence my question over whether we confuse actual enjoyment of activities with successfully filling roles laid out for us.

That being said, I also think Kingsolver would be of the right demographic to be a product of Steinem-style feminism - by which I mean the women who came of age during a time in the feminism movement when it was almost anti-feminist for a woman to choose to stay home. After all, her sisters that came before her didn't fight so hard for her to continue holding up traditional gender roles. I think this was a very real pressure felt by many women 20 or 30 years ago, but which people like arduous and I, (being so young ;) didn't necessarily accept - hey, we'd been told we could do anything we wanted since we'd been born. I think we took it more for granted that when people told us we could do anything, that they meant just that - not "anything that involves going out into the work force".

I think it's wonderful that feminism as a movement has moved beyond viewing equality as something that's been achieved when women all begin doing the same work as men. I believe we've moved to the next stage, which is acknowledging that equality for women means we are all empowered to truly make our own choices free of pressures based on gender, whether that pressure comes from other women, men, society at large, whatever. I think we still have a lot of work to do in this regard, and I think part of that work, for someone like Kingsolver, might include giving yourself permission to enjoy "housewife stuff."

Or maybe I'm all wrong. who knows? and I don't even know myself why I enjoy cooking; because I've internalized that I'm supposed to or because I really do?

beany, I can relate to your fear of living in certain parts of the country. my husband is from India, and we drove cross country last year when we moved to the bay area from the east coast. we got pulled over in Nebraska and when the cop asked him to step out of the car, I almost peed my pants, I was so scared. It was fine in the end, but I realized at that moment that there was a whole list of places I'd be way too terrified to live in this country because I'd be scared for his safety (and our kids if we ever have any). I feel sad saying it, but I don't have enough faith in the goodness or tolerance of people to risk the safety of somebody I love.

I think that's enough out of me for now...

EcoBurban said...

While I loved the book, I can agree that the backbreaking, exhausting work of raising your own food is not for everyone. I think that is why I appreciate the farmers at the markets, the individuals that organize my food buying club, the owners of the local mill. It's hard work.

So, point well made Arduous, not everyone loves to cook, enjoys to garden or adores getting their hands dirty!

Going Crunchy said...

Durn, that was one of the best reviews I have read in a very long time. It is the mark of a good review if it makes you want to dash to your Library and get the book! You sparked my interest and now I long to read it so I can have a hearty discussion about the content.

ruchi said...

Dasha, I think you're right that a lot of times the city/rural debate has nothing to do with the environment. The Back To The Land movement always frustrated me because it's a movement I feel excluded from, and one I don't feel I could participate in.

Melissa, I think you're right that it could be a generational divide that is causing some of the friction between me and Kingsolver. I never really thought about it, but you're right, I think women of her generation felt more pressure to work outside the home if they considered themselves feminists. Whereas today, one can still be a feminist and choose to be a SAHM.

EBM, yes I have WAAAAY more appreciation for the farmers at the farmers' market now!

Shannon, thanks! I'm glad the discussion made you want to read the book because I was afraid that I was too harsh in my review. I really did like it! I really do recommend it! I just have reservations.

Anonymous said...

@ dasha - you might want to refer to yourself as "roma" as opposed to "gypsy" since the term "gypsy" is derogatory. and not only that, it's also historically inaccurate. it refers to an assumption that the roma people come from egypt, when in fact they are originally from india.

Unknown said...

I'm sorry but I really enjoyed this book and I have implemented MANY of the suggestions offered by Ms. Kingsolver and her family. I have always lived in a rural community and I grew up with a big garden and canning was a way of life. For me, my "work life" got in the way of my real life, so while I worked 20 years as an RN, I missed out on summer canning and gardening. Now that I'm retired, I've returned to the life I remember from my youth and my family and I are happier for it. Check out my blog for my review on this same book: http://bobbisbooknook.blogspot.com

Buy Anabolic Steroids said...

Is there anybody who started cooking after reading this book?

Dianne Glave said...

I am with you on the farmers working hard and not being paid for their hard work. Consider a perspective from class (you touched on this with farmers), race, and ethnicity: http://dianneglave.wordpress.com/2010/06/13/can-a-year-on-a-farm-based-on-animal-vegetable-miracle-work/