I recently finished the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve actually never read a Kingsolver book before although she is well-known for her other works. I don’t know why it took me so long to read the book — I’ve had it for at least a few years. Prior to ordering the books for The Hemingway Book Order, I started reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. On my flight to Kansas City a few weeks ago we got stuck on the tarmac for an hour prior to the flight, turning a 2.5-hour flight into a 3.5-hour flight — boo. But that is when I finished the book.
I was surprised at how much the book had an impact on me. I went into it with no expectations besides entertainment (honestly I didn’t really know what it was about beyond the short paragraph on the back of the book). I had already been having strong feelings about poor grocery store products — specifically tomatoes — and started getting as much produce as I could from the DC farmer’s markets. Luckily the one near my place isn’t over-priced like I’ve heard some of them are. Ahem, not everyone that lives in DC is wealthy here people. It’s so expensive here, most of us who aren’t independently wealthy unfortunately just bear the burden of price gauging (seriously it’s ridiculous). But I digress…
Lately I’ve just been so sick of the entire food system here in the U.S. I hardly trust anything anymore. How terrible most packaged food is, the horrible treatment of animals (for meat and for eggs), pesticides, etc. etc. etc. I realize that I am not nearly educated enough on the subject to talk about it in scientific detail, but I do know that the system has a lot to do with big companies and lobbyists and money. Doesn’t everything? Unfortunately, yes. We are trained to only think bright red perfectly round tomatoes that all look the same are “good.” Thank goodness there’s been a counterculture that has been dedicated to real food, farming that preserves the nutrients in the soil, heirloom varieties, seasonal eating, etc. I’m so sick of eating tasteless, mushy tomatoes I will go out of my way to find good ones. I even begged my mom to give me the ones that my grandma picked from the garden at our family farm so I can take them home. Wasn’t sure if you could carry-on tomatoes, but I was willing to take the risk. Those tomatoes were damn delicious.
A few paragraphs in particular resonated with me (page 115 in paperback version):
Grocery money is an odd sticking point for U.S. citizens, who on average spend a lower proportion of our income on food than people in any other country, or any heretofore in history. In our daily fare, even in school lunches, we broadly justify consumption of tallow-fried animal pulp on the grounds that it’s cheaper than whole grains, fresh vegetables, hormone-free dairy, and such. Whether on school boards or in families, budget keepers may be aware of the health tradeoff but still feel compelled to economize on food—in a manner that would be utterly unacceptable if the health risk involved an unsafe family vehicle or a plume of benzene running through a school basement.
It’s interesting that penny-pinching is an accepted defense for toxic food habits, when frugality so rarely rules other consumer domains. The majority of Americans buy bottled drinking water, for example, even though water runs from the faucets at home for a fraction of the cost, and government quality standards are stricter for tap water than for bottled. At any income level, we can be relied upon for categorically unnecessary purchases…
Nobody should need science to prove the obvious, but plenty of studies do show that regularly eating cheaply produced fast food and processed snack foods slaps on extra pounds that increase the risks of diabetes, cardiovascular harm, joint problems, and many cancers. As a country we’re officially over the top: the majority of our food dollars buy those cheap calories, and most of our citizens are medically compromised by weight and inactivity. The incidence of obesity-associated diabetes has more then doubled since 1990, with children the fastest-growing class of victims. One out of every three dollars we spend on health care, by some recent estimates, is paying for the damage of bad eating habits.
I mean if those paragraphs don’t make you think then maybe we are totally screwed as a country. Even though it’s more of a pain to find local sources of food and go out of your way to get them, or frequent farm-to-table restaurants — to me it’s totally worth it. DC has such an awesome restaurant scene and there are actually a lot of restaurants here that have farm-to-table menus. (Here’s a few lists I found: here and here). I don’t know how farm-to-table they are but at least they are on the right track.
Besides my issue with tomatoes — I mean who wants to eat a shitty tomato when real tomatoes are soooo goooood — I also have a thing with bread. Sandwich bread is so crappy. Like literally tasteless. So I don’t buy it anymore. Whole Foods makes fresh whole wheat bread and I go out of my way to buy it. All that crap in the regular grocery store is awful. We also have a little bakery in our building and I buy fresh bread from there as well. It’s sooooo much better. I can’t even handle crappy bread anymore. Bad food just isn’t worth it.
Now, did this book and Barbara and her family’s year-long adventure of only eating what they could grow/raise on their farm make me want to start a garden? Hell no. I have a black thumb and I know it. Maybe one day when I have a ton of extra time — let’s be real it will probably never happen — but I don’t even have a dang yard right now. I’d rather just support local farmers — they’re the growing experts after all. I do still go to a regular grocery store for things, I’m not a total convert/go completely out of my way for everything as I’m still figuring out where I can get all of that in DC (NW DC preferably — any suggestions?). But because of this book, other observations, educating myself and overall being sick of terrible food I’m definitely changing how I grocery shop and think about where my food comes from.
Barbara also talks a lot about eating seasonally, which is honestly something I’ve literally never thought about. There have been all these gorgeous (covers) books about seasonal eating out lately and now I get it. I feel terrible for my mom, I was soooo picky as a child (shocking I know), I’m sure she tried to get me to eat veggies, but I pretty much refused and I guess she gave up at some point. Why waste money on veggies that none of us would touch when we would wolf down pears? Anyway, I never fully understood why people had gardens (besides that it was a hobby). It just seemed like so much work when you could easily get it at the grocery store. It’s all coming together for me now… I see the benefits.
Another point Barbara brings up in the book (page 244, about her and her husband’s trip to Italy as it relates to eating in the U.S.):
In the whole of Italy we could not find a bad meal. Not that we were looking. But a spontaneous traveler inevitably will end up with the tummy gauge suddenly on empty, in some place where cuisine is not really the point: a museum cafeteria, or late-night snack bar across from the concert hall.
Eating establishments where cuisine isn’t the point—is that a strange notion? Maybe, but in the United States we have them galore: fast-food joints where “fast” is the point; cafeterias where it’s all about efficient caloric load… In most airport restaurants the premise is “captive starving audience.” In our country it’s a reasonable presumption that unless you have gone out of your way to find good food, you’ll be settling for mediocre at best.
What we discovered in Italy was that if an establishment serves food, then food is the point.
First of all, I’m dying to go to Italy. Being so picky, traveling can be scary for the food factor, but I know that in Italy I will never go hungry and I will love all of the food. And wine. What Barbara says is true (like how I’m on a first-name basis here…), you do have to go out of your way to find good food. Ugh, airports. The choices have slightly gotten better — you can sometimes now find fruit, yogurt (still a little sketch), and salads, but all airports are not created equal. When I flew into San Francisco last year I about had a food fit in the airport. Healthy options?!? I had to blink a few times to make sure it was real. So sad.
In DC there were a few guys who got sick of not having a quick lunch option that was healthy, so they created sweetgreen (that’s the short story). I’m a frequent visitor. Okay so I eat the yogurt maybe a little more often then the salads… but I’m just so happy that people have taken it upon themselves to solve the problem.
One thing I hated about living in the area of Kansas City that I used to live in was that there was like three local restaurants in my area, and the rest were chains. Not all chains are bad, but the majority aren’t known for their stellar healthy menus. And I’m not saying that I’m uber healthy, and only eat all of this seasonal, locally-grown type of food all the time — far from it. But now I make an effort, I’m educating myself, I want to find better food, cook better meals, go to more restaurants that source local food. But I still eat a ice cream a few nights a week. I just think that how we handle food in this country is not going well for us as the consumers and we have to do something about it. Choose where we buy food wisely. If no one buys the crappy tomatoes at the store then h e l l o — things will have to change. NO MORE TASTELESS GROCERY STORE TOMATOES! I should make a shirt.
Barbara’s daughter Camille also wrote excerpts in the book, one of which I found to be right on (page 332):
I suppose my generation is farther removed from food production than any other, just one more step down the path of the American food industry. More than our parents, we rely on foods that come out of shiny wrappers instead of peels or skins. It still surprises a girl like me, who actually lives on a real farm with real animals and stuff growing out of the ground, that so many young adults couldn’t guess where their food comes form, or when it’s in season where they live. It’s not that my rising generation is unintelligent or unworldly—my classmates are some of the smartest, most cultured people I know. But information about food and farming is not very available. Most of the people I know have never seen a working farms, or had any reason to do so. Living among people my age from various cities across the U.S. made me realize I actually know a lot about food production, and I don’t take that for granted.
You remember I just mentioned that I never thought about seasonal food, right? This also reminded me of one evening while I was in college. Somehow my friends and I started talking about nuts. Ahem, the food. We were saying things like, “No they grow on trees, or bushes, but wait peanuts are dirty, don’t they grow in the ground…” The farming gods would have been shaking their heads at us. One of my friends ended up calling her dad to ask him (why did we not just Google it?). Point is, we had no idea.
Now that I’ve just written a novel — ha! You want to read the book don’t you. You can get a copy here and form your own opinion, be inspired, etc.
Have you read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? If so, what did you think? Have you read any other books about food that you thought were good?