I am really enjoying a new book I bought a few weeks ago, called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. Here is the book description on the inner sleeve:
Hang on for the ride: With characteristic poetry and pluck, Barbara Kingsolver and her family sweep readers along on their journey away from the industrial-food pipeline to rural life in which they vow to buy only goods raised in their own neighborhood, grow it themselves, or learn to live without it. Their good-humoured search yields surprising discoveries about turkey sex life and overly zealous zucchini plants, en route to a food culture that’s better for the neighborhood and also better on the table. Part memoir, part journalistic investigation, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle makes its passionate case for putting the kitchen back at the center of family life and diversified farms at the center of the American diet.
I think this is completely accurate, even though I’ve only finished the first 30 pages or so. Here are a few paragraphs in order to get you intrigued enough to buy the book:
“This story about good food begins in a quick-stop convenience market. It was our family’s last day in Arizona, where I’d lived half of my life and raised two kids for the whole of theirs. Now we were moving away forever, taking our nostalgic inventory of the things we would never see again: the bush where the roadrunner built a nest and fed lizards to her weird-looking babies; the tree Camille crashed into learning to ride a bike; the exact spot where Lily touched a dead snake. Our driveway was just the first tributary on a memory river sweeping us out.
One person’s picture postcard is someone else’s normal. This was the landscape whose every face we knew: giant saguaro cacti, coyotes, mountains, the wicked sun reflecting off bare gravel. We were leaving it now in one of its uglier moments, which made good-bye easier, but also seemed like a cheap shot– like ending a romance right when your partner has really bad bed hair. The desert that day looked like a nasty case of prickly heat caught in a long, naked wince….
She goes on to describe their reasons for moving from Tuscon, AZ to a small farm in the Appalachian Mountains.
So, as the U.S. population made an unprecendented dash for the Sun Belt, one carload of us dog paddled against the tide, heading for the Promised Land where water falls from the sky and green stuff grows all around. We were about to begin the adventure of realigning our lives with our food chain.
Naturally, our first stop was to buy junk food and fossil fuel.
In the cinder-block convenience mart we foraged the aisles for blue corn chips and Craisins. Our family’s natural foods-teenager scooped up a pile of energy bars big enough to pass as a retirement plan for a hamster. Our family’s congenitally frugal Mom shelled out two bucks for a fancy green bottle of about a nickel’s worth of iced tea. As long as we were all going crazy here, we threw in some 99-cent bottles of what comes free out of drinking fountains in places like Perrier, France…
As we gathered our loot onto the counter, the sky darkened suddenly. After two hundred consecutive cloudless days, you forget what it looks like when a cloud crosses the sun. We all blinked. The cashier frowned toward the plate-glass window.
“Dang,” she said, “it’s going to rain.”
“I hope so,” Steven said.
She turned her scowl from the window to Steven. This bleached-blond guardian of gas pumps and snack food was not amused. “It better not, is all I can say.”
“But we need it, ” I pointed out. I am not one to argue with cashiers, but the desert was dying, and this was my very last minute as a Tusconan. I hated to jinx it with bad precipitation-karma.
“I know that’s what they’re saying, but I don’t care. Tomorrow’s my first day off in two weeks, and I want to wash my car.”
Oh, the irony!
The book also has its more serious moments, giving it the “part journalistic investigation” description:
This is how 70 percent of all our midwestern agricultural land shifted gradually into single-crop or soybean farms, each one of them now, on average, the size of Manhattan. Owing to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetic modification, and a conversion of farming from a naturally based to a highly mechanized production system, U.S. farmers now produce 3,900 calories per U.S. citizen, per day. That is twice what we need, and 700 calories a day more than they grew in 1980. Commodity farmers can only survive by producing their maximum yields, so they do. And here is the shocking plot twist: as the farmers produced those extra calories, the food industry figured out how to get them into the bodies of people who didn’t really want to eat 700 more calories a day. That is the well oiled machine we call Late Capitalism.
Most of those calories enter our mouths in forms hardly recognizable as corn and soybeans, or even vegetable in origin: high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) owns up to its parentage, but lecithin, citric acid, maltodextrin, sorbitol, and xanthan gum, for example, are also manufactured from corn. So are beef, eggs, and poultry, in a different but no less artificial process. Soybeans have also become animal flesh, or else a category of ingredient known as “added fats”. If every product containing corn or soybeans were removed from your grocery store, it would look more like a hardware store. Alarmingly, the lightbulbs might be naked, since many packaging materials also contain cornstarch. (In Food Inc., they list a ton of other things, including charcoal and even baby diapers!).
No cashier held a gun to our heads and made us supersize it, true enough But humans have a built-in weakness for fats and sugar. We evolved in lean environments where it was a big plus for survival to gorge on calorie-dense foods whenever we found them. Whether or not they understand the biology, food marketers know the weakness and have exploited it without mercy. Obesity is generally viewed as a failure of personal resolve, with no acknowledgement of the genuine conpiracy in this historical scheme. People actually did sit in strategy meetings discussing ways to get all those surplus calories into people who neither needed nor wished to consume them. Children have been targeted especially; food companies spend over $10 billion a year selling food brands to kids, and it isn’t broccoli they’re pushing. Overweight children are a demographic in many ways similar to minors addicted to cigarettes, with one notable exception: their parents are usually the suppliers. We all subsidize the cheap calories with our tax dollars, the strategists make fortunes, and the overweight consumers get blamed for the violation. The perfect crime.
This book is excellent. Definitely something worth reading. I got mine for 99 cents off of half.com, so if you like to read, there’s really no excuse!
I’ll leave you with another one of her sentences to chew on:
In the grocery store checkout corral, we’re more likely to learn which TV stars are secretly fornicating than to inquire as to the whereabouts of the people who grew the cucumbers and melons in our carts.