I sit here at 8:45 this morning in a paradox. I am listening to a quite enlightening and interesting book about the movement to "Eat Local" - that is, support local farmers and save the environment by eating what you or someone local can grow. And I'm doing it while eating a bowl of fresh pineapple from Costa Rica, and considering turning it into a fruit salad with the strawberries from California and bananas from Ecuador. If only I had some Chilean grapes to go with it.
The book is called "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver, the author of "The Poisonwood Bible" which is a fascinating piece of fiction that I highly recommend to all you book club types. I like it so much that I've read everything else she's written, which has, of course, not lived up to my initial impression of her. This new book was released a week or so ago, and as I'm always in the market for a new book, especially by an author that I mostly like, I grabbed it.
"Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" is the kind of book I could see making my dad absolutely nuts. It's a true story of her family who decided to move from Arizona to the Appalachian Mountains of (West?) Virginia onto a family farm and live only on what they could grow or buy locally for one year. She had been raised on a farm, I think, so it's not the "city girl moves to the country" book - it is a serious look at a family who is making a change in their lifestyle.
I both like and dislike the book. The dislike comes in a few different forms - first of all, her ultra-left-wing liberal husband interjects essays every two chapters or so, extolling the horrors of oil dependance, corporate farming, and various other capitalistic ideas. It makes my blood boil to hear such one-sided diatribes - after all, I'm guessing he doesn't use a horse-and-buggy to drive from his farm to his college teaching job. Although he'd probably call that inhumane treatment of animals anyhow. He would have to be a college professor, wouldn't he?
Secondly, I dislike her romanticizing farming. Maybe it's just the lectures I heard growing up from my dad, who was raised on a farm, and on a not too successful farm if I recall correctly. The stories I heard, of grueling, backbreaking labor, are not quite the stories that Kingsolver is telling. Sure, she mentions in passing that most small farms make so little money that the owners have full-time jobs and farm in the evenings and on weekends. But you know that for her and her family, money probably isn't an issue and she doesn't ever mention how miserable farming can be. Although, to be fair, maybe it's just the slanted view from my dad that gives me this perspective - maybe real farmers do actually enjoy what they do, regardless of the amount of work and sacrifice involved. But my gut is telling me that she is painting a romantic picture of small-town farm life, which maybe isn't all that accurate.
On the other hand, I find myself oddly drawn to the concept of eating locally. She waxes poetic about the quality and taste difference between a fresh, garden ripe tomato versus the imported kind in February, about the joy found in eating foods in season and waiting for the arrival of particular vegetables and fruits. She appeals to my gourmet cook side (in want of an audience, obviously) who finds it satisfying to use fresh herbs and make really flavorful, and impressive, foods. There is something deliberate about buying the highest quality ingredients, say from a farmer's market, for a special meal - it makes the meal even better for the amount of care taken even in choosing the ingredients.
The author also talks candidly about the disservice done to families with the women's liberation movement, in that women who fought for the right to get out of the kitchen and into the cubicle are now raising families that eat fast food and rarely gather for dinner. It was interesting for her to take some responsibility for the situation, as now she's seen that cooking for her family is a gift, not a matter of indentured servitude. In her chapter about the subject, she nails the exact reason that I get so irritated when my kids reject the dinner I've made - it's not just a matter of sustaining life, they could do that on their own with hot dogs and cereal (not together) - it's the fact that I'm offering a gift in this meal which they are rejecting. It makes cooking dinner feel like indentured servitude and of course I want to reject that, too.
While that is an aspect of the book, more of it dwells on the plight of the small farmer, with a particularly painful defense of tobacco farmers that I found hard to listen to, and the evils of shipping food across the world, the loss of heirloom crops, and what a year in the life of living off the land brings. Many months of nothing, apparently - the winter is spent eating what you've stored from the season before. then things start slowing growing, asparagus, lettuce and broccoli, and then the bounty of fall harvest. When she describes the food she eats, I have to say it sounds fantastic.
But could I really never eat a fresh pineapple again? Or a banana? Or heaven forbid, a lemon?? Because they really aren't going to grow in Utah, no matter what you do. Isn't there a place for some imported crops? Is it really such a crisis in the world to ship some fruit from the other side of the planet, so I can make fresh lemon meringue pie? The author (and her husband) talk about how we do this at the expense of our children, who may grow up in a world where imported food is unavailable because we've used up all the petroleum. That just seems far-fetched and unrealistic to me, but maybe I'm just not as educated on the subject to be able to make a judgement call.
Will this author be able to change the world with her book? Will Eat Local, or the Slow Food Movement, ever catch on? Possibly, but only with the elite few who can not only afford to buy a dozen free range eggs for $2.50 instead of the dozen at Costco for $.90, and those who make enough money that the range of choices is actually an option. For the low income or working poor who work to put food on the table at all, it's a non-issue. But what do I know, I actually think Wal-Mart is good for the economy, which makes me pretty much not welcome at the author's home, although that's just speculation.
As it is, I look forward to August and September when the tomatoes and watermelon I've planted are ready. And it won't be too long before the basil, oregano, and rosemary are ready for that really fantastic spaghetti and meatballs that has my mouth watering. And maybe I'll end up at a farmers market this summer sometime, eating fresh cherries next month and corn in July. Maybe I'll make an effort to support more local farmers, of which there are many here, by making special trips to buy their products. But for now, I think I'm going to head to Costco. I'm out of fresh pineapple.