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by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven Hoop
and Camille Kingsolver
(HarperCollins Publishers, 2007)

Eminent novelist, poet and essayist, Barbara Kingsolver, creates a profoundly poetic and funny narrative of her family’s adventures over one year of eating locally. The four of them, King solver, her two daughters, and husband Steven Hoop, trade the artificial environment of Tucson, Arizona for an Appalachian farm to become locavores. Only what they raise themselves or what is produced in their environs goes into their mouths for an entire year of eating. In a place with actual seasons, they will eat only what is available seasonally.

This book is hard to categorize–it is part family memoir, part treatise on small scale agriculture and animal husbandry, part political polemic, and altogether a celebration of food and the life-style of ordinary people producing it. Barnes & Noble placed it among the cookbooks, and that may be as good a place as any, as it is teeming with recipes, which can be downloaded from a web site..

It is also full of local color, family history, memorable anecdotes and rich descriptions of food. Kingsolver’s riff on asparagus, for example, is so passionate and moving it borders on cult worship and certainly invites growing and eating the vegetable. And zucchini-wielding neighbors eager to lay off surplus squash provokes a laugh of recognition. We all know the breed.

Stories of turkey courtship and mating evoke chuckles and eventually outright laughter. At times they are unexpectedly illuminating. (It doesn’t happen the way you think it does–unless you already know about the “cloacal kiss”) interspersed are fact-laden sidebars from Kingsolver’s husband, biology professor Steven Hoop, as well as commentary, recipes, and mouth watering meal plans from Kingsolver’s nineteen-year-old daughter Camille.

But the book also includes sobering information about the damage to the planet and ourselves by our “oily” diet–400 gallons of petroleum per year per citizen is used in agriculture–for fertilizer, pesticides, fuel to run farm equipment and, above all, to bring food from where it is produced to where it is consumed. The writers also discuss government subsidies to large corn and soy holdings which enrich agribusiness at the expense of the land, the small farmer, and poor nations victimized by “free trade.”

The politics never become a rant, however, due to Kingsolver’s gift for informing through the pleasure of her wit and poetic richness. Only when she justifies eating food “with faces” is she less than graceful, and here only that she goes on about it for a very long time.

King solver makes a strong case that herding in some circumstances and in some places is more beneficial for the land and more efficient in feeding people than growing plants. Additionally “pasture finished” i.e. grass-fed meat eliminates the toxins and nutritional deficits of grain-fed factory-farm products, not to mention providing a pleasanter life for the animals. She reiterates often that locavores have the advantage of knowing the product, and the producer, elements making for safety and quality. Her family raises free-range heirloom chickens and turkeys, which are given a good life and killed more humanely than is the practice among industrial meat producers.

A particularly endearing anecdote describes the struggle of nine-year-old Lily, the younger daughter, with the concept of her beloved chickens as food. Finally she agrees to condemn the roosters in order to earn money to buy a horse, but only “the mean ones.”

One interesting factoid Kinglsolver included was that immigrants from vegetarian cultures often suffer from anemia, possibly due to the absence of insects that unbeknownst to them infested grain in their home countries, but not here. Kingsolver speculates that something from animal protein may be beneficial or even necessary to human nutrition. Ironically, improved food handling may have harmed immigrants’ health.

Of particular interest to me was the information that holdings under 4 acres were consistently the most productive per acre, according to USDA figures, likely due to loving care, intense cultivation, and growing a variety of crops rather than monoculture.

That’s right, proportionately you and I on our suburban plots are outproducing the big boys.

Reviewed by Margaret Morris