Monday, September 10, 2007

Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

This is the first of what I hope to be many reviews on TO BEET. Not only will I be writing reviews of books, magazines, foodstuffs, and foot massages, I hope that other people will chime in with their own reviews in due time too.
****Full disclosure--I work for HarperCollins publishers, which publishes the book reviewed below*****

ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE by Barbara Kingsolver is a new entry in the hot category of books that already features The Omnivore's Dilemma and What to Eat among others. In a way, I see these books as the equivalent of fantasy sports for the dedicated food lover. They're a chance for us city folk to live vicariously through the people who are really at the forefront of the sustainable agriculture revolution, and at the same time learn more about where our food comes from.

Like The Hundred Mile Diet, Kingsolver's family takes on the challenge of eating locally for an entire year. That means what they can't grow themselves, they have to buy from or trade with local farmers. So, no pineapples, bananas, Cheetos, or Ben and Jerry's for 365 days. To make this challenge doable, the family relocates from the barren American Southwest, and hangs their shingle at their summer farmhouse in the Appalachian mountains--a climate that will allow for a lot greater variety of local produce and a lot fewer meals of nopales and scorpion meat.

Without delving too deeply into the book's plot, the highlight of the book is certainly Kingsolver's ability to put food choices into perspective. While it's obviously a buttload of work to grow hundreds of pounds of tomatoes and then make dozens of pounds of tomato sauce to store for a winter lycopene-infusion as she did, it's inspiring to see such a short trip from garden to plate. While most of us probably don't have the stamina, skills, or desire to take on this big of a challenge, we can still think about smaller ways to minimize the out-of-season and packaged foods that most Americans rely on.

That being said, the heart of this book focuses on reminding us that prior to "cheap" forms of long-distance transportation, humans pretty much ate what could grow in their immediate vicinity. And if that meant going without fresh eggs in late winter, you had to find another way to get a daily protein source. While it may seem like a human right to have raspberries in New York in January, it's actually just a privilege that ends up costing a lot of fossil fuel.

While Kingsolver's writing style is a little cutsier than I would prefer, I have to accept that the core audience for this book is likely middle-aged mothers who are interested in safer ways to feed their family. But even as a handsome, hip urbanite, I found a lot to take away from her practical advice. There are simple, seasonal recipes throughout that can help you make the best use of ingredients as they're available. And there are informative sidebars written by the author's husband that explain some of the politics of the locavore movement and point to important resources for learning more. Over the next few weeks I intend to explore these resources and I'll point them out on the blog as they become relevant.

Overall, this book is a must-read if you're interested in the hows and whys of the locavore movement, and if you want some concrete tips that can help you integrate local, seasonal foods into your own diet year-round.

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