Spring
 2008

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Two bestsellers about eating in America

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:
A Year of Food Life

by Barbara Kingsolver
   with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver

Harper Collins, 2007

The Omnivore’s Dilemma:
A Natural History of Four Meals
by Michael Pollan
Penguin Books, 2006

Review by Barbara Kammerlohr

Close on the heels of our global warming shock comes the cultural conversation about the threat to the safety of our food supply. The books we review in this issue, focused on Elders and the Earth, are important parts of that conversation. This danger to our existence happened on “our watch”, during the years we had the most power in society. It is the legacy we leave our children if we do not act quickly.

Unaware of the changes in agricultural policy implemented by our government, regulatory agencies, and industrialized farming, we have become isolated from the reality of what we are eating, where it came from, and conditions under which it was produced. In the past, most of us had some association with farms and gardens, learned about farms and the products that graced our dinner table, and even sang songs about Old McDonald’s farm with its happy animals. We saw the conditions under which our food was grown and we continue to believe those conditions exist today.

WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! Nothing could be further from the truth. During the past 50 years, much has changed. Industrial farming, agriculture politics, and the practice of shipping food across continents has forever changed what we eat. The books by Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan focus on food, where it comers from, how it is produced, why we must be concerned, and ways enlightened consumers are dealing with their own dinner tables. Together, Kingsolver and Pollan make a convincing case that our food supply is in grave and imminent danger. Some of their facts:

  • The food on most American plates travels an average of 1500 miles to get there.

  • Genetic diversity disappeared from our supply when we accepted industrial farming as our source of food. “Humans have eaten some 80,000 plant species in our history. After recent changes, three quarters of all human food now comes from just eight species."

  • Our food animals spend the last months of their lives in very toxic conditions that could easily migrate to the human consumer.

  • Practices of industrial farming harm the soil and erode its ability to produce quality food for our tables.

  • If more of us were aware of the brutal treatment of the creatures that feed us, our moral conscience would be seriously challenged.


In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan accomplishes his mission of telling us what we are eating and where it came from. His message is that what to have for dinner has been, for centuries, an important question for omnivores. This dilemma, however, has never been so pressing as it is today. What is the best choice: organic or conventional; imported or local; wild or farmed fish; carnivore or vegetarian; cage fed or free range?

 
 

Michael Pollan is the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of the previously published books, Second Nature, A Place of My Own and The Botany of Desire. A new book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, has just been published. Interested readers can discover more about Pollan and his work at michaelpollan.com,

In search of answers to those questions, Pollan traced several kinds of food on his plate back through its production. A fast food hamburger took him to horrific, filthy feedlots where cattle, never genetically intended to digest corn, spent their last months before slaughter, eating an unnatural diet and standing in piles of manure.

The free range chicken on an organic industrial farm fares only slightly better. His description of the chicken coop where the birds lived out their days told all:  “The air was warm and humid and smelled powerfully of ammonia; the fumes caught in my throat. Twenty thousand is a lot of chickens and they formed a gently undulating, white carpet that stretched the length of a football field. Compared to conventional chickens, these organic birds get a few more inches of living space... Running along the entire length of each shed was a grassy yard maybe 15 feet wide, not nearly enough to accommodate all twenty thousand birds.”

After a few chapters in Pollan’s book, the realization dawns that what to have for dinner is a much more complicated matter than the labels on super market food would lead one to believe. This is a call for our society to wake up and pay attention to our food supply before it is too late.

The bright spot in this extended essay on food production is the description of small, organic farms that serve local consumers who buy poultry, meat, and produce knowing exactly where it came from and who produced it. Farmers associated with this growing movement raise animals and poultry using natural and more humane practices. They are also true stewards of the land and soil, rotating crops and using other practices that assure viable farmland for years to come.


In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, best selling author Barbara Kingsolver shows us how her family dealt with many of the dilemmas described by Pollan. Long an advocate of the principles of the slow food market and farming practices that protect our planet, the author moved with her family to a farm in Appalachia, vowing to eat only food raised in their neighborhood where they could know the farmer and practices used in the production of food, grow it themselves, or learn to live without it. This highly entertaining account of the adventures of their first year is interspersed with the author’s insight into our society’s alienation from the source of our food and her belief that our collective embrace of fast food and industrial farming places our food supply in grave danger.

 

Best-selling author Barbara Kingsolver has published over a dozen books, including such popular novels as Animal Dreams (1990), Pigs in Heaven (1993), The Poisonwood Bible (1998), and Prodigal Summer (2000). Those who enjoy Animal, Vegetable, Miracle will also find her earlier collection of essays, Small Wonder (2002), compelling reading. Discover more about Kingsolver and her work at kingsolver.com.

 

Kingsolver is at her best as a storyteller, and moving from Tucson, Arizona to southern Appalachia is great material for a story. Her focus on food life and how to eat nothing but locally grown food in a climate where the land is frozen solid three months of the year provides the plot. After all, neither home gardens nor farmers' markets offer much for the palate during winter and early spring when children, used to the warm climate of Arizona, beg for fresh fruit.

The author devotes the most entertaining pages to the challenges faced by family members as they attempt to fulfill their vow. One such challenge came when Barbara Kingsolver, a great writer with absolutely no experience raising turkeys, set out to develop a naturally breeding poultry flock from baby turkeys. Months later as her charges entered adolescence, she realized that information about normal turkey sexual behavior was not readily available. She wrote this of her experience helping the flock mature into self -respecting adult turkeys:

"The first hen who’d come into season was getting no action from either of the two males whom we had lately been calling Big Tom and Bud Tom. These guys had been fanning their tails in urgent mating display since last summer, but they directed the brunt of their show off efforts toward me, each other or any sexy thing I might leave sitting around, such as a watering can. They really tried hard with the watering can. Lolita kept plopping herself down where they’d have to trip over her, but they only had eyes for some shiny little item. She sulked and I didn’t blame her. Who hasn’t been there?"

Undergirding the Kingsolver family’s enthusiasm for their adventure is the passionately held belief that our food supply is in grave and imminent danger. I quoted two of Kingsolver's facts at the beginning of this article. For Kingsolver, who holds a Master's degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Arizona, the cost of transporting our food an average of 1500 miles does tremendous damage to our environment, and the fact that genetic diversity has all but disappeared from our food supply is a biological time bomb waiting to explode. Her solution to these problems is to eat only locally grown food, know the farmer’s practices, and embrace the basic tenets of the slow food movement and sustainable agriculture practices.

The story of the family’s experience during their first year on the farm gives readers important insight into how to become more informed about food. Near the end of the book, there are resources, names and addresses of organizations that advocate for the local food movement, and recipes for using local food that is “in season.” Daughter Camille also writes of the experience from her perspective and offers a few recipes for eating locally grown food.


There is no doubt that some of the ideas put forth by Kingsolver and Pollan are controversial, but they also make an important contribution to the conversation about our relationship with our food supply. As such, the books are worthy of consideration. They are both also valuable sources of information for readers searching for ways to become more involved with their own food supply and to begin eating locally grown food.