2008-07-09 00:00

IT’S been called the 100-mile diet (161 km), but for Barbara Kingsolver and her family, their experimental “year of seasonal eating”, described in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, was about much more than just food miles. It was about taking charge of their food, of being what she terms “locavores”, deliberately eating only local food, vegetables and animals that they and their neighbours had grown and raised, organic, seasonal, pasture-fed and definitely not a feedlot or battery shed in sight. And anyway, they had to extend the limit to 120 miles (193 km), because they couldn’t find organic milk from pasture-fed cows any closer to home.

What they set out to do isn’t something new — the international Slow Food movement has been promoting these principles for some years already; and it’s interesting to note that despite the power of the huge companies involved in agri-business in the United States and their considerable political influence — often to the detriment of small producers —organic growers, farmers’ markets and small peri-urban food producers currently comprise the fastest growing sector of the U.S. economy.

While getting back to the basics was a big part of what Kingsolver and her husband Steven Hopp were trying to do, the costs involved in making “industrial” food and transporting foodstuffs around the world throughout the year were obviously also important. “Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has travelled an average of 1 500 miles [2 414 km],” writes biology professor Hopp in the first of a series of sidebars on world hunger, global food distribution, genetically modified food and pesticides, that are scattered through the book. “If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1,1 million barrels of oil every week. ... Americans put almost as much fossil fuel into our refrigerators as our cars.”

“Transporting a single calorie of a perishable fresh fruit from California to New York takes about 87 calories’ worth of fuel,” adds Kingsolver. Which is why her family didn’t eat bananas for a year — they don’t grow in the Appalachians in Virginia, where the Kingsolver-Hopp farm is situated. They also had to say no to snack foods, processed foods and cucumbers from warmer parts of the world. “Six eyes, all beloved to me, stared unblinking as I crossed the exotics off our shopping list, one by one,” Kingsolver writes. Each family member was allowed one treat. Kingsolver chose the spices turmeric, cinnamon and cloves, Hopp wanted coffee (organic Fair Trade), 19-year-old daughter Camille, after her request for fresh fruit was rejected, opted for dried fruit and nine-year-old Lily asked for hot chocolate. They also bought olive oil, vinegar and organic grains.

Their year started in April, the northern hemisphere spring, with asparagus and rhubarb, “big crimson bundles of it ... loaded with vitamin C and tart sweetness and just about screaming, ‘Hey look at me, I’m a fruit’.” As the months ticked by and the seasons changed there were mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, squashes, potatoes, apples, cherries, garlic, onion ... all described in loving, mouthwatering, exuberant, sensual technicolour. The aromas, flavours and sounds of cooking and enjoying good, wholesome food permeate this book. Hopp baked their daily bread and made fresh pasta, Kingsolver learnt to make cheese, including mozzarella — there’s a recipe included in the book if anyone wants to try it — and raised turkeys, and Lily went into the chicken and egg business big time. Excess produce was bottled, frozen, dried, made into sauces, pickled and preserved.

Kingsolver and her family were vegetarians for a few years, largely because of their objection to the way feedlot and battery animals are farmed, but they now include a small amount of meat in their diet because of its nutritional value. However, they only eat pasture-fed animals and free-range poultry, and she believes it is important that you know the provenance of the animal. “You can leave the killing to others and pretend it never happened,” says Kingsolver, “or you can look it in the eye and know it.”

The chapters on Lily’s chicken business and Kingsolver’s turkey “harvesting” certainly do “look it in the eye”.

This reader found the sections in the book that deal with heirloom vegetables and heritage livestock particularly fascinating. These are the many varieties of vegetables and fruit, and species of food animals that are in danger of disappearing because they are not commercially viable for big business. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, as opposed to genetically modified or hybridised seed, and “gardeners collect them like family jewels. Even a child who dislikes tomatoes can tell the difference between a watery mass-market tomato and a grandmotherly heirloom. Seeds get saved down the generations for a reason and, in the case of vegetables, the reason is always flavour. Heirlooms are the tangiest or sweetest tomatoes, the most fragrant melons, the eggplants without a trace of bitterness.

“Most standard vegetable varieties sold in stores have been bred for uniform appearance, mechanised harvest, convenience of packaging and a tolerance of hard travel … How did the supermarket vegetable lose its palatability? [It] was a contract killing and long-distance travel lies at the heart of the plot.” From the four thousand potato varieties that once grew in the Andes, only a few dozen are now widely grown. Corn and amaranth in South America, squashes in North America, apples in Europe and grains in the Middle East have followed the same path. The good news is that there’s an international seed savers’ movement allowing farmers and gardeners to grow, save and exchange heirloom seeds.

With livestock the same applies. “Hundreds of old-time varieties of hoof stock and poultry, it turns out, are on the brink of extinction … In addition to broader genetic diversity and disease resistance, heritage breeds tend to retain more of their wild ancestors’ sense of foraging, predator avoidance and reproduction — traits that suit them for the pasture and barnyard rather than a crowded, windowless, metal house.”

Kingsolver decided to rear a flock of heritage turkeys, “hoping to have our rare birds and them too”. Only eight such species still exist — of the 400 million turkeys that Americans consume annually, more than 99% are of a single breed, the Broad-breasted White, “a quick-fattening monster bred specifically for the industrial setting”. She chose to raise Bourbon Reds, fewer than 2 000 of which remain in breeding flocks. It was not all plain sailing but the essay describing how one hen finally finds her mothering instincts is gripping, heart-warming stuff.

Lily, a chip off the old block, similarly chose heritage chickens for her business, agreeing against all her poultry-loving instincts to slaughter the “bad-tempered” ones for more profit (she was trying to save enough money to buy a horse) and is rewarded by people queuing at the gate to pay top dollar for her multi-hued free-range eggs.

The family’s “locavore year” ended almost without them noticing. Far from being starved at the end of winter, when March came around, they were down to one head of garlic, a frozen turkey, some smoked eggplant, a few jars of tomatoes, a couple of onions and plenty of zucchini. The changes they had made had become, for the most part, second nature. “Altered routines were really at the heart of what we’d gained. We’d learnt that many aisles of our supermarket offered us nothing local, so we didn’t even push our carts down those: frozen foods, canned goods, soft drinks. Just grab the Virginia dairy products and the organic flour and get out, that was our motto.”

And while she admits that she will be eating fish from afar occasionally — wild-caught Canadian salmon in particular — and buying more pasta than making it at home, not much else will change.

Another reviewer summed it up thus: “Can we all do this? Probably not. We may not have the necessary time, energy or access to a shared community plot. We may not be blessed with a sufficiently inspired — and happy — family. We may not be willing or able to spend the hot days of summer [bottling] all those tomatoes. And we may not have the freezer space (not to mention the barn) required for a year’s supply of turkeys and chickens. But all is not lost — unless we continue to lose it at the supermarket where the food we buy contributes to global warming on the long way from wherever it was raised.”

The book offers a host of suggestions to make a difference, and there are lengthy lists of places to go, things to do and Internet sites to visit. It may seem out of balance to be so picky about food when so many go to bed hungry in this country. But then again, shouldn’t those of us who can afford to be choosy about what we eat and where it comes from give it a little more thought?

• Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating by Barbara Kingsolver is published by Faber and Faber.

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