Sunday, December 05, 2010

Animal, Vegetable, Metaphor

Man, it's been way too long since I've gotten through a real book. I did read the Perry Bible Fellowship collection, which was great, but probably doesn't count.

I've recently shifted from the San Jose public library system to my new home, the Millbrae public library. The library is a great place, with lots of light, friendly workers, a well-laid-out collection, and best of all, a few minutes' walk from my home. However, I've needed to adjust to the vagaries of the San Mateo County library system. I've gotten spoiled from San Jose's excellent branch system, which allows you to reserve a book from any library and have them deliver it to your own for pickup. They even offer free inter-library-loan borrowing for the few titles that aren't in their system. (Of course, their affiliation with the SJSU library means that they carry an impressive array of books.)

In contrast, while the Peninsula Library System offers reciprocal borrowing, placing a hold costs 75 cents. The rational part of my brain recognizes that this is still an amazing deal compared to the cost of actually buying a book, but the rest of my brain is busy sulking. I think that over time I'll get used to this new system. One advantage is that there's much less competition for holds; for example, right now the latest Robert Jordan book "The Towers of Midnight" has only one outstanding hold in the PLS out of 16 copies; in contrast, San Jose has 10 copies and 17 holds. Were I inclined to read this fairly new book, I could get my hands on it much more quickly in my new library system. That's PROBABLY worth three quarters.

Another difference is that other people are less likely to place holds on books that I've already checked out, which means that I can keep on renewing them with impunity. Which is good - I initially checked out "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" back in September, and finally finished it this week. It's a good book, and probably would be a fairly quick read for most people, I've just been much more distracted than usual of late, and have appreciated the extra time to get it done.

So: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle! I picked up this book after stumbling across it while randomly browsing (in person) through the Millbrae library's food section. I vaguely remembered having read good things about it before, and I've lately enjoyed reading the food-oriented books by Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and Eric Schlosser. This seemed to be a similar work.

I think this book either kicked off or was an early entrant in the recent rash of "My Year of X" books. You know the type - first-person narratives about spending a full year living in one room, or living frugally, or not using fossil fuels, or whatever. Here, Barbara Kingsolver and her family spent a year eating as locally as they could: they moved to a farm in rural Appalachia, grew their own food, and bought what they didn't grow from nearby farmers.

The book ends up being fascinating. It's also extremely well-written. I haven't read any of Kingsolver's other books, but I'm now very inclined to check them out. She has a great voice, a wry sensibility, and a lot of intelligence that avoids showing off. She keeps things interesting, making the year sound like an adventure.

The book also includes contributions from her husband and a daughter. Steven weighs in with sidebars that cover the political dimensions of what Barbara describes, such as the role of the Farm Bill (which helps large-scale producers and not small family farmers), organic certification (a lot of organic food never gets labeled as such because small farmers don't need it and can't afford the overhead of certification), and so on. Camille ends most chapters with a collection of recipes and menus that describe how they ate, along with her own perspective on her family's meals.

There were a lot of interesting and unexpected moments in the book. The Kingsolvers are a lot less doctrinaire than I would have assumed. From the beginning, each family member is allowed to choose one food item from outside their local region that they can keep using. Steven chooses coffee; Barbara chooses "spices," which I would view as cheating. But their year includes a trip to Italy, where they sample that region's local food instead of their own, as well as a trip through the northeast United States and southern Canada. Towards the end, Kingsolver admits that they had also bought boxed macaroni and cheese, because some of her kids' friends refused to eat anything else. She doesn't view these exceptions as failures; instead, she chooses to focus on all the benefits of the majority of the time when they did eat locally. That strikes me as a very healthy attitude to take. We should encourage ourselves to eat better, and not disparage one another for failing perfection.

I was also surprised by the book's treatment of vegetarianism, veganism, and carnivorism. The Kingsolvers raise chickens and turkeys, and Barbara speaks with some affection about their animals. And yet, they eat meat, rather regularly. About halfway through the book she spends several pages giving an extremely lucid and persuasive defense of meat. Not from CAFO's - that's Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, one of the scourges of this book - but from small-scale, low-impact farms. She approaches this not just in terms of health and justice, but also brings in her background as an evolutionary biologist. Kingsolver debunks some of the commonly cited arguments in favor of vegetarianism, including the idea that you can feed a lot more people from vegetables grown on an acre than an animal grazing on that acre. (Basically, this is true for arable farmland, but untrue for the unworkable hills and mountains where most non-CAFO livestock are raised. That makes perfect sense for me - I regularly see cows grazing in the Diablo range, and would be hard-pressed to ever find a farm that could work in that rugged terrain.) Her arguments probably won't persuade many people on this emotional issue, but I really appreciated her perspective. It also helped me understand something that I had long thought was peculiar: many people become vegetarians because of their empathy towards animals, but have very little exposure to those animals; most farmers have nearly constant exposure to animals, and seem to never become vegetarians.

Wow, that was a long bit. Anyways, that's just one of the cool parts of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I'm looking forward to reading more from Kingsolver, and I'm also looking forward to finally returning this and reading another book.

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