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Diet for a Small Planet
Eating what comes naturally through the year.

Reviewed by Bunny Crumpacker
Sunday, June 10, 2007

ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE

A Year of Food Life

By Barbara Kingsolver

With Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver

HarperCollins. 370 pp. $26.95

If you've ever been lucky enough to eat a tomato in the middle of summer, while it's still warm from the sun, if you've seen a farmer's market filled with fresh produce and happy people, if you've stopped at a farm stand, even (or especially) if it's just a table at the side of the road, you know the difference between the taste of real food and what's sold at the grocery store. But advocates of locally grown produce contend that it's much more than a matter of taste. There's the horror of stockyards and poultry farms and slaughterhouses, and the excessive amounts of energy needed to transport food from one part of the country to another and from the summer of another continent to the winter shelves of our town's stores. But beyond all this, supermarket vegetables and fruits are grown with chemical pesticides and fertilizers and patented modified genes, and supermarket meat comes from animals raised in dense crowds, given hormones and antibiotics (which we in turn swallow), and then killed with abiding cruelty.

To the swelling chorus of concern about the food we grow, buy and eat, add three powerful voices, the authors of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. In a way, the book adds four voices, because its main author -- novelist, essayist and poet Barbara Kingsolver -- speaks in two tones. One is charming, zestful, funny and poetic, while the other is serious and dry, indeed sometimes lecturing and didactic. Both are passionate and caring.

Kingsolver has written most of the book, describing the year in which her family resolved to eat only food they had grown themselves, or that had grown within a hundred miles of their home, a farm in Virginia. The book's informative sidebars are by her husband, Steven L. Hopp, a biologist. Her daughter, Camille (in college, studying biology), has contributed engaging short essays for each month, accompanied by clear, uncomplicated recipes. (A younger daughter, Lily, was the family CEO of fresh eggs.)

Their remarkable year begins in April, when the first asparagus spears poke up from the ground. Sowing, weeding, watering, picking, canning, preserving and joyful eating follow the calendar, with an overabundance of zucchini in the summer, and the food the family has dried, frozen and canned seeing them through the cold months of winter. When March comes, about all that's left are a few quarts of spaghetti sauce, four onions, one head of garlic and, in the freezer, some vegetables and the last turkey.

The raising of the turkeys is a wonderful story all by itself, from the first fluffy babies to the mating, roosting and hatching of next year's batch. Turkey sex is an amazing saga, no less miraculous -- and perhaps even much more so -- than our own.

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 August canning 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. ("Americans," writes Hopp in a sidebar, "put almost as much fossil fuel into our refrigerators as [into] our cars.") The book offers a host of suggestions to make a difference, and there are lengthy lists of places to go, things to do and Web sites to visit. Alas, the book lacks an index.

This is a serious book about important problems. Its concerns are real and urgent. It is clear, thoughtful, often amusing, passionate and appealing. It may give you a serious case of supermarket guilt, thinking of the energy footprint left by each out-of-season tomato, but you'll also find unexpected knowledge and gain the ability to make informed choices about what -- and how -- you're willing to eat. ยท

Bunny Crumpacker is the author of "The Sex Life of Food."

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