Friday, September 28, 2007

A Localtarian's Library: Guest Blogger Jamie Thornton on "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver

In a two part review, guest blogger Jamie Thornton offers some thoughts on Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver’s newest non-fiction book. This book has been one of my biggest inspirations for this year of eating locally, and I think you’ll find Jamie’s review a unique and fresh take on it. Jamie graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Anthropology and won several academic awards for her nonfiction. She is an aspiring novelist and is currently working on Rhinoceros Summer, a novel based in Africa. To keep up-to-date on Jamie’s writing efforts, check out

I am in love with oranges.

At halftime soccer games in Junior High, I ate orange wedges to excess. I bought the novel Oranges are not the Only Fruit because of the title (it was an excellent read). I refuse to drink pulpless orange juice. I consider Sunny Delight a product created by the devil.

When the use of colored dye in fruits became common practice, finding an ‘orange’ orange no longer guaranteed a great taste experience. So I developed my own important test – I’d find a quiet space of urban sidewalk after purchasing the orange, press one of my fingernails into the skin, and make a slit to peel back the first strip.

I would begin my judgments: Does the skin come off too easily? Is it one of those inch-thick varieties that can be pulled off in one long winding spiral (which means it’s going to taste dry and stringy and deflated, like orange-spritzed water that’s sat on a shelf for four years)?


Is the mottled skin thin, maybe a millimeter thin, so my nail pierces through to the pulp beneath? So the juice wells up and spills onto my thumb? And I’d know, this is going to be good, orgasmic good. I’d lick my thumb, unwilling to lose one drop of this ripe thing, knowing it would take some delicate surgery and several full minutes of careful peeling; bits flaking off, strips ending short, more pulpy piercings, more juice lost, before I could pop a slice into my mouth. Because it was bursting – bursting with ripeness.

The journey on which Barbara Kingsolver takes her readers in her new book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is one bursting with new ripeness for every month of the year. It is about her family’s experiment in growing and eating local, it’s a behind the scenes look at the life of a bestselling author. It’s also an exposé of how fruit and vegetables are supposed to look and taste, of seasons, of delayed gratification. Of true food luxury, of the pleasures one can find working in a garden.

With chapters divided into each month of the year, Kingsolver shares dozens of her family’s stories alongside each month’s ripening food bounty. She uses such lyrical and sensual prose, I dare anyone to read it and not try at least some of Camille’s (Kingsolver’s oldest daughter) recipes. Or want to eat ‘same-day’ asparagus drizzled with olive oil before you die.

Instead of making the reader feel bad for not eating our vegetables correctly, Kingsolver concentrates on how delicious local and sustainable food can taste, and she does this with story. She creates a narrative – a time, a setting, and beloved characters facing hardship, overcoming it, and being the better for it. She does not deny the difficulty in finding local and sustainable food, in growing some of what one eats, or of taking the time to cook fresh meals. But her argument seems to ask the reader, don’t you deserve the best in life? Don’t you deserve food this good?

Kingsolver’s book is one to read, if not for the content, then for the pure sensuality of her words and stories. She reveals the inside dynamics of her all-American family who happens to sometimes receive live chickens in the mail and bake zucchini into chocolate chip cookies. She gushes over the products of her garden; she’s in love and not afraid to describe it. That the objects of her love are fruits and vegetables, and that she manages to help the reader fall in love as well; I’d say a writer with that kind of skill is well worth the bookstore price.

Return for Part II next Friday when Jamie will share her thoughts on the deceptively simple way Kingsolver argues for why people should eat local and sustainable food.

1 comment:

Diane said...

Well done, Jamie! I just finished the September chapter and felt a kinship with the family as I "put up" our own wonderful local tomatoes. Maybe we'll actually plant some of our own next year...