Thursday, July 26, 2007

Eating locally: a book review

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favorite authors, was a couldn't-put-it-down book for me this week. Her prose didn't have the inner glow of her essays and novels, but I stayed up late one night trying to read as far as the season I am in right now!

The book is about Kingsolver and her family's year of eating locally, focused mostly on what food they grew, why, how, and how they ate. Throughout the book there is a lot of info -- some would say preaching -- about why one ought to choose to eat locally produced food. I've heard most of it before and she was preaching to the choir with me. On to the food!

This book made me hungry. During the two days I devoted to the book, I had good ingredients, and found myself eating...

Farm-market tomato and homemade bread sandwiches
Farm-market peaches, sliced, with local cream
Homemade multi-seed bread, toasted, with local butter
Local Spanish peanuts
Local pecans, toasted
Farm-market peaches, sliced, with homemade granola and local yogurt
Wedges of leftover frittata of local, pastured eggs and farm-market tomatoes, made into sandwiches with homemade bread slices.

I had this stuff; the book sent me into the kitchen to do something with it! And frankly, Kingsolver inspired me to cook much more from scratch and to find a way to do some putting food by for the winter.

The story of how they grew most of their food for the year was fascinating and impressive. Sometimes too impressive. Because the book begins with their move from Arizona to Virginia, I expected them to be starting with a new garden... but no. They relocated to land and a house they were very familiar with, having owned it for years and spent many summers there. They had already renovated existing orchards and spent years preparing the garden plots. They had gardened for years in both places, and had lots of experience putting up food.

Also, they come off somewhat as foodies -- used to making amazing food with specialty ingredients -- though they seemed able to focus on local foods if they could grow plenty of interesting things in their garden, and still have their olive oil. This year was more a matter of intense focus and energy toward a singleness of purpose: eating local food and trying to grow as much of it as possible themselves. Clearly they had years of garden preparation and garden, cooking, and preserving experience to bring to that focus.

It was amazing, and yet, honestly, too impressive to inspire me to similar heights. The gardening seemed on a massive scale, compared to my faltering efforts, and I must look elsewhere for inspiration in that regard. I have made and canned jams and preserves, and have dropped peaches in boiling water in order to slip the skins off easily... but the massive effort that the Kingsolver-Hopp household poured into canning the huge amount of tomatoes and tomato sauce they did... that seems beyond me. An August spent over a hot stove? I wondered time and again whether they had a summer kitchen (open air, not attached to the house), or did they use a lot of air conditioning, or is it less hot and humid where they live than how I think of Virginia?

With all of my questions about the Kingsolver-Hopp household doing major amounts of water-bath and pressure canning over a hot stove, as well as plenty of blanching in order to freeze foods, I was glad to find that Sharon of Casaubon's Book had recently written about preserving foods in low-energy ways. She emphasizes something Kingsolver does not: eat seasonally and accept what is in season for your fundamental food resources for that season -- with preserved food as accent and supplement. Perhaps with that in mind the tomato dependence could be eased somewhat!

I loved Kingsolver's descriptions of local-food meals, both simple family meals and celebration meals. This book has probably given me the final push to make yogurt, and I will probably try making cream cheese and mozzarella. These are three things our family really enjoys, and apparently they are all pretty easy. Also, if I can find a way to preserve that would fit better with our life, I am motivated to buy bigger quantities at the farmers' market and preserve away. I still want to plant fruit and nut trees this fall, and berry bushes. I'm at the beginning; they are at the fruition.

So, I have mixed feelings about this book. And yet, I want a copy on my bookshelf, to read as powerful inspiration to cook simple, seasonal, local meals -- consistently.

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