Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver


In her classic book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, novelist Barbara Kingsolver leaves off novel writing to document a year of her family’s adventure in eating locally.

For one year, the family grows, raises, and preserves as much food as possible, relying on local farmers for the rest of their needs (other than very few exceptions, such as coffee and spices). The fact that Kingsolver and family had to first move from their longtime adopted home of Tucson, Arizona to their ancestral home in the hills of southern Appalachia to accomplish this goal is in itself instructive.

The parched, drought ravaged, desert landscape they leave behind serves as a vivid illustration that development in the American southwest, to the extent that it has happened, is entirely unsustainable. The desert was just not meant to support that many people. This is something the Native Americans knew. Everything, most especially water, must be imported.

What follows is a rollicking, inspiring, and often funny account of the family’s successful year of sustaining themselves not just locally, but deliciously, as they learn to slaughter their own animals, make mountains of zucchini disappear, and preserve dozens of pounds of tomatoes.

And it is a full-family adventure. Oldest daughter Camille writes many of the recipes, meal plans, and essays. Husband Steven contributes his thoughts on ecology, sustainability, and government food policy. Daughter Lily starts her own egg business.

In the descriptions of how plants and animals evolve and grow, Kingsolver’s early training in biology and her talent for prose both serve the reader well. In fact, these are some of the most interesting parts of the book. Now I know why asparagus is so special: It not only one of the first harbingers of spring, but it’s also a bizarrely otherworldly plant that takes three years to bear a crop.

Woven in among the details of growing, preparing, eating, and enjoying the food is a loving tribute to rural Southern culture (don’t ever say thank you for a plant). I think even people who have no intention of growing their own food cannot help but come away from the book with a greater respect for farmers and a feel for the pleasures of eating seasonally.

I’m hoping Kingsolver will convince more of us that feeding ourselves shouldn’t be a chore, or merely a recreational activity – though it is both sometimes – but a human skill that is important for the both our enjoyment of life and maybe even our survival.

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.