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Review: Up From the Roots

Barbara Kingsolver’s latest treatise sounds a clarion call back to the kitchen.

By Tracie McMillan


Saveur • June/July 2007

The novelist Barbara Kingsolver, whose latest book is a memoir-cum-treatise that documents a year during which she and her family grew almost all their own food or purchased it from farms nearby, is not the first writer to note that Americans tend to approach eating more as distracted consumers than as participants in a natural process. Indeed, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle joins a growing canon of food-based personal chronicles and social critiques, and it will inevitably yield comparisons with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin Press, 2006), which chronicles his own DIY quest.

Much of Kingsolver’s tale does cover old ground, but she nonetheless manages to find something new in the terrain. Her compelling account of eating and cooking food fresh from the land—including growing her own vegetables and breeding and slaughtering her own heritage turkeys—serves as a narrative architecture on which she’s able to build a convincing argument in favor of cooking from scratch. Making meals in one’s own kitchen using quality ingredients, Kingsolver asserts, is an antidote to what she calls our “pathological food culture”, which teaches Americans that having wholesome, home-cooked dishes, rather than being a daily necessity, is an occasional indulgence or, worse, a mysterious and unattainable goal. Our everyday food culture, she says, encourages people to reach for processed, heat-and-serve meals because, even though they’re aware that tastier, fresher, more healthful alternatives are available, they believe such food is hopelessly out of reach, in terms of either cost or effort. These impulses, added to the fact that most people don’t know or care where their food comes from, she believes, have far-reaching health consequences.

It’s her stand against the former of those two ideas—the notion that cooking with fresh ingredients is widely considered a luxury embraced only by those with ample means and free time—that sets Animal, Vegetable, Miracle apart from other books of its ilk. “Cooking,” Kingsolver writes, “is a dying art in our culture”; it’s a lament that could easily give way to snobbery and to disdain for all those benighted souls who won’t go near their stoves. But instead of falling into that trap, Kingsolver channels the persona of a nurturing teacher: the hardest part, she writes, “is just turning on the burner and giving it a shot”. “Approaching mealtimes as a creative opportunity, rather than a chore, is an option…the first step is likely the hardest: convincing oneself it’s worth the trouble….”

To help skeptics along, Kingsolver includes menus of simple, unpretentious seasonal recipes—a basil-blackberry crumble for June, for example, and a spicy turkey sausage in September—compiled over the course of her annus mirabilis by her 19-year-old daughter, Camille, a budding cook and nutritionist. In these recipes and in the narrative itself, Kingsolver is noticeably at pains to strike a tone of gentle encouragement without sounding preachy. But given that urging people to change their everyday behavior is by definition a form of proselytizing, the author’s advice sometimes comes off awkwardly. Her suggestion to replace the parlance “slaving over a hot stove” with the phrase “cooking without remuneration”, for example, seems unlikely to catch on. Similarly, her curious decision to counsel women but not men to return to the kitchen makes it easy to dismiss her as being out of touch.

And that’s a shame, because Kingsolver is making a crucial point: that preparing and cooking your own food instead of buying it premade isn’t just the prerogative of a socially conscious upper-middle class but rather a universally enjoyable, affordable, and essential component of a balanced life.

Author’s note: Due to an editing error, this article, which appears as published, contains a factual error. Neither Ms. Kingsolver or the author would contend that home cooking is universally affordable or available. Rather, it is often not as difficult as most of us think.

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