Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

For us foodies, this recession has become the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about. Families everywhere are tightening their belts and economizing. How can I buy organic now? Organic foods typically cost atleast double of conventionally produced foods.

The other mantra of foodies is buy local, be a locavore. Reduce the carbon footprint of your food. For a while i took this really seriously, I even maintained a map of some of the food sources of the vegetables that I commonly bought from my farmers market.

Turned out I was unwittingly buying vegetables and fruits from Peru, Mexico, Italy and some frozen foods even from India. Then came an article in NYT where the whole "carbon footprint of my food" angle became complicated. Just because something is local doesnt necessarily mean its carbon footprint is lesser. Economies of Scale do make sense. It takes less petrol to cart stuff from somewhere far away than near, simply because of volumes.

At the end of this,I was scratching my head. Whats a politically conscious foodie to do?

Reading this book,"Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver(visit the books website here) could not have happened at a better moment for me. At a time when external and logical stresses make the path of organic and local food difficult, this book is a timely reminder of the reasons why we should choose to eat organic food in the first place.

This book is the account of one ordinary middle class American family's decision to live for one year on only the food that they grew themselves on their own farm. An incredibly brave or stupid decision you might think but the insights that emerge from this process are incredible. We in the US have become used to buying whatever vegetables whenever we want. Our consumption of fruits and vegetables is not tied to location or season, because even if tomatoes cannot be grown in your frozen North eastern American soil, they can be easily imported from Mexico or the Caribbean.

The book follows the family through the months as they sow seeds and plant using organic practices, plan for the coming months , enjoy the harvest and finally put away vegetables and seeds for the winter. The book is packed tight with useful information on all sorts of related topics in little posts that populate the pages.All through out she makes a very, very, very strong case for eating organic food.

One very simple example she provides are eggs. Most hens in America are fed ANIMAL WASTE. Yes you read that right. Bits and parts of cows, pigs and poultry that remain after butchering are fed to hens in order to eliminate waste. These hens are crowded in to industrial sized sheds and then fed antibiotics to eliminate the diseases that emerge from animal overcrowding. Imagine the horror of cross contamination of animal diseases - mad cow disease jumping from cows to hens. In my minds eye, the simple act of feeding my daughter eggs bought from my nearby walmart became almost poisoning.

This is not really over dramatization, cross contamination is a reality of Industrial food growing today. Just remember the peanut butter, tomato and spinach recalls that have happened in recent months.

The author rues the death of a home cooking culture in America, which she posits as the main reason more people are eating fast and junk food. Even the worst home cooking is healthier than any processed foods we may buy outside. I can only filter this book through my Indian ness. As a community i think we retain a strong home cooking culture, my mother's idea of a woman leaning more towards a superwoman type of person - some one who is a professional and who tends to home and hearth. And to some extent, Barbara Kingsolver seems to fit that extreme - atleast in the book. She even makes her own cheese and butchers her own turkeys in this account - of course with the complete help of her husband and children.

In India, i think we are not as divorced from the soil as when we are here. Our families still pay heed to the harvests of rice and wheat and oilseeds. Buying them after harvest and storing them away for the whole year. Vegetables available in the market come from nearby regions and always are in season. You cannot buy a ripe alphonso in India in December. But Indians living in America do as the Americans do, we buy mangoes in winter, eat at the local McDonalds or Burger King and pass on to our children our love for Pepsi and Coke over water.

This book provides a compelling logic for a food culture that is aware of its time and place and points out the dangers of the Industrial farming culture of America.

Thanks to commenter Ann for recommending this book - I really enjoyed it.


FH said...

Great post! I have bought onions from Peru, supposed to be sweet (they are) and expensive too. I use it in the raita.

I know! Even cows are fed with meat and stuff so they get more milk or something, that is disgusting. They are supposed eat grass!! They are altering everything and making more money by selling "organic" to top it.

I still drink water with my food, but kids are used to diet soft drinks.

Ashwini said...

Wonderful Post..I too hadheard that they feed animal waste to hens..Eating anything veg or NV has become scary..In our house we are big No to junk foods..I cook all the time and pack too..

Anonymous said...

ms, i came across your blog thru mahanandi.

First, I am really happy to read this from a indian blogger. Even though I know that most of them do mind about what and where they buy (produce) I haven't seen anyone exclusively writing about it.

Its become a fantasy for me to buy something fresh in this country if I am not prepared to spend a lot on organic. I realized after several purchases at the farmers market that several of the veggies are imported from other states. How easy it would be in india to buy something close to the farm and even without much carbon fp's! I remember vendors coming from the farm on bicycles and selling them around. And come the growing season everyone's busy with seeds and gardening with whatever space available. All that seems so out-of-touch and high-maintenance here. Eating in this country might be cheap but eating healthy is very expensive. I find it more expensive than in india.

(God, i got carried away)

So what did you decide to do about buying local? or buying anywhere for that matter!

ms said...

hi asha: We have thankfully never bought much pepsi coke but I dont know what my daughter will ask for once she starts going to school.

ashwini: We try our best to avoid junkfoods but I find that we end up having them whenever we are short on time or stressed.

Preeti: Thank you very much for your passionate response, this makes blogging worthwhile. I get nostalgic for the greens guy on the bicycle too sometimes, he would shout "soppoy" in Bangalore!

Atleast for eggs, Ive now found this Land of lakes eggs that are produced by hens fed an all vegetarian diet and with no hormones. Its not as good as organic / cage free eggs, but it is what i can afford now.

I was all set to participate in the csa - community supported agriculture - where I could buy local and organic, however this economy is making me think twice about paying money 400-500$ upfront. At the very least, one organic food store nearby has a farmers market every weekend with local produce, I am going to try to buy more there.


Anonymous said...

yeah, eggs and chicken are two things that I try buying organic/veg-fed since its only once every 2 weeks.

But with fruits like berries/peaches/grapes, several times I am not sure what to do.

bee said...

i read this recently and agree it's a great book to have.