Thursday, December 6, 2007

Animal Vegetable Miracle, Part I

I am reading the newest nonfiction book by Barbara Kingsolver (one of my favorite novelists) called Animal Vegetable Miracle. It is about the quest of her family to eat locally for one year. I highly recommend this book to anyone who eats. (I realize this includes everyone on this planet.) This subject is intense and may lead me to more than one blog entry, but I'll start here with a bit of my foodie background.
When I was young, my mother had a HUGE garden. She canned jellies and froze corn and green beans. We had a small orchard on our property that usually gave up enough fruit for pies. And we had the great zucchini harvest like anyone else with a garden. My mom liked gardening. And she was frugal. I always imagined that it was these two things combined with a heritage of gardeners that drove her to garden, more than a love of food. (My mother is one of those people who could be satisfied living off air, I think.)
Fast-forward to my first house and plot of land. It was small and in-town, so I carved out a garden with 6 4'x4' raised beds in which I planted by a method called square foot gardening. I did not garden because I loved the work. Tight hamstrings aren't conducive to bending over. And I'll take paint over dirt under my fingernails any day. I have, however, inherited some of my mother's frugality, but by my calculations and on the scale I was working the land, I am not too sure that I didn't spend more than I got back in the harvest. Unlike my mother, I do have a love of food--the more experimental--the better. My whole reason for gardening was to grow things that had yet come into vogue in the markets in my area. I was after the unusual. Fresh herbs (at the time, stores only sold dried herbs and fresh curly parsley), yellow tomatoes, kohlrabi, tomatillos, hot peppers (All colors and range of hotness), endive, Japanese Eggplant, arugula. If it was an exotic, I was growing it.
Slowly, the area grocery stores started catching up to my tastes. Even if the produce was on the pricey side--it spared my hamstrings. I continued to garden though. In our newer house with a bigger back yard, I still managed 3 small beds with tomatoes and peppers mostly. One year, I tried growing all purple vegetables just for the quirkiness of it. You'd be amazed how many varieties of vegetables come in purple besides eggplant. There are tomatoes, peppers (hot and sweet), beans, peas, cauliflower, sage, basil, and lettuce.
The way I gardened is the way I shopped. I sought out the strangest ingredients so I could lift the cover off my culinary creations with a big TA-DA. The best supermarkets were the ones who carried chutney, ginger, avocado, fresh herbs, frisee, an array of worldly cheeses --from sheep and goat's milk as well as cow's milk, blood oranges, mangos, escargot, lamb, crawfish, ground veal, turkey sausage in many flavors, proscuitto, quinoa, Meyer lemon infused oil. You get the picture. I still travel 35 minutes to shop at a grocery store that best fits my needs.
When I read books by Frances Mayes, in which she hailed the slow food movement, I felt I was doing my part: cooking daily, foods to be eaten with relish around a table. Not some prepackaged mix that you added a pound of your own ground beef. I may not have been Alice Waters, visiting the the farmers everyday to select the best of what was growing in the fields, but most of my meals came from the actual produce section, not some can or box. And I did cook recipes from magazines that boasted the current month's date. How's that for seasonal?
Then along comes Barbara Kingsolver, and she blows me out of the grocery store. She and the slow food movement expect more of me. Most generally their mandates are the following: buy local produce (to spur local economies and conserve fuel of transporting crops from distant lands). Buy seasonal produce. (Cucumbers don't grow here in the winter, so if I am going to be local, I have to be seasonal). Buy meat from animals which were humanely raised. Produce more of your own food, so you can place yourself directly in the food chain and have more reverence for your food and the land. (I especially like the part where she makes her own cheese!) I am still reading this book, so I will have to see what kind of changes will come into to my cooking and eating. But the first, step--questioning the way I do things--has already begun.


french toast girl said...

Beautiful post. Now I'm totally going to have to read this book!

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