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Books: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

April 19, 2010 | Books

Quick. Anna Karenina and Barbara Kingsolver. What do they have in common?

Well, for one, they’re both pretty. Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle pleases the senses. The colors are pretty, as are the red-and-white vegetables in a cupped hand on the cover. I thought they were radishes. Shows what I know. They’re Christmas lima beans. I run my fingers over the cover. The letters are indented, and the cover feels like fabric. Nice.

Anna Karenina is a pretty little book. (Yes, it’s a library copy. No, I didn’t steal it. I bought it at a library sale.) It’s barely bigger than a postcard when it’s open. The pages are thin, almost translucent. I love the way it feels in my hands. There’s a nice weight to it. I mean, look at it. Don’t you just want to gobble it up? I did.

Except it was SO painful to read. But I was determined to finish that darn book, even though I hated it. (I have since learned that life is too short to read a book you don’t enjoy.) Yes, I know. It’s been called the “greatest novel ever written.” Doesn’t mean I liked it.

That’s the difference. I loved Kingsolver’s book. Loved, loved, loved. What these books also had in common was they both took me forever to read. The first one because I couldn’t stand it. The second one because I loved it so much I didn’t want it to end.

I did finally finish reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, though. Kingsolver wrote it with her daughter Camille Kingsolver and her husband, Steven L. Hopp. Daughter Lily didn’t write for the book, but she was often the star of its pages. The book chronicles the year they spent eating locally produced food as well as growing their own. I read the book after Ilina at Dirt & Noise recommended it. She wrote her own post about how Animal, Vegetable, Miracle changed her life.

I’m not sure why I hadn’t read Kingsolver before. Plenty of people told me I should. I’m glad I finally did. I took her with me to the Y, and she had me laughing out loud on the treadmill. I’m sure the folks without ear buds thought, “Um, hello? If you can read AND laugh? You’re not working hard enough.” I took her to the doctor’s office, and she had me laughing out loud there, startling others from their celebrity-mag browsing.

She reminded me, in part, of my father, who grew up on a farm and, as far as I can remember, planted a garden wherever he lived. All the houses we lived in were rentals, and some came with the job. The tiniest back yard we ever had was in Omaha. He turned the whole thing into a garden. The biggest garden I remember seemed a mile long, but I have no idea how big it actually was. It had just about everything in it.

That was the time, in the mid-1970s that we lived on a farm for a couple of years. We went without a book deal (darnit) and without a family pact to change our lives. We simply went back to the place my father grew up. Looking back, it seems like a very hippie-dippy thing to do, but my parents were as far removed from hippies as one could get. Well, there was Kumbaya thing. Some people joke about “holding hands and singing Kumbaya.” I was actually there when they did. And there was the baking of homemade granola at my aunt’s house. In Boulder. So, who knows. Maybe “hippie” is a relative term.

In any case, we didn’t just dip our toes into the farm experience, we did cannonballs in the deep end of the pool. If my parents had any formal ideas about “sustainable living” or anything like that, I wasn’t aware of them.

We raised chickens for eggs and meat. Gathering and selling eggs was my project. I learned my way around a henhouse from my grandmother, who at that time lived in town after farming for decades. We raised ducks and geese. I remember “harvesting” chickens, something not terribly new to me, since I watched my grandmother butcher chickens before. (Did we harvest the ducks and geese too? I can’t remember now.) There were rabbits, a lamb and even a pony.

I’ve actually thought about having chickens again for fresh eggs. I’m surrounded by farmland here in Iowa, and surely it’s not all corporate farmland. I’ve found several resources for farmer’s markets and locally grown produce. There’s even a group in Eastern Iowa that exists because of Kingsolver’s book and what they learned from it. The group is Corridor Locavore, whose goal is a comprehensive directory of locally grown food and goods.

Just when I thought I couldn’t like Kingsolver any more, she made it clear she loves Italy almost as much as I do. She’s Italian by marriage and visited Italy after planning for 10 years. I’m Italian by way of my heart. There’s not a drop of Italian blood coursing through my veins, but I fell in love with Italy when we were there 10 years ago. (I hope to get back one day — maybe to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary? That gives me about three years to plan!) The sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the people. Oh, what a delicious country! The people we met were kind, generous, loud, funny, beautiful and hospitable. Hospitality in Italy always involves food. Amazing food. No matter how simple or elaborate.

We were “welcomed” to Italy with an unannounced train stop, dozens of police with guns drawn, checking everyone’s passport. We were told they were looking for a fugitive, and, no, this wasn’t standard procedure for welcoming guests to the country. It was thrilling. You know … in a death-defying rollercoaster kind of way.

But our real welcome involved food. We shared a compartment on the train with a young couple. They had packed a large lunch, and they insisted on sharing with us. How could we say no? We couldn’t.

Everything we ate and drank in Italy was so much more than satisfying. Everything else was a feast for the senses.

The young women who zipped through Florence on mopeds, which you would think would be quite a dirty business, but, no. They would stop and step away without a hair out of place, perfectly ironed, manicured and looking as if they belonged on the cover of a fashion magazine. Stunning. And the men. There were groups of them posing together in their clean white shirts, crisp pants and shiny shoes. Gorgeous. There were others dressed as gladiators in Rome, speaking dozens of languages to passers-by (sometimes to one person relunctant to speak, in an effort to determine which language she spoke) — hugging, kissing and cajoling them into signing on for a guided tour.

Watching Italians eat (especially men, I have to say) is a form of tourism the books don’t tell you about. They close their eyes, raise their eyebrows into accent marks, and make sounds of acute appreciation. It’s fairly sexy. Of course I don’t know how these men behave at home, if they help with the cooking or are vain and boorish and mistreat their wives. I realized Mediterranean cultures have their issues. Fine, don’t burst my bubble. I didn’t want to marry these guys, I just wanted to watch. (Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, p. 247)

The Italians we met were never ones to give up on us. We stopped at a small shop in Pisa. It offered pizza by the slice, which was freshly made and under glass. Their version of fast food, I suppose? I was tired and ready to give up with my questions in not-even-close Italian. The woman behind the counter sensed my frustration. She came around front, took me by the arm, speaking the whole time, pointing, gesturing, smiling. She didn’t want to let me go without eating some of her wonderful pizza. And it was wonderful. So was she.

As is Barbara Kingsolver. Hands to my heart, she’s better than a cup of perfect cappuccino — when it’s offered, don’t ever pass it up and then savor every last sip. (And, no. She didn’t make me cry about turkeys, not one little bit. OK. Maybe just a little bit, dangit. But all the laughs made up for that.)

Posted by Becky @ 6:00 am | 4 Comments  


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