California is what I know and love, and it's allowed me to be spoiled when it comes to food and agriculture. Shopping locally is not a challenge, eating seasonally comes naturally to me, and California's growing season extends beyond most of the country. I don't have to deal with severe seasons and limited produce availability that my friends on the East Coast experience, so I decided to give myself an education and picked up Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver and her family left Arizona to live off the land on a family farm in Virginia. The challenge was to only eat what they could grow or find locally and do without what didn't fill that criteria.
I approached this book differently than I have Tomatoland - Kingsolver is not a journalist, and I felt that it would not be fair to treat her book as a journalistic piece. Rather, it's a piece of realist fiction - Kingsolver's experience in agriculture. The problem is that the author sees it as a journalistic piece, and while this wasn't a problem in the beginning, I have found myself struggling halfway through the book.
Kingsolver's initial intent on moving the family Eastward was to be more conscious about food and buck the industrial food system most of us survive off of. In her opinion, there's a lot of cheap junk food and artificial everything available, and it's not good for mass consumption or sustainability. Society eats out of a grocery store where the seasons don't matter and no evidence of where the food actually came from exists. The food tends to not be healthy, developed with environmental consciousness in mind, or supportive of small farmers and local communities. And these points make a lot of sense - do you know what is in season? And what it means to eat an out of season piece of fruit? Kingsolver attempts a pretty bold stance on current eating habits of Americans - give up anything and everything that isn't in season and can't be found locally. No bananas, no winter cherries, and certainly no chocolate.
I applaud her efforts, and I like a lot of what she suggests and what she tries. She uses organic methods that promote sustainability in the garden, which works well on smaller plots. She supports local farmers by only shopping at farmer's markets. She raises truly free range turkey and bakes her own bread. In the book it's just becoming summer so she's at prime time for a lovely harvest. But I have yet to know what winter is like without a grocery store - and I don't know what her garden would be like if she had a day job like I do. Kingsolver is lucky to be able to try this adventure, to have the time to spend on feeding her family so thoughtfully, and to have such a supportive family. But not all of us are as lucky. Not all of us have farmer's markets, or time enough to bake our own bread. And not all of us have the money to spend more on food.
Here's what Kingsolver suggests for learning what is in season: think of a general everything-plant growing from seed, starting in the spring. Leaves are the first thing to pop out of the ground, spring greens like lettuce and spinach. After the plant has some time to grow, it will start to develop flowers - things we eat like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. After the plant flowers, it sets fruit - first the fruit is soft, like peas and cucumbers, and then the fruit develops color like tomatoes and peppers, and then the fruit gets harder and darker, like pomegranates and winter squash. When fall comes, the fruit is gone and the plant stores sugars in the roots - when we eat potatoes, yams, and onions. After that, hopefully you've done a lot of preserving - nothing grows in winter. If you consume produce out of this order, then it has come from some place that is in a different season - like South America. More on that later, stay tuned!