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Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Our Year of Seasonal Eating
HALFWAY THROUGH Barbara Kingsolver's hymn to the joys and privations of seasonal eating, I went to the kitchen garden for a lettuce and discovered that our redcurrants had achieved perfect ripeness, seemingly overnight.
I had a deadline - this review was due the next day - but here was a more urgent one. As Kingsolver discovered, when midsummer bounty arrives, it brooks no delay: fruit and vegetables must be harvested and dealt with - only a fraction can be eaten, the rest must be cooked, dried, bottled, canned, frozen, stored, preserved; put up on pantry shelves against the fallow months of winter and early spring. So I put the book aside, picked the glistening jewels of fruit and began making redcurrant jelly, finishing my reading late at night as the clear juice dripped quietly through its suspended muslin bag into the bowl beneath.
In May 2004, Kingsolver moved with her husband Steven and their young daughters Camille and Lily from their home in Tucson, Arizona, to a farm in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia. Their plan was to produce their own food and to buy from neighbours what they couldn't - or didn't choose - to grow themselves. With a few exceptions (coffee, nuts, olive oil, spices) they would consume only what they could source locally.
In the arid expanse of Arizona this would have been impossible: 'Like many modern US cities,' she writes, 'virtually every unit of food consumed [in Tucson] moves into town in a refrigerated module from somewhere far away. Every food calorie we ate had used dozens or even hundreds of fossil fuel calories in its making.' Farming in the state demanded increasing volumes of water for irrigation: their experiment required a gentler, greener, wetter climate.
Throughout that first year, the family cleared land, raised terraces, fed, cultivated and planted soil. By the following April, they were ready to begin their year of living sustainably, sometimes frugally but often more richly than they could have imagined. They made lists and plans, resolutions and wish lists: the girls were craving fresh fruit but bananas, oranges and other imports were off limits and last season's local apples and pears were long gone. On a blustery Saturday they set off for the farmer's market, searching in vain for fruit until Kingsolver spotted several crates of crimson early rhubarb: 'The bridge between the tree fruits of winter and summer.' The surprising rewards of self-denial had begun.
May and June bring asparagus and the first snouting of heirloom vegetables with romantic names; July produces daily armloads of cucumbers, squash, beans, chard and overzealous courgettes and the house is locked against the threat of neighbours bringing 'presents' of more. August opens with a glut of tomatoes and a fever of bottling, drying, pickling and sauce-making. Lily goes into the egg business, everyone makes cheese and Kingsolver's turkeys hatch chicks – the miracle of the title, because the maternal instinct was long ago bred out of commercial poultry.
Kingsolver is not the first to flee overconsumption and an industrialised food system for the lure of self-sufficiency, but in this year of planet panic her warm, funny, inspiring account could not be more timely. Sure, as a successful novelist she is better placed than many to indulge in the good life – and make money by writing about it – but this is not just a paean to the productive vegetable patch and the virtues of a full winter larder, it is a wake-up call and an intelligent, practical response to the obscenities and imperatives of modern food politics.
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