Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

“Everybody is reading it.”  Hyperbole or not, this claim about a book gives us cause to consider:  should we read it?  If a book has woven itself into the fabric of our culture, become a topic of discussion, resulted in testimonies of changed lives, should we know what it says?  In the women’s book group (which meets the 2nd Wednesday of each month), we try to read books, both fiction and non-fiction, that are shaping our culture.  We also read classics, theology, biography….a wide range of literature.  We talk about what we liked, what we didn’t, how the book does or does not match our worldview.  Last month’s book was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver.  Making the cheese, learning to can tomatoes and sauces, experimenting with small gardens….many from within our community have been intrigued and challenged by the book’s premise of seasonal, local foods, even while disagreeing with some of the author’s philosophy and theology.  Below, Amy Fast gives an overview of the book and some questions raised; Rachel Breeding follows with the results of her local foods experiment.   This month’s book is The Shack, which has been both praised (Eugene Peterson) and criticized (the PCA’s ByFaith magazine).  We’ll keep you posted….or join us to get in on the conversation.

Review: by Amy Fast
Author Barbara Kingsolver, her husband and two daughters move to a
one hundred year-old farm house in the southern Appalachians to devote
a year to growing their own food and eating only what is produced
locally.  She documents the joys and struggles of farming for
sustenance, feasting on what is in season and otherwise doing without.

The chapters follow the growing seasons and the narrative of the book serves as a forum to raise awareness about where our food comes from and the costs of eating food that has traveled long distances.  She draws attention to the fuel consumption required to process, package, warehouse and refrigerate food during the long trip it typically makes from the farm to the dinner plate (an average of 1,500 miles).  Her point is clear:  this is a waste of energy and resources. 

Kingsolver also discusses the marketing machine behind advertising processed foods (food companies spend over 10 billion dollars a year marketing to children) as well as the corporate giants behind fertilizers and genetically modified food.  She reveals why corn syrup and processed foods are on the rise and their hidden costs, as well as the costs and benefits of local and organic farming.

Kingsolver’s passages on vegetables and how they grow are eloquent and passionate.  Her zest and devotion for preparing home grown meals for friends and family is contagious.  She writes with enthusiasm on canning tomatoes, making her own cheese and her daughter’s home-spun chicken egg business. 

This book is both a personal journal and a work of cultural criticism.

Questions raised during the discussion in the book group:
1) Is eating locally practical, or even attainable, for most of us?
2) Does Kingsolver elevate food into an idol, turning it into a spiritual movement?
3) Does buying global produce open doors to other nations?  Are we willing to sacrifice  connections and commerce with other countries in order to eat only local produce (no bananas?!)?
4) Is Kingsolver making the case that the value of the life of a carrot, a turkey and a human are equivalent?
5) Is farm life romanticized in the book, ignoring the need for a household income?

Cheesemaking – A Local Food Experiment: by Rachel Breeding
I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver this summer. Afterward, just like everyone else who has read that book, I wrestled with a question: should I order the cheese making kit??? I’d never even heard of home cheese making; it was as if someone had proposed to me that I fabricate a cow in my kitchen with the contents of my refrigerator and a couple mail-order chemicals. Fascinating.

I ordered the kit. After 5 business days, I began to beat David to the mailbox, eagerly awaiting the package slip. On the 8th business day, it arrived, and I promptly opened the box and laid the contents out on the bed. In my beginner’s cheese making kit I had: 10 rennet tablets, a bag of citric acid, a bag of cheese salt, a cheese thermometer, cheese cloth, a DVD of 7 different cheeses being made, a book about cheesemaking and an instruction booklet for "30-minute Mozzarella".

I bought a gallon of whole milk from Randall’s with visions of mozzarella, tomato and basil salads dancing in my head. I read through the instruction booklet, which specified that the milk should be pasteurized but not ultra pasteurized, the pot used must be non-aluminum and non-cast iron, and the water must be chlorine-free. I started to get the feeling that making cheese was a delicate process.

With nose to the instruction booklet, I heated, stirred and drained. When it came time for the curds to stretch and become smooth and shiny…I had a pot of sickly-looking whey and hundreds of white balls of curd that seemed to have no intention of folding and becoming one piece. I worked on my 30-minute mozzarella for an hour before squawking in exasperation and abandoning the pot.
Was it because the milk wasn’t organic or fresh from a local dairy? Is there chlorine in Austin’s tap water? Did I stir the milk too long after I heated it? Should I have given the curd more time to set? Did I only heat it to 105 degrees when I should have heated it to 110? And just what is my pot made of?

Later I reread the instructions and opened the book about cheese making. From the Austin Farmer’s Market I bought a gallon of what the farmer called "regular" milk (i.e. whole). I called to find out what my cookware was made of and looked up Austin’s tap water make up on the Internet.

The result of my research and strict adherence to every letter of the recipe was a fine lump of mozzarella cheese!

I learned lots of things during this experience. First, I learned that cheese making is a very precise craft, and I have newfound awe for cheese artisans. Second, I learned that it would be nice to have someone who knows what they’re doing around (or at least a second opinion) when trying something totally new. Third, I proved that if at first you don’t succeed, buy higher quality milk and try again.