Change my life? Check. Save the world? Working on it. Such is the power of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Plenty, two new books on the imperative of eating locally.
In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver, whose madly readable novels address big issues including biodiversity (Prodigal Summer) and cultural arrogance (The Poisonwood Bible), turns here to memoir, telling how she and her family left their Tucson home of 25 years to move to their southern Appalachian farm. What had been their summer getaway became their home and the source for their food, the means by which "to feed ourselves animals and vegetables whose provenance we really knew."
Dubbing themselves "locavores," Kingsolver, her husband, and their two daughters began their year-long experiment in March, already dreaming, she writes, of "the splendor of vegetables."
Though the author can wear her liberal, environmentally sensitive heart on her sleeve, she always pulls back from the brink of preachiness, writing with wryness, warmth, and radiant prose. Kingsolver loves to inform, and includes sidebars from her husband, environmental studies professor Steven Hopp, plus an extensive list of eating-local and sustainability resources. Even her engaging narrative instructs, teaching more about the sex life of turkeys than I'd ever known.
Turkey sex aside, Kingsolver's book sold me on going local. Then I read Plenty by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon.
Plenty began as a blog, with the Vancouver authors chronicling a year on what they call the 100-mile diet, eating nothing that came from beyond a 100-mile radius of their home. Like Kingsolver, the authors began their efforts in March. There the similarity ends.
Kingsolver and her family grow their own food or buy it from their neighbors. Smith and MacKinnon were hapless hunters, forced to leave their urban lair to score their next local meal. Kingsolver says a year of growing and eating locally cost her family about 50 cents per person per meal. The Plenty authors offers a more daunting figure: their first local meal socked them in the wallet for $128.87.
Teetering between bleak and funny, they tell just how restrictive their 100-mile concept proved to be. Sure, they had to swear off tropical fruits, but they also discovered that beloved staples, including rice, flour, sugar, oil, and salt, fell outside their borders too.
It made them realize all they'd taken for granted. It made them resourceful. It made them stressed. While the Plenty authors never starved, their meals could tend toward the meager. A windfall of local wheat turned out to be equal parts wheat berries and, um, mouse droppings. No wonder the 100-mile diet took a toll on their relationship.
So why go local? Both books cite the staggering statistic from the Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture—much of the food we eat comes from 1,500 to 3,000 miles away. Oil doesn't just fuel our cars; it fuels farm machinery and all the transportation that treks out-of-season, out-of-state, and out-of-country produce to our supermarkets. Kingsolver's husband asserts that if each of us ate just one local organic meal a week, we'd reduce national oil consumption by over a million barrels every week.
Eating locally also lowers the risk of food safety (remember the recent E. coli scares?), encourages biodiversity, and tastes delicious. "Food is the rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure," writes Kingsolver. "Why resist that?"
Why indeed? Such glorious writing gives Animal, Vegetable, Miracle the edge over Plenty. So do the recipes. Compare Kingsolver's asparagus and morel bread pudding to Smith and MacKinnon's foraged fare of poor man's capers (pickled nasturtium seed pods).
Happily, since beginning Plenty, the authors have grown more in tune with the earth. They've learned to shop and cook smarter, discovering local and seasonal delights like fresh walnuts. They've learned to make eating locally more practical and pleasurable. A few nonlocal basics are back in their pantry, including "lemons, and rice, and beer," but two years later they're still on their 100-mile diet. "We just like the new way better." It's downright inspirational.
Will eating locally save the world? I wish it would. At the very least, reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Plenty has me hitting the farmers' market more often and saying no to long-distance produce. Thanks to these books I'm more of a local girl.
Ellen Kanner also contributes to Pages, The Miami Herald, and food magazines, including Bon Appétit and Vegetarian Times. She lives in Miami.