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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

The Flavors of a Family: Book Review of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

jenmichel@me.com

Surviving nine hours in the car with five children doesn’t have to require thousands of dollars of electronics, just enough patience to, for the first hour at least, persistently ignore the plaintive pleas from the backseat (“Her elbow crossed the line!” “He called me stupid!” “I want a turn with the Lego magazine!”). When everyone realizes that Mom is not going to involve herself in backseat affairs and they’d better figure it out on their own, eventually the zoo animals calm their squawking and resign themselves to a general staring out the window, reading, and the imaginative games one can invent locked behind a seatbelt. In our recent car ride to and from Chicago, I finished my first book of the summer, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, a must-read for people who love to garden and cook. (You know I can’t nurture anything from seed myself, but I love to cook.) The book is more than Kingsolver’s chronicling of the year she and her family moved from the suburbs of Tucson to rural Virginia, committing to eat only what they could produce themselves or buy locally. It is a manifesto of sorts for a healthier food culture, but what I suppose I liked best is how Kingsolver argues that for the inextricable links between food and family.

Food is love, a friend said to me on our recent visit to Chicago as she whisked pancake batter and blended smoothies to feed her family of five and our family of seven. And while my own mother wouldn’t have said it so explicitly, we lived a “food is love” kind of culture in my own family growing up. For what we may have lacked in emotional vocabulary, we made up for in our bread baking. My best and most vivid memories of childhood are of food: the salted watermelon we’d slurp down with my maternal grandparents, the green beans we’d snap and simmer on the stove with spoonful of bacon fat, the corn we’d argue for the privilege of shucking in the summer, the warm apple pies we’d bake for Thanksgiving, the caramel corn we’d stir sticky when winter snows cancelled school. And always, bread for every season.

I used to disdain the “food is love” kind of mentality, feeling that food was a poor substitute for relationship. And it is. Food is meant to set the table, and the table is meant to gather: people and their ideas. It’s a round-up for lively conversation. The table is for knowing and being known, and food cooks up that kind of beautiful invitation. And what Kingsolver wants to say is this: the last forty years of women of back to work have left our kitchens empty, and we’re the worse off for it. And it’s not just our waistlines that have suffered.

“When we traded homemaking for careers, we were implicitly promised economic independence ad worldly influence. But a devil of a bargain it has turned out to be in terms of daily life. We gave up the aroma of warm bread rising, the measured pace of nurturing routines, the creative task of molding our families’ tastes and zest for life; we received in exchange the minivan and the Lunchable.”

Kingsolver is a working mother herself, feeding her family with her published writings. She’s not a hard-liner in terms of the mommy wars; she obviously doesn’t argue that women shouldn’t work. But she does draw back the curtains and let light flood in on the exchange that many women have made: “Cooking is a dying art in our culture. . .I belong to the generation of women who took as our youthful rallying cry: Allow us a good education so we won’t have to slave in the kitchen.”

And that’s where I’m deeply challenged by Kingsolver’s insight. For as much as I love to cook, I live my fair share of days where I am indignant, standing at the kitchen sink, muttering under my breath as I peel potatoes that I have a Master’s degree. Kingsolver pulls a chair alongside and nurtures in me a vision for homemaking, this lost art of yesteryear that we’re all too busy or seemingly important for. And that, she would add, our children desperately need.

Slow food. Local food. These are the values Kingsolver and her family have made a priority, but embedded in their food values are principles cherished in all of life. Slow food is just one aspect of her family's intentional quieting of our frenetic modern rush, one kick against the “religion of time-saving” we all seem to have embraced. “All that hurry can blur the truth that life is a zero-sum equation. Every minute I save will get used on something else, possibly no more sublime than staring at the newel post trying to remember what I just ran upstairs for. On the other hand, attending to the task in front of me - even a quotidian chore - might make it into part of a good day, rather than just a rock in the road to someplace else. . .Eternal is the right frame of mind. . . A lifetime is what I’m after.”

Spending every spare minute of your evenings and weekends canning and freeze-drying the tomatoes you harvest from your garden isn’t, for most of us, our idea of fun. Making our own cheese and yogurt, slaughtering our own chickens: these aren’t necessarily options we could choose even if we wanted to (although I do have fun imagining the quietly smug and pretentious air of our neighborhood punctuated by the early morning crows of a rooster!) But slowing down, making dinner time a priority, gathering your family around something other than fast food or boxed mac and cheese: yes, these are small gestures that would improve, not just what we eat, but who we are.

Food is love. I find myself agreeing with this idea I snubbed years ago, which may be why I was up early this morning, shaping bread loaves for the day, believing along with Kingsolver that, “flavors work their own ways under the skin, into the heart of longing.”