The Trouble With Food Politics

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, with Camille Kingsolver and Steven L. Hopp (HarperCollins, 384 pages)

On a spring morning several years ago, I made a final visit to a politicized cooking class for New York City public high school students. During earlier visits, I had watched teachers promulgate a body of then-eccentric ideas about food: the benefits of local and organic produce; the dangers of a diet based on McDonald's; the environmental destruction wrought by conventional agriculture. During those initial visits, the teens handily dismissed their lessons. One young man, after declaring his love for daily visits to McDonald's, declared simply, "I'm not going to change what I eat."

I packed up my notebook, and promised to return at the end of the year to see how well the lessons had sat with a dozen poor and working-class teenagers of color. I was sure that despite the urgency of the issue at hand -- nearly half the city's public elementary school students were overweight or obese -- the culturally irrelevant and somewhat impractical lessons would largely fail.

When I returned in late spring, I was floored by the changes in the young man who had sworn to continue his daily visits to McDonald's. After a sheepish admission to occasionally indulging in French fries, he told me he'd not only abandoned McDonald's, but had convinced his Dominican mother to switch to olive oil and herbs. Other students offered up their own critiques, in their own slang, of their neighborhood's economies, the impact of advertising, and the difficulty of finding fresh foods. The lessons I'd pigeonholed as far-fetched, upper-middle-class fantasies had not only changed kids' diets, but spurred them to analyze the politics and economics around their food choices.

Extolling the virtues of local food, cooking from scratch, and analyzing the food supply chain -- lessons at the heart of that cooking class -- don't seem so eccentric today, but they often retain a whiff of elitism. Many of the writers who've explored the American food system spin the higher cost of local and organic as a necessary inconvenience, and their calls for more careful food consumption are typically aimed at those with the resources to afford it. Little is said about the significant obstacles posed by cost and access for America's less-affluent families.

So when I heard that bestselling novelist Barbara Kingsolver (one of my favorites) was publishing a nonfiction account of a year of eating only local food, I was thrilled. Kingsolver's fiction draws its strength from her thoughtful, subtly political renderings of working-class and poor families. As such, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle seemed a natural candidate for bridging the gap between the lofty rhetoric of local, healthy food and the practical concerns of working people. Animal, like Kingsolver's fiction, is eminently readable. Nonetheless, it displays a regrettable lack of social context, doing much to reinforce -- and little to call into question -- the idea that sustainable food is an issue only the fit for the most privileged of tables.

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As with many of the works comprising the growing canon of food-based social critiques (Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma is a touchstone), Animal is lodged firmly in Kingsolver's personal experience. The book begins in Arizona, with Kingsolver describing the day she, her husband, and their children left Tucson, her home of 25 years, for rural Virginia. Like many, they moved to be closer to extended family; unlike most others, they were also driven by a desire to "live in a place that could feed us." "Naturally," she quips, "our first stop was to buy junk food and fossil fuels."

Once in her Appalachian farmhouse, Kingsolver settles into a deeply seasonal rhythm. While she leads the reader through each month of farming and eating, Kingsolver offers fascinating treatises on the life cycle of an asparagus plant, the summer onslaught of zucchini, and the sex lives of her heritage turkeys. (Her biologist husband and nutrition-minded daughter also contribute to the book.) Meanwhile, Kingsolver is also weaving in her central themes: America's "pathological food culture," which treats food as a chore and commodity, not a pleasurable or creative opportunity; the "dying art" of cooking from scratch; and our country's increasingly unsustainable dependence on industrial agriculture.

Yet, if there's one sentence that could sum up the book and its genesis, it's likely this: "The main barrier between a local-food culture is not price, but attitude," writes Kingsolver, later lamenting that "today's bargain always seems to matter more." That's old-hat for most local-foodies, and it is true Kingsolver stands apart simply by paying cursory respect to the difficulties faced by our nation's poorest: "Food stamp allowances are in some cases as low as one dollar a person per meal, which will buy beans and rice with nothing thrown in," she writes. But, she adds, "Many more of us have substantially broader food options than we're currently using to best advantage."

That might be true for some of us, but the number of people left out of that equation is far greater than Kingsolver suggests. Low-income concerns are no longer consigned to the margins of American society: Fully one-third of American workers are in low-wage jobs, and nearly 26 million received food stamps in 2005.

Kingsolver does make some headway in building a case for the ways in which "a quality diet is not an elitist option for a do-it-yourselfer." Cooking from scratch and whole ingredients, she argues, can be done well and cheaply; her calculations of her family's experimental year, when they ate only foods they raised themselves or bought from local farmers, put the average cost at roughly $1.72 per person per meal. That's a formidable argument in favor of eating locally and cooking at home, but instead of letting the cost efficiency argument do the work, Kingsolver falls back on cultural stereotyping to convince us to reenter the kitchen. "Career moms in many countries still routinely apply passion to their cooking, heading straight from work to the market…feeding their loved ones with aplomb," she writes. If French career women can be bothered to care about the food they cook for their families, she suggests, why can't we?

It would be hard to prove that Americans are not lazy about food, but it's pretty easy to show that we work more than most of Western Europe. We're also worrying about paying for health and child care -- two significant expenses that many European governments pick up. In 2005, Americans on average worked 269 more hours than their French brethren -- about 5 hours a week. Those extra hours are precious, as is having the affordable, reliable child care and health care available in France; parents with all three would presumably have more time, and energy, to cook for their families rather than grab a to-go bag.

Perhaps most curious -- and, I'll confess, grating -- is the slight chip Kingsolver seems to carry on her shoulder about the project she's undertaken. She's at obvious pains to avoid telling anyone what to do -- in interviews for Animal, she has politely pointed out that she never uses phrasing such as "You should …" But if Kingsolver doesn't want to change people's minds, why write a book? Simply because she finds herself that interesting? The answer is likely no, giving Kingsolver's denial of an agenda a tinge of disingenuousness. The book's glowing tales of personal fulfillment and wonder sometimes come off like a heartfelt sales pitch, particularly when Kingsolver veers into self-righteousness. Served raspberries during a wintertime dinner party, Kingsolver found their presence disturbing -- but she held her tongue. "It's impolite to raise such objections at the dinner table … I ate them and I said thank you," she writes.

It's a telling anecdote, and one that lamentably heightens the aura of elitism around good food. Food -- its availability, quality, and role in health -- is a vibrant metaphor for America's class divides. Kingsolver is right to say that good food is not inherently elite, but she provides so little evidence to support her claim that it melts into the background. What the reader takes away instead are the bits that strike a dissonant chord: Calling women back to the kitchen, downplaying the increased expense posed by local or organic foods, and how she held her tongue about the raspberries. The cooking teachers I had watched managed to bridge the gap by encouraging good diets, talking with their students about what foods they could already get in their neighborhoods, and impressing upon them the importance of health. It seems unlikely they'd have gotten as far using a holier-than-thou approach -- even one as nicely put as Kingsolver's.

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