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Thoughtful food life is not just about growing your own. Anybody who has choices about food can exercise them with more care. Every grocery store carries some things that were produced closer to your home than the backside of yonder. Anyone can emphasize whole ingredients in their meal plans, and pass up the processed junk that has so many costs wrapped up in the package. And the majority of U.S. citizens live within a few miles of a farmers’ market. In fact, these are much more concentrated in and around cities than in rural places. The fastest-growing sector of the U.S. agricultural economy is the small market grower producing food for urban consumers. City dwellers might be surprised to learn that rural America has fewer farmers’ markets per capita, and the hardest place of all to find local foods is the Midwestern corn-and-soybean belt. It’s a sad commentary on our agricultural system that the bulk of our farm produce is essentially inedible.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is by no means intended to be a how-to book for growing your own food. Our intention was to explain why food is not strictly a product, but a process. That’s the lesson our culture has lost, and why we’re so dubious of the “product.” An important step in anyone’s food security is to recover an understanding of processes – for example, to learn the differences between feedlot meat operations and pasture grazing, why one requires universal use of antibiotics while the other eschews it. Why a pasture-raised chicken lays eggs with crayon-orange yolks, full of healthy beta-carotenes. Why lettuce comes in early in the growing season, and watermelons arrive late. When to look for asparagus. Two generations ago, people knew such things intuitively, but now we may have to learn them from a book. That’s why we provided a seasonal account of how foods grow — we thought readers might be interested in the natural history of what they eat. We’ve been very surprised, and delighted, that this information has inspired countless readers to try and grow at least a few things themselves. It’s a very basic human urge, it seems, to plant a seed, watch it grow, provision ourselves first-hand. I wish everyone could have that experience.
It was a deeply enjoyable conversion, so yes, it did stick. We still organize our meals around what’s locally available, when it comes into season. We don’t eat industrially-produced feedlot meats, and frankly can’t imagine it. Our garden expands every year, and our local farmer’s market also keeps growing. We buy extra fruits and vegetables when they come into season, and freeze or can them so we’ll have abundance (and easy meals) in winter. We’ve become friends with the farmers who work so hard to provide us with everything that helped make our “year of local” so delicious – why would we turn our backs on them now? It’s not just a matter of health and epicurean pleasure, but also community responsibility, for us to stay involved in our local food chain.
Once in awhile I do buy something marvelous and exotic at the grocery — Alaskan wild-caught salmon, or a pomegranate — as a splurge. Because of our year of consciously passing up such things, we recognize them now as indulgences, rather than normal things to which we feel entitled. Because really, what is normal about rushing a frozen creature three thousand miles in an airplane so I can eat it? Our culture’s expectations about food are surreal. So you could say, our family has become more realistic.
This was not an experiment in deprivation. We just wanted to stop pushing pampered fruits and vegetables around the globe on our behalf, so we changed our thinking. Instead of starting every food sentence with “I want,” we began with “right now we have… .” Each season brought a new menu. We tried to celebrate asparagus in April and apples in September, rather than whining about not having apples in spring or asparagus in the fall, if you see my point. Our farmers here grow salad greens under row cover even in the snowy months, and in January we loved the pears we’d canned in cider last summer. It’s not as if we were chewing on acorns.
It’s funny that this is the first question most people asked: what did you have to give up? We shared that anxiety too, in the beginning. A consumer culture has trained us all to concentrate intensely on what we might be missing, rather than what we have. Unfortunately, that encourages a toddler-like approach to the world: “I want everything, right now, so I can put it in my mouth!” For many reasons, I believe it’s a useful family exercise to reorder this manner of thinking. In my lifetime I expect to face the end of many kinds of abundance we’d thought would last forever. Instead of dreading collapse, why not be inventive about adapting to a changing world? Why not begin finding ways to eat splendidly from our own local food economies, and giving them our business so they will be even better next year?
We’re a pretty ordinary family, in that we all have a thousand things to do including full-time jobs or school. Part of the point we wanted to make in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is that regular, busy people can pay more attention to where our food comes from, and use healthier ingredients for the rituals of our lives. All over the world, people have food cultures, cooking special meals on various occasions (or even every day) because it’s traditional, enjoyable, and considered to be worth the effort. In this country, the closest thing we have to a distinctive food culture might be feeding our kids burgers in a speeding car. Are we busier than families in Italy or Japan?
It isn’t too late to reclaim a food culture of our own. Decisions create new behaviors, and routines make things easier. We simplified recipes, cooked in quantity, did what we could, but we also decided that cooking and enjoying meals would be a significant, important part of our family life. Our family took a somewhat formal pledge in order to push ourselves into doing something we knew would improve our lives. We had to do it together, or not at all. To be honest, it was much easier than we expected.
Food is inspiring, it’s that simple. Eating is the most important human activity, and a consumer choice we make every day. Suddenly, people started noticing our country was having a three-ring food crisis: We have unprecedented health and obesity problems, due to poor diets. We’re putting almost as much fossil fuels into our refrigerators as our cars. And our farmers and rural communities are struggling to survive. All these problems have one cause: we’re buying so much of our food from far away. We rarely look at our plates and ask: “Where has this stuff been?”
At my house, we’d asked that question for years. Like many families, we were uncomfortable with the environmental costs of agribusiness and the health costs of junk food. Many problems can be solved by one solution, getting food from closer to home. We’d discovered it’s not so very hard to be a more conscious consumer of food. Not everybody can walk away from the industrial food pipeline altogether, but all of us can take a few steps, and the benefits are immediate.
I’d thought about writing a book on this subject for years, but I have absolutely no interest in telling other people what to do. It dawned on me, though, that narratives inspire people in a different way, explaining possibilities. We talked a lot, as a family, about sharing our own experience of eating more locally. We decided to frame it as a one-year narrative, in which we would try to make our best efforts. Giving the project some structure made it more fun for us, and gave the book its shape.