Monday, August 3, 2009

Letter to Barbara Kingsolver

Dear Barbara Kingsolver,

It didn't quite take a growing season, but I finally finished your book that I've been meaning to read for some time now, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I read many books, and this summer I would estimate I've already read about 15 of them, but only yours has made the impact of a lifetime. Only yours bears page after page of underlining, exclamation points, and comments. Only yours required my patient husband, friends, and parents to have to drop whatever they were doing and listen to me read aloud to them, page after page. I do not want to loan out my copy; I want everyone I love to OWN it themselves!

Typically, I fly through books, devouring them in huge bites, hungry for the story, the nurturing they provide, and the next book after that. (usually while overeating and dripping olive oil and getting green smudges on my book pages). Your beautiful and original writing does not normally slow me down... but THIS book... aaah. I savored it in small bites, and as I read, I found green tendrils curling upwards inside of me, blossoming, and bearing fruit that I hope will last for the rest of my life. I felt the seasons move through me, bringing to life memories of my childhood in a garden and at the table of two people who believed in Good Food. I smelled and felt the dirt that held our vegetables until they were picked by our bare hands. The scent of tomato plants, the zucchini overflow, the fresh asparagus- it was all as familiar as could be. So why would your book be such a fresh wonder to me?

I don't think I recognized my relationship with food before in quite the same way. Oddly enough, as I began your book, I was struggling with some eating issues. I was using food to nurture myself when I really needed other kinds of self-reinforcement. Between your book and a great therapist, I am changing my nurturing habits, but falling more in love than ever with the food I was so lucky enough to have been brought up on.

I can't thank my parents enough for having the background, the sense, and the belief system that resulted in my love of sweet, purple beets, garlic-sauteed zucchini, steamed buttery yellow squash, warm sweet juicy tomatoes, fresh whole wheat, home-made bread, and lumpy carrots, pulled straight from the earth, wiped on my Osh-Kosh B'Gosh overalls and munched right there in the garden. I never questioned how we ate, or what we ate, with the exception of what we didn't eat, when I noticed other kids' lunches. (You couldn't pay me to eat a Twinkie, now!) We had our own chickens, and the eggs had deep yellow yolks with a taste unheard of from any grocery store egg since. I had zero appreciation for it then; it was just the Way Food Was. Now, as I look around me at my peers, I realize I am saved in ways they may never be. I have, running through my blood, the greens, purples, reds, oranges, and yellows of plants that grew only yards from my front door. I have an advantage that was not my doing, but for which I am thankful nonetheless. Without even consciously realizing it, I've always known what foods were "in season" and what could have grown here in Michigan. But that is where my knowledge and instinct of my childhood left off, and your book filled in the missing pieces.

I knew, vaguely, that CAFOs were out there, that they were cruel and unhealthy for both the livestock and the public who eats them. But I have my eyes wide open now, and there is no going back, no compromising for any reason from here on out. I was reassured by your information on humans needing meat, but not meat that was inhumanely raised to be completely, and utterly unnatural. I don't want to eat an animal that suffered, ate food that hurt it, and was given antibiotics to fight diseases caused by the inhumanity in the first place. I don't want to put into my body any hormones that are not mine. My own are trouble enough, thank you!

I knew that buying local produce was healthy, but I never thought of the fuels consumed to get non-local foods here in the store in their little, plastic packages. It was not a mystery to me that high fructose corn syrup was in nearly everything, but until I started really perusing the ingredients lists, did I realize how very pervasive it is, and how many ingredients I cannot pronounce, identify, or find reason to have in my body.

In the week after beginning your book, we planned our next year's veggie garden (this year didn't yield much), bought a modest freezer, stocked up at the local farmer's market (asking questions about where and how food was raised), purchased cage free and un-injected meats from local farms at a local butcher, and cooked and froze things to fill our freezer for winter.

I looked up from your chapter on zucchini the other day to see a cookbook from a food-conscious friend on my bookshelf. I'd not really seen this book for the treasure that it is. I pulled it off of the shelf and opened it up. Inside, it was separated into sections for early season, mid season, late season, extended season, and planning season (winter). Seasonal, local vegetables filled the pages, with storage, handling, and recipes following each. Typically cookbooks intimidate me with all of their ingredients that I don't have or wouldn't buy. This cookbook, Farmer John's Cookbook, The Real Dirt on Vegetables, Seasonal Recipes and Stories from a Community Supported Farm, included recipes that made sense to me for the first time. And of course they did! They included only the ingredients I'd grown up knowing and having in each season without even realizing it. The book supported your book 100%, including many of the same resources, such as Slow Food.

I haven't, and probably won't, follow exactly in my parents' path. I do not see a rototiller in my near future, nor the sizable garden they labored over each summer. We will not raise our own chickens, (at least until we retire) and we will choose to buy some pastas, cereals, beer, and the occasional artichoke or avocado at the supermarket. But we will commit to the farmer's market, to questioning our local stores, restaurants, and schools about their food, and we will be awake when we shop!

I am part-time step-mother to three girls brought up on boxed food, refined sugar, and the "have it NOW" mentality. So far, I have coaxed them to eat the occasional green bean, pea, cucumber, lettuce, and even a bag of frozen edamame. They observe with deep suspicion and great interest as I rinse, chop, and saute vegetables they've never seen or heard of. They peer warily into my pans on the stovetop and I encourage them to sniff the cilantro, basil, unprocessed, hard cheese, and crushed garlic. These separate ingredients are mysterious to them, and not at all tempting... yet. They survive largely on macaroni & cheese, hot dogs, pop tarts, candy, and Lunchables in their own home. But here, I can only hope that each time they enter my kitchen and sniff the garlic, tomato, and cheese scented air, or each year that they see me triumphantly pull a cucumber from its vine in our garden and emerge disheveled, happy, and stained from beneath the raspberry bushes, I hope that they will feel the urge to just try it... again and again.

Though you may well be the 74th most dangerous person in America, you have enriched my life and put wind back into the sails of my childhood, reaffirming the debt of gratitude I owe my parents for feeding me well.

Thank you, from the bottom of my garden, where the fireflies and fairies gather in abundance, the cabbages swell greenly, and the raspberries fall directly into my open mouth.


  1. I have a THIRD book I need to save up for!! This sounds so enlightening...I have maybe a 40% portion of your childhood experience in me. We always had a garden, my dad always made us try stuff that seemed icky at the time. I now love and appreciate foods I wouldn't stand the smell of earlier. I know this is thanks to him. This love by exposure and time is what I hope for for our kids...because it is certainly not getting that way from all the taste-testing they are doing!! :)

  2. Thanks for your interest and dedication to healthy eating because, ultimately, I am the befefactor! :-)
    Love you AND your cooking (and your parents are pretty cool which is an added bonus - much like an added herb to a wonderful dish!) :-}