Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

A long time ago (I'm afraid to admit just how long ago...) I borrowed a book from Ana, a dear friend of mine. It's titled Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

The book is about a family that for one year moved to the author's family farm in Virginia from Arizona and documented eating foods they either grew themselves or were available locally.

The author is incredibly gifted. I'll be honest, it took me awhile to get into the book because of her intelligence. There are a good number of words she uses that I've never heard and her dry sense of humor took me a bit to catch on (but once I did it was phenomenal!). Even Jason understood what I meant when I read him some selections from the book.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It helped reiterate some of the reasons Jason and I started our garden (read more about here). It's also incredibly eye opening to things that I had no idea about and made me realize how little we actually do know about the foods we eat. I wouldn't be able to tell you what vegetables are in season off the top of my head and I have no idea the number of miles our weekly bananas have travelled to make it to our kitchen.

As I slowly progressed in the book I earmarked some of the things that stood out to me most -

1. Asparagus. The way in which the author describes the taste of freshly picks asparagus made me want to go out and plant some right then. And then she mentioned that you have to wait three years for harvest. The plant needs two years to bulk up and if picked too soon will quickly stop shooting up. Also, they are one of the only perennial plants capable of producing for 20-30 years if properly managed. Even asparagus at a fresh farmers market will not taste nearly as good as one cooked immediately after being cut because once it's snipped it begins to metabolize. The longer the asparagus travels to its final destination the more flavor it loses. The author's description and passion make me consider finding a suitable location for asparagus in our moderately sized backyard just for the sheer possibility of someday tasting a true asparagus...

2. Cheese. Later in the book the author describes taking a cheese making class with some girlfriends of hers. I love the idea of making one of our Friday Night Pizza night (read here) pizzas with no only a homemade crust and fresh vegetables and tomato sauce from our garden, but also fresh mozzarella! She gives Ricki Carroll (the Cheese Queen's website, click here) where you can purchase your own mozzarella kit. I start doing some research on it and it's something I'd like to try. I haven't bit the bullet yet and ordered a kit, but Jason seemed keen on the idea as well so perhaps there will be a blog post in the future regarding our adventure in cheese making.

Along with discussing cheese, the author also goes into dairy and how our bodies have evolved over the years to accommodate milk and milk products. A gene mutation thousands of years ago developed in herding populations with domestic animals making them lactose tolerant. The gene is less frequent in Europe, where there were less herders, and essentially absent in the Far East, attributing to most Asians being completely lactose intolerant. I don't believe in evolution by any means - however, as an engineer I am partly a scientist and I do believe that our bodies have adapted for survival throughout the years. It's curious to me thinking about why dairy is pushed so frequently as a good source of calcium when our bodies were originally not even made to consume it and what alternatives for calcium we should be considering instead.

3. Vegetarianism. One would automatically assume that a book of this liking would yield itself to promoting vegetarianism. The author does not and that's one of the things that I respect about the piece of work. I find nothing wrong with eating meat and find it to be ridiculous when people argue their case for not eating it. Plants are living too - the difference is that they were not made to suffer through a feedlot. I don't like the idea of eating meat that has not lived a true life. That has been forced in captivity and force fed hormones in order to fatten and grow itself just for processing. The book focuses on the satisfaction and circle of dependency of raising an animal to slaughter and eating it. An animal with a purpose to sustain life that has lived its own life.

One of my coworkers owns land outside Houston and a year ago purchased two calves with the intent of raising them for slaughter and allowed his coworkers and friends to purchase shares in the beef. Jason and I decided that where our meat comes from is one area we would like to improve. We gladly agreed to purchasing 1/4 of a cow without knowing the costs associated until after receiving our shares. We were pleasantly surprised with the outcome of both cows (we received 1/8 from each). The first cow, slaughtered a little sooner due to increasingly-aggressive nature was only about $4/lb and his brother, who came a few months later was only a little over $5/lb. Prices we were happy to pay knowing these guys grazed freely and actually getting to see their home before eating them. Might sound cryptic to some, but I feel good knowing that he lived a good life.

4. Costs. I'll admit I was (still slightly am) a skeptic when it comes to the prices of organic being comparable and a better alternative than regular grocery stores. There are hidden costs that the author discussing which are imposed not directly on our pocket, but indirectly through taxes which help fund transportation of in-season vegetables all across the world where they are out of season. She also tallied the costs of her locavore experiment assigning the vegetables, chickens, and turkeys a monetary values of $4410 based on in-season organic prices in her comparison. That averaged to her, $1.72 per person per meal and even adding the little that was spent on groceries monthly (wheat flour for daily bread making and free trade coffee), it was still a significant savings overall. The key is picking produce that's in-season at your farmer's market and designing your meal plan around that. Also purchasing extras of in-season vegetables for canning, freezing, and drying helps save more.

5. Turkey sex. Yes, you read that correctly. Some of the most hilarious parts of her book are when she discusses the purchasing and mating of her young heirloom breed turkeys. She purchased Bourbon Red turkeys which are not the common Broad-breasted White turkey we are used to seeing at our Thanksgiving dinner. Her description of the Bourbon Red taste makes me want to investigate Slow Food USA's turkey project, which allows customers to sign-up in the springtime for an heirloom breed instead of the grocery store alternative. The Bourbon Red have traditionally more dark meat as they are smaller breasted, but make up it in the leg and thigh. The author describes the taste as the "richest, most complex-flavored turkey we had eaten" and swears the aroma was that of lobster as the turkey practically bastes itself in a layer of fat under the skin of the breast. I'm not a huge turkey fan and neither is Jason. But that description made us want to sign up for one and we are planning to look into the project!

You are probably wondering where the sex part comes in? Well, the author intends to keep some of her turkey to breed for the next generation and find herself in quite the conundrum when it finally comes to mating time and no resources are to be found on the subject of turkey mating. Apparently all turkey hatcheries artificially inseminate their breeding stock and use incubators as alternatives to motherhood to prepare the eggs. This left a big gaping hole in information for the author to attempt to raise her own since the concept of sex has been out of the turkey's existence for years. She finally stumbles upon a mid-twentieth century book on domestic animals that gives her information on what her turkeys are about to do as they get ready to mate. Her description of the turkeys during this portion are hysterical and Jason and I laughed as we read out loud her adventures. The book ends on a whimsical note with successful turkey babies and a new generation of mother turkeys being brought back.

I would highly recommend this book. It was a humorous and thought-provoking piece of work. Even though it took me awhile to get into it and finish it, I'm glad that I did and I found it to be incredibly informative.

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