Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

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We have in this book by Barbara Kingsolver, along with the usual heavy dollops of a vaguely hard-left agenda (vaguely referring mostly to the rigor with which most things are considered) a wonderful story of people learning to live off of the land.

The book makes a nice accompaniment to The Omnivore's Dilemma, which I had wanted to read first, but alas, the library in its wisdom saw fit to deliver this one to me. Both focus at least momentarily on the predominant monocultures of the current farming world--corn and soy beans from which we derive all manner of starches and fats and additives. Some experts have suggested that the overreliance on HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) is one of the underlying reasons for the increase in American obesity and childhood obesity.

I know that parts of this book are going to be (pardon the pun) hard to swallow. I've read The Poisonwood Bible, which I found palatable through the first two thirds and wretchedly political for the last third. Within the first chapter, we have already offered to us two tiresome scientific "certainties." The first is that global warming has reinforced a drought in the American Southwest. While not denying the possibility, I await more structured scientific evidence rather than nightly news-reporter sensationalism. The second of these is the tirade against "genetically modified foods." Well, Barbara, and the host of you reading who gaze in horror upon the possibility, in point of fact nearly every food crop we raise has been genetically modified. Yeppers. That's what the domestication of plants about 10,000 years ago did. Human beings deliberately set about changing the genetic makeup of plants. The first chapter of The Omnivore's Dilemma, which is available on-line, makes this point with particular regard to maize. Once we stop gasping in horror, we can continue. There may be something wrong with the deliberate modification of plants through genetic splicing, etc. There is evidence that the pollen of some modified crops is damaging to Monarch Butterflies. And personally, I have the feeling that building plants with "systemic insecticides" isn't likely to improve their edibility for humans. You can tell me that they're safe all you like, but any plant that's built to poison what eats it--well, let's just say it doesn't seem like a wholesome idea. But in a book of agenda, and in a book in which the agenda "against" is, in fact, a subsidiary part of the whole, you can't really expect the author to take time out to rationally resolve all of the issues before continuing to tell you about how she and her family built up a farm and started to try to live off the land in the rhythm of the land.

But what you do get is by turns beautiful and marvelous:

from Animal, Miracle, Vegetable
Barbara Kingsolver

An asparagus spear only looks like its picture for one day of its life, usually in April, give or take a month as you travel from the Mason-Dixon line. The shoot emerges from the ground like a snub-nosed green snake headed for sunshine, rising so rapidly you can just about see it grow. If it doesn't get its neck cut off at ground level as it emerges, it will keep growing. Each triangular scale on the spear rolls out into a branch, until the snake becomes a four-foot tree with delicate needles. . . .

Older, healthier asparagus plants produce chunkier, more multiple shoots. Underneath lies an octopus-shaped affair of chubby roots (called a crown) that stores enough starch through the winter to arrange the phallic send-up when winter starts to break. The effect is rather sexy, if you're the type to see things that way. Europeans of the Renaissance swore by it as an aphrodisiac, and the church banned it from nunneries.

The earliest recipes for this vegetable are about 2,500 years old., written in ancient Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphics, suggesting the Mediterranean as the plant's homeland The Caesars took their asparagus passion to extravagant lengths, chartering ships to scour the empire for the best spears and bring them to Rome. Asparagus even inspired the earliest frozen food industry, in the first century, when Roman charioteers would hustle fresh asparagus from the Tiber River Valley up into the Alps and keep it buried there in snow for six months, all so it could be served with a big ta-daa at the autumnal Feast of Epicurus. So we are not the first to go to ridiculous lengths to eat foods out of season.

(So, I guess Rome had its own equivalent of the TVA--Tiber Valley Asparagus.)

These kinds of observations and insights, along with the gustatory inclusions, are likely to provide enough fodder to make the agenda, if not palatable, at least endurable. I'll let you know.

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Admit it. She had you at "octopus-shaped."



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on October 1, 2007 7:31 AM.

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