Books: November-December 2007

Writer: 
November 30, 2007

 

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
By Barbara Kingsolver, with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver '09.
HarperCollins, 2007.
384 pages.
$26.95.

Little did the standing-room-only crowd in Duke Chapel know that Barbara Kingsolver, the keynote speaker for the 2006 North Carolina Festival of the Book, was anxious about a potential avian crisis back home. As she charmed her audience with colorful anecdotes about her writing career and its marriage of art and politics, Kingsolver kept to herself thoughts of what was transpiring at the family farm in Virginia, where a first-time mother turkey was tending to a nest full of eggs that may or may not have been viable.

"I delivered my lecture from the pulpit of a magnificent gothic chapel and did not once mention poultry," she recalls in her new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. "The book signing afterward went on until midnight, but I was still up before dawn the next day, pacing in our hotel room. As soon as the hour seemed forgivable I roused [husband] Steven [Hopp] and insisted on an early return to the farm."

You'll have to read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle to find out the fate of those eggs, a tale that concludes Kingsolver's book about her family's year of "deliberately eating food produced from the same place where we worked, went to school, loved our neighbors, drank the water, and breathed the air." To give away the ending would be antithetical to Kingsolver's purposeful focus on the rhythms of life—the changing of seasons, birth and death, abundance and scarcity. Kingsolver's message is that Americans' addiction to immediate gratification, be it fast food or happy endings, comes at a high cost, and that savoring a long-awaited reward makes it all the sweeter.

Kingsolver is joined by her family: Hopp, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and her daughters Camille, now a junior at Duke, and Lily, who was nine during the year the book chronicles. Hopp contributes informative essays about the far-reaching and environmentally damaging impact of the way most food is grown and distributed in this country, and Camille brings a wise-beyond-her-years teenage perspective on living in harmony with the land. She also shares recipes that are simple and sublime—butternut-bean soup, basil-blackberry crumble, and a variety of seasonal potato salads, for example.

The book opens with the family leaving Arizona, where they lived during the academic year, and heading east toward the twenty-acre farm in Virginia that has been in Hopp's family for generations. Kingsolver grew up in rural Kentucky, surrounded by farmland, so the pilgrimage is a homecoming of sorts. She admits that the family loads up on junk food on its way out of town; such humbling confessions about the easy reliance on dietary conveniences should resonate with every reader.

After a year of getting the farm and its environs fixed up, the family launches its year of eating locally, which kicks off in early spring when the tips of asparagus begin to poke through the soil. Each month has its own task list, from time-sensitive imperatives such as planting and harvesting to longer-term projects such as planning meals months in advance. The glorious bounty of summer's agricultural yield becomes the evening's gazpacho and zucchini chocolate-chip cookies and, once frozen or canned, next winter's tomato sauce and veggie stir-fry. Kingsolver doesn't hide the fact that it's hard work to get everything done. But when the year comes to a close, she calculates that the family has eaten for an average of fifty cents per person per meal.

Like her other works, Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle contains wit and wonder about the world, from the curious sex life of turkeys to the seductive fragrance of wild mushrooms. But make no mistake. The writer who's made a career out of weaving together the personal and political uses this book, too, to hammer home the message that Americans' current culinary habits are unsustainable: Most food in your neighborhood grocery store has been pumped full of pesticides and preservatives, shipped thousands of miles using waning reserves of fossil fuels, and has exacted inestimable harm on the environment.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is part celebration and part call-to-arms. It offers simple steps for improving one's dietary karma, while emphasizing how out-of-kilter (and political) the basic act of eating has become. Few of us have the means to oversee a working farm to feed our families. But we can seek out farmers' markets, choose locally grown foods over those shipped from another state or country, and buy beef from cattle raised on grass, rather than corn-and-hormone slop. After reading this book, you'll realize there's no easy answer to the question of what's for dinner.

 

Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home

Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home
By Pamela Stone '73.
University of California Press, 2007.
314 pages.
$24.95.

This past summer's rousing news that women in their twenties now out earn men in New York and other big cities should come with a caveat: While climbing the professional ladder, beware not only the glass ceiling, but also the "motherhood bar." Such is the deflating message of Pamela Stone's Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home.

A Hunter College sociologist, Stone conducted interviews with fifty-four highly accomplished professional women who left the workforce at some point after becoming mothers. Married to men whose earning power made it possible for them to consider quitting their jobs, all but a handful fought to hang on, but caved under intractable workplace pressures. Though a small number of women in Stone's sample had planned to stay home all along, and a few were blindsided by baby love, for the most part we hear from women who were committed to their careers and who made a valiant effort to integrate their professional lives with motherhood.

The "opt-out revolution," Stone says, is neither a revolution (the number of white, college-educated married mothers who stay home has been hovering around the 25 percent mark for the last twenty years) nor an opting-out, per se, with its heavy connotation of "privileged lifestyle choice." The media have spun the story as the dawn of a "new traditionalism," whereby educated, high-achieving women are rejecting the workplace and embracing domesticity. But the focus on choice and values glosses over the real-life obstacles that women encounter when they try to have it all. An important qualification: The women in Stone's book weren't working nine-to-five jobs. Many were employed in "white-collar sweatshops" that dictated long, often unpredictable hours and heavy travel schedules. Since these women's husbands were similarly shackled to their careers, no one was around to patrol the home front. Women tried to negotiate part-time, job-sharing, or other flextime arrangements with their employers. Those who weren't denied outright found that anything less than complete commitment was simply incompatible with success and advancement in their fields. Part-timers, who ended up clocking close to forty-hour weeks, were sidelined or "mommy tracked," given less interesting work, and passed over for promotions.

The tyrannical workplace culture in this country is a scandal, but it isn't much of a secret. More eye-opening was what emerged from Stone's study about the dynamic at home. Women praised their husbands for being wonderful fathers and supportive spouses. Upon surveying the situation, however, Stone concludes that " 'It's your choice' was code for 'it's your problem.' " The reality was that most husbands were unwilling or unable to make the necessary adjustments to make it possible for their wives to continue with their careers. And here's the surprising part: They weren't expected to.

One husband could never be relied on to relieve the nanny at the appointed time but was given a pass because of his "complex personality"; another was an attentive father but not hands on: "He'll visit [the kids] while they're in the bath, but he doesn't actually wash their hair or put them in the towel." No serious consideration was given to the possibility that men might be the ones to scale back their work obligations or shoulder more of the domestic load—even in situations where women had equal or near-equal earning prospects.

Contributing to women's sense that they had to be incredible Elastigirls is the current trend toward intensive parenting. In their upper-middle-class milieu, you were a negligent parent if your kid wasn't involved in myriad enriching and character-building pursuits. Somewhat unexpectedly, women found that the intellectual, emotional, and scheduling needs of school-age children proved more pressing and less easy to hand over to a hired caretaker than those of babies—and were thus less compatible with the all-consuming nature of their jobs.

The second half of Stone's book surveys life on the other side—how these hard-driving career women adjusted to being stay-at-home moms. Although the consensus was that quitting their jobs was the right decision for their families, their at-home experiences make for decidedly gloomy reading. The joys of parenting aside, many women struggled with isolation and the lack of intellectual stimulation, and felt acutely the loss of their professional identities. Women threw themselves into mothering and high-level volunteering, yet most said they hoped to return to paid work. But their former careers seemed closed off to them by virtue of the work culture that drove them out in the first place. And they were full of doubts about what else they could do or whether they'd be able to reenter the workforce at all—a valid anxiety, according to re-entry statistics.

Stone provides sensible suggestions for creating a more hospitable workplace and showcases companies like Deloitte & Touche, which has had success with its progressive policies aimed at retaining women. But it's going to be a long road to institutional change. In the meantime, no one would advocate discouraging ambitious young women from pursuing high-powered professional careers, but perhaps we should do more to cultivate realistic expectations about the lives they're trying to build. If they're going to be levers for change, shouldn't they be marching into the workplace—and into their marriages —conscious of the barriers they're likely to encounter and the tradeoffs they'll have to make? Isn't that preferable to nurturing blindly optimistic dreams of having it all?