I just started reading Barbara Kingsolver’s new non-fiction book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and, so far, I’m not too crazy about it.
Ms. Kingsolver and her family moved from their long-time residence in Tucson, Arizona to southern Appalachia to live off the land. Her husband had property there that he had owned for years and where the family had spent most of their summers to avoid the brutal Tuscon heat. The plan was to move there, live in the little cabin on the property, and renovatekingsolver-large.jpg the house to make it suitable for full-time living for a family of four. Once ensconced in the house, the idea was to eat only foods that the family grew in their own garden or those foods that could be traded for or bought from other local farmers.
I’m a little way into the book, and I’m having a tough go of it. Not because it isn’t well written because it is. Ms. Kingsolver brings a novelist’s ear for detail and her prose is easy on the eye. My problem is that the whole concept is just a little too smarmy and goody two shoed for my taste. In my opinion Ms. Kingsolver et al set out on this adventure for all the wrong reasons, the primary one being that the group was interested not in just eating local but in reducing the fuel consumption required to transport food to them in Arizona. The good health to be had by eating local was a consideration, of course, but seemed to be a smaller one than the desire to reduce consumption of oil. It probably never figured into her calculus the amount of oil it required to move the entire family across the continent to undertake this experiment in saving oil.
Ms. Kingsolver is one of those people who appear to believe that everything is good and healthful as long as it comes from the land. Aside from the fact that there are many poisonous plants, all of which come from the land, there are also wheat, corn, rice, potatoes and a host of other carb-laden plants the eating of large amounts of which can make you overweight and insulin resistant. Even organic ones. Needless to say, if I were to forced to eat Pop-Tarts, I would rather have Pop -Tarts made with pesticide-free ingredients, but the damage from the huge amounts of carb in the Pop-Tarts wouldn’t be lessened by the fact that they were ‘organic.’ This is a lesson lost on Ms. Kingsolver who bumbles on waxing poetic about the wonderful pies, cakes and other crap she makes from ‘wholesome,’ locally-produced foods. And early on in the book she takes pot shots at dieting in general and low-carb diets specifically. After writing a paragraph or two savaging dieting in general and fad-dieting in particular, she writes the following:

People hold to their food customs because of the positives: comfort, nourishment, heavenly aromas. A sturdy food tradition even calls to outsiders; plenty of red-blooded Americans will happily eat Italian, French, Thai, Chinese, you name it. But try the reverse: hand the Atkins menu to a French person, and run for your life.

I would counter that the Frenchman would see more similarities in a low-carb diet, full of meat, fat, green leafy and colorful fruits and vegetables than he would in the standard American diet filled with all the high-carb crap most people here eat. He might miss a slice of bread or two here and there, but that would be the main difference.
Ms. Kingsolver’s implication – at least in so far as I’ve read – is that if one eats only locally produced foods tended with loving care, one will be healthy. I can tell you from first hand experience that nice though it might be to believe, it just ain’t so. MD and I have taken care of many patients who did in Arkansas just what Ms. Kingsolver and family did in Virginia: they grew all their own food (both plant and animal) in an effort to get healthy. There is so much hype about the crappiness of the standard American diet crawling with processed foods of every stripe that it is easy to fall victim to the if-it’s-organic-it-must-be-healthful con. Homemade ice cream with organic cream and organic sugar and home grown fruit seems so much more wholesome than store-bought, but your pancreas can’t tell the difference. If you eat it (in large quantities) they will come. ‘They’ being enlarged fat cells and hyperinsulinemia. And ‘they’ come whether it’s ‘organic’ or not. (Again, were I planning on going face down in the ice cream, I would prefer it made with ‘wholesome’ ingredients, but I wouldn’t fool myself that my pancreas wasn’t going to pay the price.) Ms. Kingsolver has fooled herself and her family.
Another thing not mentioned in the book (at least to the point to which I’ve read) is how Ms. Kingsolver and her family could afford such a venture. The implication of her story is that if we all picked up and moved to Appalachia (or its equivalent) and lived off the land, what a wonderful world this would be. But most of us can’t because we couldn’t afford to.
Let me pull back the curtain and tell you how this all works if you’re an established author, as Ms. Kingsolver certainly is. You go to your publisher with an idea put together in the form of a book proposal. In this case her idea was that she move with her family to the sticks and live off the land for a year and write a book about it. The publisher says, ‘Hey, that’s a great idea. How about we give you an advance on the book?’ I’m sure Ms. Kingsolver was well paid to spend her year on the farm.
Don’t misunderstand me. There’s nothing wrong with book advances. MD and I get them every time we write a book. Authors are paid in advance (against future royalties) because book publishers understand that writing a book is a time-consuming process and that most non-fiction authors have other jobs that provide them with an income. Most people can’t take time away from their regular job to write a book unless they can replace the lost income from some where else, thus the advance. Virtually all non-fiction books are written by authors who received advances. Next time you read about someone’s great adventure, understand that the adventure was probably underwritten by the publisher. The author came in with a book proposal about the great adventure, the publisher produced an advance, the great adventure was had and written about. The publisher hopes the book will sell enough copies to repay the advance and put a little money in the publisher’s pocket for taking the risk. And the risk is much, much less with such an established author as Mds. Kingsolver, and, so, I would assume, her advance would be commensurate.
Once I finish the book (if I indeed do) I’ll try to give a fuller review. These are simply my thoughts so far.
I have however had a moment of insight provided by this book. When it first came and I ripped it from its Amazon.com packaging and started to flip through it, the book fell open to page 167, on which was this small section that I read without the context of any of the rest of the book.

It was dark by the time we headed back through the cornfield to Elsie and David’s house. At low speeds our car runs solely on battery, so it’s spookily quiet, as if the engine had died but you’re still rolling along. We could hear night birds and the tires softly grinding dust as we turned into the field.”Stop here,” David said suddenly. “Pull ahead just a little, so the headlights are pointing up into the field. Now turn off the headlights.”
The field sparkled with what must have been millions of fireflies – the most I’ve ever seen in one place. They’d probably brought their families from adjacent states into this atrazine-free zone. They blinked densely, randomly, an eyeful of frenzied stars.
“Just try something,” David said. “Flash the headlights one time, on and off.”
What happened next was surreal. After our bright flash the field went black, and then, like a wave, a million lights flashed back at us in unison.
Whoa. To convince ourselves this was not a social hallucination, we did it again. And again. Hooting every time, so pleased were we with our antics. It’s a grand state of affairs, to fool a million brainless creatures all at the same time. After five or six rounds the fireflies seemed to figure out that we were not their god, or they lost their faith, or at any rate went back to their own blinky business.
David chuckled. “Country-kid fireworks.”

I don’t really know why, but for some reason “fooling a million brainless creatures all at the same time” made me think of PETA.


  1. You’re back with a vengeance. Agree with almost everything without having read the book. Take quibble with this:

    It probably never figured into her calculus the amount of oil it required to move the entire family across the continent to undertake this experiment in saving oil.

    This is a Future Value thing. If I spend $1 right now to make $.5 a year, every year, for the next thirty years, my calculus is correct (assuming we don’t go through a bout of high inflation early).
    In the book’s calculus, let’s assume they have an oil footprint of 100 in Arizona, 30 in the middle of nowhere and it costs 100 extra units to move them from Arizona to the middle of nowhere. There are two ways they don’t come out ahead: 1- They quit before they break even and 2- The total price of oil drops. #2 isn’t going to happen. Not in the long term. So, they blew it if they were planning on leaving (this seems likely). Of course, proportion matters. But they break even in year 2 in my model. Maybe slower in reality, maybe faster (if they go to 0 consumption).
    The calculus isn’t necessarily flawed. But I’m guessing they aren’t gonna sustain their little experiment in the long run, so, you’re probably right.
    PS- It’s the hybrid car argument. They don’t make sense until gas reaches a certain price. I think the gas is north of that point now, so you don’t hear a lot about them not making sense anymore.

  2. Dr. Mike:
    Glad you’re back and blogging again.
    Sad to say the Kingsolver book seems (apparently unintentionally) emblematic of the utter ignorance and apathy that seems to prevail in the minds of so many people about what truly constitutes a proper healthy diet for an individual who actually wants to get or stay truly healthy. Even sadder that many of us genuinely think we are doing the right thing by following a high carb/low fat diet based on the “pyramid.” The fact that this ignorance is fostered not only by actions (or lack thereof) by our government but also by vested interests in the food industry is just mind-boggling.
    Well, thanks to you and a few others who have been talking and writing about this for years, and because of the Internet (and even some books for those who will bother to read them), the correct info is out there and available for all to study and absorb if they want to. It’s a shame that so many (and I must include myself in this, until recently) have been willing to just accept the conventional “wisdom” about diet/nutrition without question and without becoming proactive to dig for the truth. Let’s hope this will change sooner rather than later. It certainly has for me, and I thank you again for that.
    PS – Reminds me of the old joke about the teenager who brings a really bad report card home to his father who after looking at it says: “What’s the problem son…is it ignorance or apathy?” And the son responds: “I don’t know and I don’t care.” 🙂
    Hi Wil–
    Thanks for the joke; I loved it.  I wish I had heard the punch line earlier, as in when I was in my medical training.  When I was going through my surgical training one of the attending physicians used to always grill us brutally during rounds.  If you didn’t have a ready answer to his esoteric questions, his common response was: “Tell me doc, are you stupid or do you just not care?”
    Would love to have laid the ‘I don’t know and I don’t care’ on him.

  3. Ms. Kingsolver also has Oprah to thank–her novel “The Poisonwood Bible” was one of Oprah’s Book Club picks a few years back, and we all know that when that happens you can just back the Brinks truck up to the bank and start loading.

  4. Well Dr. Mike, I think you may be a bit off the mark here. I know several people who built nice portfolios and then dropped out to become organic farmers. Here in The mid-Atlantic and up the north east, many of the small farms have gone this direction. While I understand your position about carbs, I’ve also seen what happens to these people when they take up the agrarian lifestyle. The tend to lose weight, and many if not most who had metabolic syndrome are “cured” despite their carb intake. Hard physical work, fresh air and sunshine seem to negate a high carb intake. Cakes, pies, cookies, and ice cream are rare treats. Coarse bread, Raw milk and butter, vegetables, beans, and eggs are their main stay. The Nouveau Organics, like the Amish who live around here may not be cover models, but the fat ones are few and far between as well.
    Hi Kevin–
    I agree with you to an extent here.  One can compensate for an increased carb intake if one indulges in hard physical work.  That’s one of the reasons the rural Chinese are thin and have low rates of heart disease despite a diet fairly high in carbohydrate: they work like crazy.  The urban Chinese are a different story, however.  They eat a high-carb diet, but don’t do the hard work, and they have rates of heart disease greater than we do in the US.
    I have to argument with the idea that better quality food, hard physical work, reduction of stress (the people you mention built their portfolios BEFORE making the switch) and a lot of sunshine will make one healthier and thinner.  But I have the same argument that I do with the Ornish diet.  He makes health claims for his diet when the diet is only a part of his overall regimen, the rest of which is pretty good.  Same here.  If the people you mention did the hard work, got the sunshine, kept their stress low and ate a low-carb diet, I suspect they would be even healthier.

  5. There were only two brainless creatures out in that field. Thanks, that’s one more book I won’t have to read.
    Hi Grandma Ann–
    Don’t totally diss it until I give the full review.  It may turn out to be great.


  6. Ditto to the previous writer regarding the two brainless creatures, -note: atrazine is an herbicide, meaning it doesn’t affect fireflies.

  7. Did you ever see the PBS series 1900 house? A bunch of British families who wanted to be on the show were interviewed and the one that won was vegetarian. They lived in a typical brick townhouse but had to live like people did in 1900 (except Dad, a police officer, who just had to wear a 1900-vintage uniform while he went about his usual workday and ate 2000 junkfood while on the job).
    The Mom was holier-than-thou about keeping vegetarian even though the hand-made macaroni for her ‘healthy’ mac and cheese cost more than meat did in 1900. She burned it and the sullen obnoxious younger son refused to eat dinner that night. And the mac and cheese was supposed to be a treat because he wouldn’t eat the other glop she made on days 1 and 2.
    Since the 1900 carpet sweeper didn’t really pick up anything (big surprise), they had to beat rugs, wash sheets in a huge vat of boiling water with lye soap etc., and were exhaused by 10 a.m. Eventually she caved in and bought some sausages from the butcher who dropped by every day, like they did in 1900.
    I think it was the plain lye soap instead of shampoo that caused her and her daughter to crack. The whining and crying in the private-room-with-camera was hard to take, so I never saw the final episodes.
    Hi Deirdra–
    I never saw the show, and from your description, I don’t think I’ll make a huge effort to track it down and watch it.

  8. I read it and thought…yeah, another book riding on the coat tails of Omnivore’s Dilemma. However, it’s well written and I think that the problems you point out are a result of her not being trained in the nuances of human health. That being said, I think eating local is an interesting and useful way to become more healthy, as long as you pay attention to the composition of your local diet. I found it a lot easier to wean myself off things like bread by eating local because there was no local bread and it forced me to branch out into new foods and figure out a way to eat them.

  9. “At low speeds our car runs solely on battery, so it’s spookily quiet, as if the engine had died but you’re still rolling along. We could hear night birds and the tires softly grinding dust as we turned into the field”
    I have almost totally eliminated using a car. I bicycle everywhere that is within 20 miles of my house. If they really cared about the environment, they would not be using an automobile at all.
    Hi Mike–
    I suppose that since I use my car daily that I must really hate the environment.

  10. HI–
    I saw a review of this book, and as usual, was amazed that old hippie back-to-the-lander stuff keeps getting re-treaded these days. Why read this book? Just dig up a year’s worth of issues from the Mother Earth News from the early or mid 1970’s and read the same stuff, with the added fillip of campy nostalgia for long calico skirts and playing the dulcimer and singing folk songs ’round the Vermont Castings Defiant woodstove of an evening.
    robyn cardy
    Hi robyn–
    I think the long calico skirts may be coming back in.

  11. I was really glad to read this review. It’s important to be skeptical and recognize that not everyone has been “enlightened” about the advantages of a low carb diet.
    I use the word enlightened, because as I’ve learned about it, it does feel like a revelation. The effects on my body from eliminating the unbelievable amount of carbs that I was eating have been wonderful. I used to joke that I have purely organic fat on my body – because as you said – I was eating wonderfully, decadent organic and local food. Delicious, but not so great for my health.
    Eating foods from local farmers is very important to me – I’m finding that eating low carb from local sources is much easier than trying to eat low fat from local sources (I think low-fat depends on too many pre-made items). It’s definitely doable – I have my CSA share all set for the summer and I’m all the more motivated to create some wonderful vegetable dishes. I’m also fortunate to have access to local meat sources.
    I think the effort to eat local is one worth making and it can be done without the holier-than-though attitude that is sometimes taken.
    I agree 100 percent.

  12. Sorry I’m late to the party on this one, but Deirdra’s mention of the 1900 series made me remember the American version of the show that aired about a year later (we rip off pretty much any decent British show, the list is endless). On the US version, the family in question was taken out onto the prairies in Wyoming to live in a sod house and work as the pioneers did. They weren’t vegetarians, but there was a scene where they had gotten “store-bought” supplies, one of which was a can of peaches. The family had really eaten no sugar (even fruits) and the kids were going on and on about how sweet they were. The mother pointed out in the follow-up that in their “real” life the kids had been known to put sugar on canned peaches because they weren’t sweet enough and since their time on the show had really cut back on their sugar consumption. I thought it was interesting.

  13. On the advice of a friend who has greatly enjoyed Kingsolver’s other works, the book was on the way to me when you posted. I took your preview to heart and expected to hate it. I didn’t.
    I agree with just about everything you said, yet still I find myself reading on with increasing interest (I’m about 2/3 or so through the book). There’s nothing *new* in here for me so far, but I like the way she describes her take on the the modern food thing and how it has gone so wrong. Yes, she could use some enlightening about some basic biochemistry and the problems with too many carbs, but she’s quite well informed about most of her subject matter. For some people who are just starting to put more thought into their food, this will be a better option than The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as it is less daunting and easier to digest.
    I just passed a point in the book where Kingsolver makes it very clear that she doesn’t think it realistic for everyone (or even a large minority) to “get back to the land” and produce their own food, but with a little information and more mindfulness of the land/farmer/food connection going into the consumer’s food decisions, many things would move in a better direction. Too many know nothing at all about food.
    So I hope you’ll read on to the end, and then give us your review. I think you probably stopped too soon when your feathers were ruffled by the flippant diet comments.
    Hi Anna–
    I’ve always planned to read it through to the end–I just took it off my must read now list when I hit the parts that annoyed me.  I will finish it.

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