A Strawberry by Any Other Name…

At the grocery store, I bought some strawberries to be used as ingredients for a dessert. Ordinarily this would not be noteworthy except that I’d just read the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver.

You may recognize Barbara Kingsolver as the author of novels The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacuna and Prodigal Summer, among others. She lives on a sizable plot of land in Southwestern Virginia. This latest book was the result of her family’s attempt to live only on local foods for one year, most of which they would farm themselves and the rest would be purchased from sources within 100 miles from their homestead.

It is safe to say that, as a person who can’t keep an indoor plant alive from one season to the next, I would starve. But Kingsolver and her husband, Steven Hopp, have the greenest of green thumbs and keep their 40 acre farm humming with everything from zucchini to tomatoes to asparagus.

What Kingsolver points out in her characteristic graceful style, is that most of us have become quite disconnected from our food. Not the eating of it, as is evidenced by the general obesity problem, but from its source. Quick, what month are tomatoes in season? Many people have no idea because they are available in grocery stores year-round. If you want a tomato in February, no problem. (Here in the Northeastern U.S.,harvesting season is late July – early September.) It’s possible to have tomatoes in February because they are transported from far, far away.

"Take a minute to study this creation – an imaginary plant that bears over the course of one growing season a cornucopia of all the different vegetable products we can harvest. We’ll call it a vegetannual ..." (Based on the middle U.S. growing season)

I had a lightbulb moment last fall when, about to buy some apples at the grocery store, I noticed the label said they were grown in Washington state. It still seems incomprehensible that apples would be trucked more than 3,000 miles when the orchards of upstate New York are plentiful and delicious (probably more so, not having been transported). This week the grocery store had apples from New Zealand.

So, to the strawberries. I saw them all luscious and red and perfectly shaped in their little plastic container. I was rushing after work, breezed through the store, popped them in my cart and headed home. Only then did I realize that they were from California. Of course they were. Strawberries are just coming into season here. In fact, it was only a few days earlier at the farmer’s market when I overheard one of the growers say that she had only 4 pints of strawberries right now. It would be several weeks before there was a bountiful harvest.

Part of the problem, Kingsolver suggests, is that we spend more time analyzing what kind of vacuum cleaner to buy (guilty as charged!) than the food that keeps us alive and healthy.  I suddenly felt terrible about the strawberries and now I have a dilemma. I want to eat seasonally and locally, but does that mean I can never again eat a banana? Does that mean I have to start canning every conceivable fruit and vegetable to sustain me through the winter? Do I have to (Horror!) give up coffee, which grows thousands of miles away?  I will have to look for a balance. I don’t think I can take it as far as the Kingsolver clan. I’m not inclined, for example, to make my own cheese (though she did make it sound easy). Nor do I think I’ll spend an inordinate amount of time to make my own pumpkin puree (this sounded much more difficult than the cheese).

I don’t want to make this book sound preachy. It wasn’t. Of course not everyone can have the land or know-how to grow almost all of their own food, and some of us live in non-growing climes such as the desert Southwestern U.S. But, the book points out that the current mindset has led to fewer than 1/3 of U.S. farms remaining family owned and every week on average a dozen more close or succumb to buy-outs from agribusiness. The way to help them is by becoming more deliberate in our purchases.

Your turn: Do you have a backyard garden? Have you made an effort to get more of your food from farmers’ markets or CSA? Have you stopped buying foods that are “out of season” in your area? 

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25 comments

  1. Great points! I’ve never been able to understand why not only states but whole countries import and export the same stuff. And that the more healthy something is the more expensive it is likely to be.

    We have a TV show down here called Whats in our Food and each week they do a show about a particular food item (e.g., pasta, yogurt, pork). It’s both enlightening and scary and it helps you make better ethical, economic and health choices. An important point that the show makes is that all the information they impart is available to the public–but the average person can’t begin to find it all and put it together.

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    1. Yes, that is so true! In the book Kingsolver’s husband cites a statistic that I thought was eye-opening. The US exports about 1 million pounds of potatoes each year. And imports about 1 million pounds of potatoes each year, mostly from South America. What?

      That show sounds really interesting. I would love to find something like that here.

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  2. Good points. Tom lives here in New Zealand too and I am sure he will have noticed that the price of tomatoes in our stores has reached ridiculous heights am I told because we are not importing tomatoes from Queensland – the floods there. But we are exporting them to Australia. Makes sense?

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  3. This is something I’ve been thinking about for some time now. We live in an apartment, with no garden and no hopes of having a garden, but one day I would love to grow some of my own vegetables as well as have some chickens. In my head it all seems so easy and organic but I’m sure it’s an awful lot of work. Still, I’m hopeful.

    When we started buying organic fruits and vegetables a while back, I started asking myself “But where are the tomatoes? Why are there only apples?” etc. In our local organic store, you can only buy what’s in season (although some of the products still come from Spain). It was a good lesson.

    It’s really hard to only buy locally produced foods. I find that really sad.

    I hope you did enjoy the strawberries. I don’t think I could not eat bananas either! While I do make efforts to live more ecologically friendly, I don’t forbid myself from everything (part of the reason why I’m vegetarian, not vegan).

    Thanks for a really interesting read!

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    1. I live in an apartment building, too, so I don’t have the opportunity to keep a garden. If I have a yard someday, I’d like to plant a few seeds and watch them grow. Though, I have to admit my track record so far is less than stellar.

      I try to shop at the farmer’s market as often as possible. At least I know that I’m supporting local growers. The money goes directly into their hands. I’ve learned that if I can’t find a certain food there, that means it’s not in season. But I hadn’t considered how many foods I ate that are shipped here.

      Are CSAs common in France?

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      1. Several friends of mine who live in small French cities get their food through a CSA set-up. A few people I know that live just outside of Paris in the suburbs who have access to a similar set-up have to drive out to a farm to pick up the food. I haven’t seen anything like that in the city – except for the organic food stores that offer to deliver that week’s fresh produce. It’s rather an expensive option.

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      2. There are several CSA options in Brooklyn, but they are also a bit expensive. I was considering trying it this summer, but it’s way more food than one person can eat. I was afraid that much of the food would go to waste, which certainly defeats the point. Maybe next year I’ll try to plan ahead and find a “CSA buddy.”

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  4. I enjoyed this book too– it’s a good reminder to try to get back to our roots if we can. However, I did find it just a tiny bit preachy, and I found myself growing tired of it by the end. Did you experience that at all? Perhaps it’s because I’ve read so many food/culture books.

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    1. Actually I listened to the audio book while on my drive to Tennessee. Maybe that made the “moral of the story” and the statistics more palatable. Barbara Kingsolver has such a soothing voice. Sometimes I wanted her to keep more to her personal experiences rather than the national perspective. But I thought it was a great read (or listen!), too.

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  5. Speaking of which… you’ve yet to tell us the brand of vacuum you purchased. Didn’t you purchase one not too long ago?

    First, I am amazed how fast you read, Jacqueline. I am still on In the Woods. I love it – but life (and Doctor Who) get in the way of my reading. Anyhoo…. the book you mention intrigues me.

    We grow tomatoes and peppers in our yard – and we have a neighbor that grows cucumbers, zucchini, squash, etc. She shares with us, and we happily accept the fresh veggies. Though I am guilty of buying produce from other US States, I do not buy produce from other countries.

    Have you seen Food, Inc? You’d like it, I think.
    GREAT post, by the way!

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    1. LOL! I did get a new vacuum. After much deliberation, I bought a (drumroll, please) a Hoover.

      I’m do glad you’re enjoying A Walk in the Woods! It’s such a great read.

      I love that you have a neighbor with whom you can trade veggies. The author did the same after a bumper crop of zucchini one year. Everyone in town got zucchini. She left them in the mailboxes and porches of everyone she knew.

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  6. Jackie, we had a garden in our old house (my husband is a passionate gardener) and we try to eat locally and in a way that leaves as little a carbon footprint as possible, so I have been intrigued by this book for a while. It is indeed a serious commitment to eat in such a way, and I won’t say we succeed all the time…I can only say I strive to do better each and every day, and as you/Barbara point out–the key is to think about where/how your food arrives on your plate–and work from there.
    (now, does this apply to Olive and Reggie food too?)

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    1. Clearly, I need to swing by your neck of the woods, Erika. Maybe your husband can give me a few pointers, so I can learn how to keep at least one plant alive.

      The morning after I finished this book, I reached for a box of cereal and realized that this would not make the cut. It’s a major lifestyle adjustment which takes practice, if that’s the right word. But I’m going to try!

      Reggie would like Olive to know that he eats only local, organic napkins he finds on the sidewalk.

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  7. I read “Prodigal Summer” a while ago and loved Barbara Kingsolver’s writing style and her beautiful descriptions of nature. This book is definitely going to have to go on my “to read” list as well.

    I too am guilty of not paying attention to where the food I eat comes from. The supermarket we usually buy at has started sourcing produce from local farmers – which I support – but there are things (like coffee and bananas!) which come from further afield which I also can’t live without. I think it is, as you say, a question of balance and of doing the best that we as consumers can.

    PS If you haven’t seen it Wyrdsmyth left a response to your comment.

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    1. Sometimes buying local foods takes more effort and dedication than buying non local foods. That’s really strange once you start thinking about it. But I think (hope) that if more people buy local foods the demand will increase.

      I just noticed Wyrdsmyth’s response and sent one back! 🙂

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  8. The Poisonwood Bible is one of my all-time favorite books. Was not aware that Kingsolver was doing this, but I’m not surprised. I try to buy things in season, but it’s not always easy, like you said. I could never give up coffee, but I can live without bananas. You’ve made some very good points.

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    1. The Poisonwood Bible sits on my bookshelf and I have lent it to many friends over the years. An amazing novel to say the least.

      You might think that living in a big city would automatically mean little access to local foods, but there are more options than I’d originally guessed. We have many farmer’s markets around the city and CSA is growing in popularity. The grocery service Fresh Direct uses many local farms. I noticed that even my grocery store switched to using lettuce/spinach from Long Island farms instead of California. Happy to see that.

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  9. I think it’s in the trying that we really learn. I love that book because, as you said, it’s not preachy. It’s got a great ‘do what you can’ tone to it. I think treats and exceptions to local and seasonal food are fine — as long as you prioritize local/seasonal whenever possible.

    I, like Kingsolver, allow myself a coffee clause, and I think she makes a great point in the book about making good fair trade choices when we do buy outside our local foodshed. So whenever I buy something non-local, I make sure it’s got something else going for it. It’s fair trade, support small farmers, organic, or raised in some other sustainable way, etc.

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  10. That’s a great point. Half the battle is just being aware. Even modest changes can make a big difference when added over thousands of people in a community.
    I’ve been reaching for the fair trade coffee myself – a good option when you *must* have it. 🙂
    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

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