Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Asparagus

I finished Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle a few months ago and it could be one of the more influential and habit- changing books I've read in a long time. It follows her family's commitment to locivory for a year, meaning that for that year they only ate food grown in their local area (Virginia, USA), predominantly produced on their small farm. She makes powerful arguments for locivory as a key to environmentally sustainable living.

Kingsolver intersperses more factual content with anecdotes from her family’s year of eating local- the highs and lows of zucchini gluts and her family's adventures in home grown poultry (the Christmas turkey will never look quite the same...). A highlight for me was the inclusion of seasonal recipes at the end of each chapter, with more provided online. Vegetable gardening, recipes, a few facts, a lot of anecdotes- for me it was a fantastic balance in paperback form.

But coming back to the life changing part: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle reignited my passion for growing food at home, and has made me more aware of "food miles"- the distance food must be transported to reach your plate. I can't say I am a complete convert- living in Melbourne, I had to choose between no bananas, or bananas that have travelled from sunnier climes, but I have become more aware of out-of-season crops that are provided to fill the void in the local harvest (Californian cherries and grapes are good examples here) and I have resisted purchasing these out-of-towners. I've also become more vigilant about reading food labels (did you know all the canned Borlotti beans at Coles are from Italy?) and have started pestering my local greengrocer to reveal imported produce rather than me poking around their boxes to find things like a "Product of Thailand" label on the baby corn.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has also made me keener to store my surplus harvests (frozen or dried) so that we can enjoy them for more of the year. Little Bro has been a beneficiary of this: I finished Animal, Vegetable, Miracle just as my (delicious!) bean harvest was coming to an end, so as he was not yet eating solids, the last beans of the season were pureed and frozen so that his first taste of green beans could be home grown.

The other impact Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has had on our garden has been through bringing the nuances of home-grown asparagus to my attention. Now, I don't think I'm a complete food dummy: I know that zucchinis are technically fruit, rhubarb is a vegetable, potatoes are tubers whilst sweet potatoes are swollen roots, and that the red bit of a strawberry isn't a fruit (the little "seeds" (achenes) on it are the true fruit). But I hadn't ever thought much about the origins of asparagus, despite having seen the post-edible plant. Just in case anyone is as naive as I was, asparagus is a perennial vegetable, with the edible shoots emerging from underground crowns that can continue their production for up to twenty years.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle got me excited at the thought of growing asparagus so the next thing I knew, my name was down at the local nursery to be called when this year's asparagus crowns arrived. And on Friday, I got the call! I quickly finalized a few plant rearrangements to make room, dug a coffin-sized trench, and today my five crowns went in. I'm excited!

Don't expect me to be passing on my excess asparagus just yet... asparagus growing is an exercise in restraint. It needs to be allowed two years' growth before the crowns will have stocked up enough starch that they can spare me a few spears. This means that when Little Bro is the current age of Big Bro, we'll be ready for our first harvest. I don't know whether that seems very soon, or far away.

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