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Karen Allendoerfer

Animal, vegetable, miracle

December 31, 2007 at 1:36 PM

I am reading the book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, Steven Hopp, and Camille Kingsolver, which I received as a Christmas gift. It is about how Kingsolver and her family (husband and two daughters: college-age and elementary-school age) moved to a farm in Appalachia and grew their own food for a year. I've only gotten to the part about asparagus and wild mushrooms so far, which is around April.

One of Kingsolver's theses is that here in North America the average consumer is disconnected from the food seasons because any food is available at any time; if not in season, food is trucked in from great distances, often at great cost to the environment. She also touches on a related topic, that because everything is always available, even from distant lands, there isn't a coherent sense here in North America of what goes together, of a cuisine with integrity and unity: an idea also explored by Michael Pollan in his book, Omnivore's Dilemma (of which I've only read reviews and summaries).

I'm a fan of Kingsolver's work, especially her fiction and essays such as The Bean Trees , High Tide in Tucson, and The Poisonwood Bible. As a biologist myself, I love the way she writes about biology and I'm generally in sync with her politics. I've learned many fascinating things in just the first few chapters of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: I learned what "heirloom" varieties are--not just a fancy-schmancy rich-sounding name, but plant varieties that breed true and from which you can save the seeds from year to year (unlike many hybrids, seeds bred such that their desirable characteristics are reliable for one generation only). She also introduced me to the concept of the "vegetannual," a way to think about the growing season such that the order in which individual plants grow and mature can be mapped onto the series of vegetables: first the leaves (spinach, lettuce), then more mature heads of leaves and flower heads (broccoli, cauliflower), then early fruits (cucumbers green beans), followed by more mature, colorfully ripened fruits: (tomatoes, eggplants), and large, hard-shelled fruits with developed seeds inside (watermelons, pumpkins) and finally root crops. This is probably not news to many of you (hi, Albert), but it was to me, a North American suburban dweller who has only this year been able to find a suitable spot on my property with enough sun to grow tomatoes (on my playroom roof--the backyard is too shady!)

I could do without some of her opining about flavor and taste, however, which in my opinion borders on proselytizing and overgeneralization, the bugaboo of many otherwise worthy efforts to persuade the general reader of a particular point of view. But my negative gut reaction to her sometimes overly enthusiastic dissing of out-of-season fruits and vegetables is what triggered me to think about music in a similar context. Kingsolver is also a musician, a keyboardist and vocalist who has performed and toured with a group called the "Rock Bottom Remainders," a band made up of famous authors also including Amy Tan, Matt Groening, and Stephen King. I've never heard them play (but have seen them dissed in print, with much harsher language than anything Kingsolver dishes out about bad tomatoes), and I wonder if Kingsolver has thought about music the same way she has thought about food. Farmers' Markets figure prominently in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and in 2007 two of my own most enjoyable performing experiences on the viola took place at a local Farmers' Market.

When I was choosing the music for the market, I struggled with many of the same types of "seasonal" issues. For example, when I performed on July 5th, I wanted a patriotic song, something that might evoke July 4th and small-town America. I ended up choosing and arranging for viola two selections from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook, "Hail Columbia," and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." I also chose several fiddle tunes, two with the name of Boston in the title, thinking that they may be, or at least have been at one time, part of the local musical "cuisine." These efforts of mine seem a little amateurish (reflecting my amateur status), and I have started musing, for the future, on how to take the process of music choice to another level. Aside from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," parts of which I've also performed, and the obvious Christmas music this time of year, I'm not aware of much in the way of seasonal music. Where is the music that goes with wild mushrooms and asparagus? With pumpkins and squash? Or, for that matter, with the February doldrums when nothing's growing, everyone's had about enough of snow and ice, but spring hasn't come?

I also think that we in modern classical music do suffer from something analogous to Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma." North American adolescents learn Russian and German and Polish concertos up to the highest technical levels, but my feeling from having grown up in the public school music system is that a lot of these pieces are taught out of context, technical issues first and foremost. And I've never shaken the slightly disoriented feeling I had seeing German folk songs renamed and presented as practice-building exercises in my daughter's Suzuki book 1.

But as my complaint about Kingsolver's relatively benign food dogmatism shows, it's a true dilemma without simple answers. There are real delights to being an omnivore, moral imperatives for embracing diversity. And as many opinions as there are listeners and tasters.

From Albert Justice
Posted on December 31, 2007 at 5:49 PM
Wow Karen--that was a little thesis of your own--and I loved it--every word.

I do heirloom, can extensively and greenhouse sustainable-like(roof gutters==water), in the heart of Appalachia.

I can related to your proselyte sensitivities, but I have the same aversion to out of season tomatoes, so.... But on the other hand, I can about 50 quarts of tomato juice to get me through. And I've changed my folks focus from staples to standards, by bringing canning to a new level: spaghetti sauce completely ready to warm from our fresh garlic, celeries, tomtoes and so on. Potato salad out of our canned new potatoes is world class.

The shadowed trusses of our ridges and hollows, are also world class as a study in diversity, relativity and sustainability. (There's a cold spot here, but a warm spot over there)

I've developed some unique theories of my own on sustainability and scale that sound pretty congruent with your read. I enjoyed your thoughts immensely as well.

al 'the sacred was born, in the mountains' justice

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on January 1, 2008 at 4:49 PM
Someday I hope to eat something that wasn't engineered by Monsanto. I might have to steal Indian corn from somebody's autumn decoration to do it.
From Anne Horvath
Posted on January 2, 2008 at 3:04 AM
This is a very interesting blog. Some suggestions:

For cold weather music, try listening to the Sibelius Concerto. It is famous for evoking the ice-swept landscapes, or something like that. Or Tchaikovsky's 1st, "Winter Dreams". Or Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Snow Maiden".

Or you could just stare at a picture of Glenn Gould, all dressed up in 3 overcoats, 4 sweaters, 5 scarves, 6 hats, and 7 pairs of gloves, bless his heart.

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