Bread Work

Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Poisonwood Bible talks about her captivation with the life cycle of vegetables, and explains the odd nature of our North American diet.


Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver, best-selling author of The Poisonwood Bible, always begins writing a book by asking herself an important question, then writes her way to an answer. Her new book, however, required her to both write and eat her way there. “Could my family and I feed ourselves on only local organic food,” Kingsolver asked, “and could we produce a good chunk of that food ourselves on our Appalachian farm?” Peppered with recipes, surprising facts, and love-struck turkey hens, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is the story of their yearlong experiment. 

What was the most difficult thing about eating locally for a year?

Barbara Kingsolver: Everyone asks that, and I think the answer people expect is that it was really hard to give up some particular food, but it really wasn’t. Our undertaking was to focus on what was new, what was good, what was fresh in every season, and every month there was something to celebrate. By concentrating on that, we really forgot about what we were missing. It didn’t cross my mind when I was hunting morels that Iwas giving up bananas. I mean, who needs them?

Near the beginning of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle you talk about the miracle of asparagus. Can you tell me about the wonders of another vegetable?

Peanuts are a miracle. Most people understand that peanuts are seeds, and most people understand that peanuts grow under the ground, but not many people stop to ask themselves how a seed gets under the ground. The answer is that the plant plants the seed there. The plant has a flower above the ground that looks like a little orange pea blossom; it’s in the pea family. The flower is pollinated by an insect, and then the stem of the flower goes crazy. It turns downward and grows really fast, driving the fruiting body of the flower into the ground, where the seed matures. So the peanut is the overachiever of the vegetable world: it plants its own seeds. But pick any vegetable and I could wax lyrical about it. I never get tired of these fascinating processes. That’s the most interesting thing about food—that it’s a process, not a product. Everything in the grocery store has had a fascinating life, but most people only see a moment in the cycle of each food.

In the book you introduce us to many people involved with producing local organic food. Who was particularly inspiring to you?

I appreciate engaging with my community, so I feel such gratitude to the farmers in my neighborhood—the people who, over the year, became our friends at the farmers’ market. A myth that drives a lot of American culture is that we are solo flyers. This myth, which suggests we can do everything by ourselves and that we should be proud of independence, gets us into trouble because nobody is really a solo flyer. We all depend on other people to make our clothes and grow our food. It’s a wonderful spiritual exercise to re-engage with some of that invisible community by going down to the farmers’ market and saying, “Thank you for the grains, thank you for the strawberries.” It’s a way of remembering we belong to a chorus of humanity.

What was another satisfying aspect of this project?

The work involved. I loved walking out to the garden with a hoe and getting dirty. We live in a culture that doesn’t respect manual labor. We’ve been told that the purpose of education is to free ourselves from it, and a corollary to that notion is the belief that if we are busy or important in any way, it’s fine to pay other people to do our simple labors. At the very least we expect others to farm for us. It’s a pervasive notion in this country that hard work, and especially anything having to do with rural places and dirt, is beneath the importance of most people. I strongly disagree with that, and for years I have struggled to explain to people why I consider growing some of my food as important as the work that I do with my intellect.

How do you explain it? It’s a pretty radical concept for North America.

Recently I read the principles that Gandhi followed for right living and I discovered the word sharirshrama, which means “bread work,” and my heart just settled into place, because that is exactly how to explain it. No matter how important Gandhi became in the world, he never considered himself too important, too old, or too pressed by duty to neglect his work of spinning thread for an hour or more every day. Spinning thread was his bread work, and my bread work is the work of making my food. It’s why I feel both eager and devout when I hoe the ground or pull weeds, and I don’t ever want to think of myself as too important to do those things. Bread work is what makes us both human and holy.

In your opinion, why don’t more people buy local food?

A hundred years ago, everybody did. So it’s more a question of why we lost that. I think if humanity is lucky enough to look back on this era, we’ll see the second half of the twentieth century as a bizarre aberration, where suddenly we burnt an enormous amount of fossil fuel to ship perishable vegetables from one end of the globe to the other in an extremely careless way. My grandkids will look back and say, “They burnt fossil fuels to bring watermelons from Chile to the United States? What were they thinking?” This odd idea that we’re entitled to eat any fruit or vegetable in any season is going to end, though, because cheap fuel is a limited-time-only proposition.

And what about organic food, or at the very least, fresh food? Why don’t more people buy stuff that’s good for them?

Our tax dollars subsidize junk food. Vegetable farmers are not subsidized, but every year billions of dollars go to subsidize commodity crops such as corn and soybeans, which are primarily used as ingredients of processed foods and as animal feed for feed-lot meat. Furthermore, besides not being subsidized, organic-vegetable farmers have to pay for the oversight that ensures their farms are organic, which is crazy. Do beef farmers have to pay for the USDA oversight that inspects their meat plants? No, we the taxpayers do. It’s funny; a lot of people think, “Oh well, naturally healthy food costs more than fast food,” but that’s not the case. It’s something we have created.

You’ve done a lot of human rights’ work. How does the local food movement impact farmers in developing countries?

Transporting food all over the world is very profitable for oil companies and for food processors and shippers. It is not very profitable for third world farmers. Most third world farmers work for large corporations—I don’t like to name names, but…

The usual suspects.

Yes, a handful of multinationals that often pay slave wages to farmers who have been essentially forced to work for them because they’ve lost their land. The better deal for farmers would always be to grow food for themselves and their communities. Most middle-class consumers understand that buying sneakers made by child labor does not help the children working in sweatshops. Well, we’re eating sweatshop foods. By strengthening our local food economies, we will ultimately allow people in other countries to do the same.