I first discovered author Barbara Kingsolver in the early 90’s when I came across a paperback in a used book store called The Bean Tree. I was instantly drawn in by this story about friendship and love, about abandonment and finding your place, and about discovering surprises in unexpected places. Honestly, the book touched me and I became an avid reader of Kingsolver. In her novels and works of non-fiction including Animal Dreams, High Tide in Tucson, The Poisonwood Bible, Prodigal Summer, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Small Wonders Kingsolver leads her readers into moments of transcendence. Kingsolver’s keen ability to be a storyteller/scientist/teacher in her architecturally designed fiction and her engagingly informative non-fiction forces the reader to never look at specific aspects of the world in quite the same way.
To this day one of my prized autographed books is The Bean Tree by Kingsolver who I met in Denver during a Book Conference in 1995.
Kingsolver’s fifth novel, Prodigal Summer, published in 2000, embraces the elements of wilderness and celebrates going to back to nature. If you have a spot in your heart reserved for the wonder of nature you can’t help but love this novel. Set in Appalachia Prodigal Summer paints in vivid detail Kingsolver’s appreciation for all living things. A former biologist and journalist, Kingsolver has a rare ability to communicate effortlessly what she knows as a scientist. Kingsolver’s words, paired with her impeccable knowledge of the biological behaviors of individual organisms, elevate this story into a fascinating read that delivers a valuable message about humans and nature to the reader.
Photo Credit: Barbara Kingsolver Website
Barbara Kingsolver’s fiction has achieved bestselling status in the US and as a celebrated author, there has been a lot written about Kingsolver and her life, instead of retelling her story I want to share a link to her website that highlights her background and more.
“Solitude is a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot, a tug of impalpable thread on the web pulling mate to mate and predator to prey, a beginning or an end. Every choice is a world made new for the chosen.”
-Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer
Set in rural Virginia, Prodigal Summer details the life events of three central characters during the course of a summer. Each of the narratives has one central theme that can be identified through the chapter titles.
Over the course of one Appalachian summer, these three characters find a connection of love to the shared natural world that surrounds them, and to one another. This title is a sensuous observation of the natural world and how it reveals to us the unexpected beauty of life, both around us and inside ourselves. This story reminds us that as a community we have a relationship with our local environment and that there is a world of connections out there just waiting to be made with others and with nature.
While Prodigal Summer makes you realize the fragility of each and every inhabitant on earth, and the role we all play in this dance called life, her non-fiction book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle shares how each of us can work toward food sustainability in our every days lives.
Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, chronicles her family’s transition to complete consumption of only locally grown food (the only thing given a pass was coffee). This book completely transformed my thinking about food, cooking, where our food comes from and the things we bond over with our family. This title teaches you how to be thoughtful and mindful about agriculture and sustainability, for this reason and because it is one of my all time favorite books, I wanted to add it as a suggested supplemental title to this months book club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this book!
“April is the cruelest month, T.S. Eliot wrote, by which I think he meant (among other things) that springtime makes people crazy. We expect too much, the world burgeons with promises it can’t keep, all passion is really a setup, and we’re doomed to get our hearts broken yet again. I agree, and would further add: Who cares? Every spring I go out there anyway, around the bend, unconditionally. … Come the end of the dark days, I am more than joyful. I’m nuts. ”
― Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
If you ask most people what they think Appalachian cuisine is, their answer (if they have any idea at all) will most likely be pinto beans and corn. Yet, there is so much more to this regions culinary offerings which becomes increasingly apparent when you realize that Appalachia is a 200,000 square mile region. This area follows the spine of the Appalachian mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi. Included in this expansive region is all of West Virginia and a part of twelve other states including Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and New York.
Like many other regions in the United States, Appalachia is a melting pot of local and international cuisines. The Southern Appalachians was originally inhabited by the Cherokee more than a thousand years ago and they are noted as being the original cultivators of corn in this region. When settlers began to arrive they brought with them the food cultures of their countries, the earliest arrivals included the English, Germans, Scotch-Irish, Hungarians and Italians. This part of the country was also one of the few places that freed slaves were permitted to live and as they settled into this area their heritage and food cultures blended with the other foodways in the Appalachians.
Derived as much from the culture of the mountains as from its ingredients, Appalachian cuisine not only combines the large number of heirloom varieties, like apples, pears and corn from the region but includes foraged ingredients as well. Appalachian locals are able to cultivate the bounty from the land and woods around them since there is plenty available to be foraged like wild mushrooms, ramps, sumac and wild ginger. Food preservation is also an important part of Appalachian cuisine, in the mountains the growing season can be short so a focus is put on preservation. Putting up the harvest means having an ample supply of smoked meats, pickled vegetables, fruits, as well as jams and jellies available for the cold winter months.
Taking all of this heritage and food traditions into account I have come up with a recipe that I feel compliment both Prodigal Summer and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I hope that this recipe paired with Organic wine from Badger Mountain Organic Winery inspires you to recreate it for your own book club or to enjoy when you have finished reading the books.
Food preservation is a valuable skill, after all that hard work planning, planting, tending and harvesting, the last thing you want is for your bounty to go to waste. Canning is a big part of my summer routine, although we eat fresh from the garden as the fruits and produce ripen I also strive to ‘put up’ some of the harvest for the winter and early spring months. This recipe for the Kingsolver books includes refrigerated Merlot Pickled Beets and an appetizer that incorporates them on a herby goat cheese bruschetta. A nod to my love of gardening, preserving and Appalachian cuisine. Stay tuned for a few new recipes!
I hope that I have inspired you to make this recipe to enjoy while you read The Prodigal Summer and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. Stay tuned for a few new recipes!
I would love to hear your thoughts on these recipes and the book. Cheers everyone.
“Thanks for this day, for all birds safe in their nests, for whatever this is, for life.”
― Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer
Images, content and recipes © of Drink In Nature Photography/Drink In Life Blog.