Book Review: Coming Home to Eat by Gary Paul Nabhan

I’m sitting in the library as I write this. In my bag is Coming Home to Eat: The Politics and Pleasures of Local Foods by Gary Paul Nabhan, waiting to be returned. On the table next to me is a book I have been unable to read, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. As a direct result of reading Coming Home to Eat, I am resolved to give Kingsolver’s book another shot.

I’m not totally thrilled about this. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is consistently being recommended to me. I know tons of people who personally love it. No one I know personally, except me, has ever had a problem with it. And my interest in food makes it an expected book on the “to read” list.

Hell, it’s such a natural fit that I have tried to read it, and repeatedly considered trying again. Now Nabhan is making me approach the book one more time. Not that he knows it. “Harrumph”, as Bill would say.

I have struggled with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle because of Nabhan. Or so I thought. I have come to realize that I struggled with the book due to my perception of him, and his eating locally in Arizona. Coming Home to Eat is his documentation of the year of eating within a 250 mile radius of his home, rather than the Discover Magazine article’s write-up. I found the difference between the book & the magazine article to be stupendous, though both were quite thought-provoking.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle opens, as I recall, with the Kingsolver clan moving away from Arizona because it’s impossible to eat locally there1. Ever since I’ve tried to read it, all I have been able to think was, “No. It’s just impossible to eat the foods you want to eat there. Nabhan showed you can eat locally in Arizona.”

I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t right either.

In essence, after the Discover article, I thought Nabhan had spent a bunch of time farming, gathering, hunting, and eating within his watershed in Arizona. This is all true. However, he also spent a bunch of time on planes going all sorts of places (and taking Arizonian snacks with him). He didn’t eat 100% of his diet from his watershed as I’d thought. In fact, near the beginning of the book he explains that his goal, when he finally set one, was to eat 90% of his food from the 250 mile radius around his house.

It’s not clear if he actually manages to hit the 90% mark. It’s not terribly important in the end, though. He does manage to eat a huge amount of his diet from that area. But, interestingly, in all his travels, it’s not clear how often he eats locally produced foods from what area he’s in, and how often he brings his own foods from Arizona. He does sometimes do both, and the motivations are not always clear.

And it’s not clear if we should be critical of bringing such foods. It never has been to me. My friend Angelique has certainly poked some gentle fun at me for bringing foods from New Mexico to Maryland, so maybe we should be. OTOH, what I brought (and what he did) was local to where the plane originated…

Nabhan’s book is, in my opinion, quite good but not great. I can’t tell if it was intended to persuade folks to his vision, or if it was written for people who already believe. I think that lack of clarity hurts the book.

Other things that damaged the book were his tendency toward purple prose and his lack of citations within the work. I find the first forgivable, but rather annoying. The latter really pisses me off. An over-written book can still be read, and understood. A lack of citations makes it impossible for me to verify his numbers or read the articles he claimed swayed him so deeply on this topic.

As a scientist, I feel he should have done better. A footnote referencing a citation index in the back of the book is not terribly distracting, perhaps not distracting at all, but allows the curious reader to learn more. It allows the curious reader to ask questions, and to think for themselves. It strengthens the author’s arguments.

It encourages more research on the part of the reader, without requiring it. Research Nabhan seems to genuinely want his readers to do.

Of course, asking questions is the opposite of taking someone’s word for it, or taking it on faith, and perhaps he is asking his readers to take his word for it. The parts of the book that veer into the color purple are almost uniformly spiritual & faithful in nature. He gives a sense of deep faith driving this search (both religious & secular faiths). For the most part, this only results in that overwrought writing I occasionally found irritating. However, at least once it was truly frustrating. The following is from the epilogue:

If we no longer believe that the earth is sacred, or that we are blessed by the bounty around us, or that we have a responsibility given to us by the Creator – Yahweh, Earth Maker, Gaia, Tata Dios, Cave Bear, Raven or whatever you care to call him or her – then it does not really matter to most folks how much ecological and cultural damage is done by the way we eat.

This got to me, motivated me to write this review, because I don’t believe a person must have a spiritual requirement to do so for them to care about the earth or cultural damage. A person needn’t find the earth “sacred” or feel “blessed” to have a deep investment in how and what they eat. Their motivations can come from wholly secular places and still result in them wanting to learn more about native foods, endangered species, cultural practices and so forth.

Whatever the motivation, I would expect Nabhan to appreciate the result.

And, after all that? I would still recommend this book. I really did enjoy it, and I learned a lot. I really enjoyed reading about his fiancee’s conversion to where he stood. But still not being willing to slaughter the turkeys with him. I loved learning with him what he could and couldn’t grow in his Arizona yard. I appreciated learning more of the details of wild foods in Arizona (or the Pacific Northwest, in one case).

The intersection of food & politics was particularly fascinating. Especially 10 years down the road from his writing it, when we can see the results of some of what he discusses as “in progress”. For that alone, it might be worth checking out.

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fn1. To be fair, they had also inherited a Virginia farm, which is where they moved. But I haven’t yet reopened the book, so I don’t recall how close to the move the inheritance came. My sense is the move occurred many years later, but I won’t claim to know now. I’ve not opened the book, even though I have it, because I didn’t want it to influence this review.