Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

by Novella Carpenter
Penguin Books   2009
276 pages     Memoir

The theme for the Reading Together program at the Kalamazoo Public Library this year is food and there are two author visits scheduled, including Tracie McMillan author of The American Way of Eating and Novella Carpenter, author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. Excellent choices I think, particularly in our community which has a booming farmer’s market, a localvore movement, and farms all over southwest Michigan bringing fruit, vegetables, and meat to our tables.

Novella Carpenter’s earliest years were spent on a hippie farm in Idaho, and by the time she and her boyfriend Bill moved to Oakland California, they had gardened for as many years as they had been together. They chose to live in Oakland because it was a bit scruffy as a community, and they thought that they would fit right in. In a second floor apartment near the Interstate on a dead-end street, they looked over an empty lot. Ah-Ha, they thought, a perfect spot for a garden, so over the course of a couple of years, they squatted on the property, building raised bed gardens, tending bees and chickens. Finally, the owner of the property gave her permission to farm, and she expanded her repertoire from plants, bees, and chickens to turkeys, ducks, geese, rabbits, and, wonder of wonders, pigs. 

Carpenter has a wonderful sense of the ridiculous. She doesn’t take herself too seriously. She also seems to understand that they are living in a neighborhood and life situation that most people would not choose. One story that runs through the memoir is about Bobby who lives at the end of the street in a wrecked car. Lana, another neighbor, lives in a warehouse where she runs a speakeasy. Another neighbor cooks meals which she sells to guests at her dining table to raise extra cash. It is a colorful neighborhood, and Novella and Bill are as colorful as everyone else. So, no one is surprised by Novella’s urban farm, and Novella is generous with her food and with her gardening advice.

Sometimes, Carpenter’s behavior is so outlandish that even she can’t believe that she is doing whatever it is she is doing. Some of the best stories concern her dumpster diving behind neighborhood restaurants in order to feed the animals. This gets really crazy after they get two pigs, because the pigs eat mountains of food every day and seem to prefer their food already cooked. In one of their forays, they meet a famous chef who seems really entranced with Novella’s spunk and offers to teach her how to make sausage and other exotic salamis. Novella realizes that she can’t get too attached to her animals, because she knows that she is raising these animals for food, but at the same time, she has a strict sense about how they should be treated and how they should be killed and butchered. 

Another interesting narrative concerned  the month
Carpenter decided to eat only what she could find in her garden or within 1000 feet of her house. This proved to be a hellish month with very few carbohydrates and no coffee. She was hungry all the time. She ate a lot of eggs, a couple of ducks and rabbits, and subsisted on a lot of salads. In her desperation for carbohydrates, she even ground up some decorative corn and made a sort of pancake of the cornmeal. She says, “And so I did something I’d never done before. I ate an item of home décor. ..They were the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten.”

Having lived most of my adult life in Southwest Michigan where the season begins with asparagus and ends with apples, I enjoyed every minute of this book. My husband Lee was a 4Her and so were my three kids. We raised rabbits for competition and garden vegetables to show at the fair. I have “put foods by” every year, but I never have considered myself an urban farmer. My little plot of garden doesn’t produce very well, and I have decided to grow herbs and flowers rather than tomatoes and green peppers which I have been trying to do for several years. As long as I can get fresh tomatoes at the farmer’s market, I guess that I will be happy.

This year, for the first time in many years, we shared a pig with my daughter’s in-laws. Wow! What a difference from what we usually buy at the grocery. The bacon and pork chops were marvelous. We have one ham left that we are saving for Easter. Carpenter closes her book by talking about all the wonderful meals they made from their two pigs. I could completely relate. Not that I plan to raise a pig on the patio!

You might also want to read Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. It tells about the year her family lived off the products of their farm and the neighboring farms. 

Also I enjoyed Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin. Here is my blog posting about it:

Carpenter’s blog is delightful:
Novella Carpenter appears in Kalamazoo on April 15. Here is the information about her visit:

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