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Book Review of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

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Awake at the Whisk: Book Review of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Book Review of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

Feathers fly. Guns fire. Beets ripen. Salami cures. There’s a bit of flavorful adventure around every page in Novella Carpenter’s debut memoir Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. Just as her urban farm tumbles with chickens, pigs, and watermelon, Carpenter’s book bubbles with a blend of funny, nostalgic, rebellious, and heartfelt tales not to be missed.

Raised by former hippies, Carpenter’s veins run thick with bloodlust to live in harmony with the land. Yet, like most children, Carpenter has her own ideas about how this plays out. Instead of running barefoot through the woods of rural Michigan plucking berries, she dons a headlamp to dive in Oakland city dumpsters in search of food for her rabbits and pigs. Rather than a white picket fence-lined home on a ranch, Carpenter builds her farm illegally on a vacant city lot next to her apartment. When she picks extra lettuce from her bountiful crop, she doesn’t package it for market. Instead, she carries it on her bicycle handlebars to donate to the local Black Panthers.

In this delightful story, Carpenter invites the reader to experience her initiation in becoming a tried and true “urban farmer” in a ghetto called “Ghost Town” in Oakland, California. The story opens with Carpenter’s newest purchase, and the beginning of her transformation: a box of assorted meat birds including chickens, geese, turkeys, and ducks. The story quickly unfolds in a comedy of trial and error as Carpenter educates herself through copious research and sweaty toil.

In one misadventure, Carpenter attempts a 30-day 100-yard diet, putting the notion of being locavore (trying to live off food sourced only from within 100 miles) to shame. Carpenter is choosing to live solely off her own farm and her food desert neighborhood. As her waistline shrinks and her coffee-cravings cause headaches, she stumbles upon a neighbor willing to barter: some of Carpenter’s urban farm-grown collards for the neighbor’s crispy-fried locally-caught fish dinner complete with fabulously-urban, yet equally homemade, cake frosted using pink food dye.

Such tales reveal a Carpenter whose lifestyle is equal parts nostalgia and practicality. Hers is not a life of abstinence, but one rich in abundance. Carpenter does not deny herself of urban pleasures in pursuit of romantic food ideals. Indeed, she pulls the resources of the city close to her, showing that there can be farmer’s harmony even in a concrete jungle.

For example, when Carpenter takes ownership of several rabbits, her first instinct is to draw on the city to provide for them. She finds Chinatown dumpsters overflowing with bread and greens ideal for bunny feed. For her chickens, she scours her neighborhood for a widely growing weed that the chicks find particularly tasty. As Carpenter puts it, it’s an “urban waste stream that I was tapping regularly.”

Yet Farm City isn’t just a story about farm life. In this urban setting, it’s plentiful with stories of the characters in Carpenter’s neighborhood and city. There’s Bobby, a homeless man who sleeps in abandoned cars on the street. There’s Lana, an artist who operates a speakeasy in her warehouse. And there’s Chef Chris Lee, who runs the upscale restaurant Eccolo, and teaches Carpenter to make Italian cured meats.

Anyone hungry for an inspired tale that stands out as a fresh addition to the food writing scene will be delighted by Farm City.

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Great book. Well written, witty, scary, fun, odd. Novella Carpenter is insane, in the best possible way.

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