I didn't think I was going to like this book. Most of the books and articles I've read by various locavores, vegans, foodies or animal rights activists have been too arrogant, judgmental and annoying. But Novella Carpenter is not your typical fanatic. In Farm City she tells of how she created a farm with her bare hands in the middle of a nasty and depressing Oakland ghetto. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed this book more than any I've read in quite some time.
Several years ago, Carpenter - the offspring of free-thinking and resourceful first generation hippies - and her husband moved to an apartment on a dead end segment of 28th Street in one of the most crime ridden areas of downtown Oakland, just a block away from a massive Interstate 980 overpass. Not exactly a location for pastoral serenity. But, as they had done previously in Seattle, they started raising chickens and honeybees until the adjacent abandoned weed-infested lot beckoned as a potential location for a large garden.
The book starts with Carpenter's premeditated squatting on this site, planting a plethora of consumables, like watermelon, collards, corn, squash and onions and watching them thrive in Oakland's Mediterranean climate. Following this introduction, spanning the subsequent few years, she takes it to the next level, dividing the book into three sections, entitled: Turkey, Rabbit and Pig.
Each section describes her travails and triumphs with these living, breathing protein sources, from feeding and nurturing to slaughtering and roasting. Her animals flourish on the scraps from her garden but their primary nutrition comes from an unlikely source: dedicated dumpster diving. Carpenter's descriptions of her and her husband's nightly visits to various fancy bistros, bakeries, groceries and Chinese restaurants are hilarious. By following this unconventional approach, she learns that pork tenderloin is especially delicious when the pig is fed vast quantities of old peaches.
Carpenter's story culminates in her description of one July when she attempts to survive by only eating food harvested from her farm. Her description of the associated suffering and deprivation are relentlessly comical, whether she's climbing on the neighbor's roof to harvest plums - an allowed exception - or striving to recover from her abrupt coffee withdrawal migraine. Apparently, it's much easier to kill a rabbit with your bare hands when you're almost starving to death.
But the story is entertaining primarily because it's really several different stories wrapped up in one, each compelling on its own. She weaves together her account of do-it-yourself farming, learning by repeated trial and error with her saga of unremitting frugality, including squatting, scavenging, reusing and repurposing. In addition she adds a poignant tribute to her distressed urban neighborhood and the remarkable neighbors on whom she frequently relies. It's good to have friendly neighbors when your frisky 400 pound pig is running down the street towards a busy intersection.
In addition, the book qualifies as an autobiography of joyous insanity, with frequent displays of insight into Carpenter's relentless fanaticism. Her personality is completely split, basking in the beauty of the pastoral scene she creates out her back door, while at the same time reveling in the bizarre, toxic and exciting city she occupies with pride. The book makes a nice companion to Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, but it's funnier, more poignant and often more frightening as she battles hungry possums, stray dogs, drug dealers and the city government to protect her farm.
While Carpenter's story is a too crazy to prompt me to pick up the family and start my own Oakland homestead, her enthusiastic and passionate writing does tempt me just a bit. Farm City is a fun and adventuresome read about tackling the impossible and enjoying it all the way.
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