A New Take on Food Memoir

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Time for an embarrassing confession: I stopped reading food memoirs. After leafing through dozens in the past few years I found they cover the same territory: nostalgic stories about growing up around food; cooking challenges; and/or  escapist travels and idyllic stays in Italy and France. There’s a similarity to the authors as well. They’re mostly white, middle-class women.

images-1Now, since I am a white, middle-class woman, I can’t say  the themes are unattractive. I was just bored. Enter Novella Carpenter. I heard her read from her food memoir, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, at a Berkeley church. Now here’s a white woman  who does the hard work of raising animals that I won’t do (including growing 350-pound pigs  in an abandoned lot), in a part of Oakland that’s not gentrified enough for people like me. I thought she was a little insane, but I couldn’t get enough. She was hilarious, cranky, sweet, intellectual and humble in a hip, white trash kind of way. I don’t know any food writers who swear easily, mention chin hair, or dumpster dive to feed their pigs, for example.

But along with that foreignness, she fit in to where we middle-class white women are at. Right now it’s so cool to raise a few chickens,  can your own produce from a vegetable garden, and wonder where your food comes from a la Michael Pollan. And when it came time to process one of her pigs, she ends up in a trendy Cal-Ital restaurant learning how to break down its carcass from a former Chez Panisse chef. Then she makes prosciutto and other cured meats, right back to the Eurocentric themes so dear to food writers and foodies.

Even when she writes about eating, it’s not the usual reverie. When her boyfriend tastes her home-raised braised saddle of rabbit, she writes: “‘This is better than chicken,’ he said, smacking his lips and slicing off another piece of juicy meat. Then, be still my heart, he gave me a sloppy kiss before stuffing more rabbit into his mouth.”  How refreshingly politically incorrect.

After her reading, her professor, Michael Pollan beamed as he asked her questions. She was an older student at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Imagine getting support and advice from one of the most revered food writers of our day. I tried not to be too jealous. Mostly, I couldn’t wait to read the book.

imagesI reserved my copy online at the Oakland Public Library. Only 45 people ahead of me. When my turn came, I read Farm City straight through, fascinated by the sacrifices she made to raise her own food in the hippest kind of way, quoting Wendell Berry and all.

I’m planning to take a tour of her farm during Oakland’s Eat Real festival weekend at the end of this month. She has foolishly agreed to give a tour to the public, and has no idea how many middle class white women like me plan to show up.


  1. says

    I can’t wait to read her memoir, having gone to her reading and deciding then and there hers sounded definitely different. You could say, she was a real kick in the pants and didn’t give a hoot about being soft on language or on details.

    That she ended up in a fancy kitchen was, in my opinion, pure luck-and I gather she would have taken to the nearest dive if they offered to show her how to make salumi. I love that she gets advice from her Middle Eastern marketer near by-he used to be a goat herder-and she’s not shy in asking neighbors for help either. A real gem, she is.

    Can’t wait until Saturday, except that I’m struggling to know what to bring to BBQ, since I don’t have my own goat or chicken to butcher, nor a pig. A pie just might be in order, instead.

  2. says

    I found you in a random way. I’m a freelancer, but a newish food blogger, and decided that I wanted TWO blogs. In addition to the one I’m doing, I wanted one where I could just write about food: lore, history, reviews, etc. –without always having to cook and (poorly) photograph a recipe. After a week of thinking, I thought I had come up with a brilliantly clever name: will write for food. Okay, now I see it’s taken. Oh, but I’m not jealous. I’m thrilled that it’s been taken by someone who just took up my whole hour of before-work writing time with her articles. Kudos on the clever title IIt IS clever) and on a blog which I know I’ll be visiting again and again.

  3. says

    I’m curious to hear about (or see, if I make it there) the demos at Novella’s farm tour tomorrow. I suspect it will be a multicultural & mixed class affair, in keeping with the ‘hood — but, yes, middle class white women will likely be in attendance. As you say, she and other urban homesteaders and guerilla gardeners have made it groovy again to get down and dirty and grow and raise your own food.

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