Home girl Novella Carpenter threw an open house Saturday and welcomed whoever wanted to come tour her urban farm, meet her goats, chickens, bees and rabbit; buy her book, Farm City; and exchange information about urban homesteading. I came home with a bag of ripe prune plums, made into jam, and goat poo and hay on one of my sneakers.
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.
Now, 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.
I 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.