Book Review: Farm City

Novella Carpenter's Farm City
Novella Carpenter’s Farm City

It would be hard not to love a book that begins: “I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto.” From this line through the end of the book, Novella Carpenter’s Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer had me hooked.

The premise of the book is simple, Novella and Bill (the author’s boyfriend) live in a community in Oakland, California that is suffering from urban blight and turn a vacant lot by their home into a garden. Despite the simple plot, the author weaves together a story that sheds insight on human relationships — our relationships with food, our relationships with plants and animals, and our relationships with each other. For example, when a stranger wonders into the garden and picks carrots, the author talks to the stranger and details his response “‘This place reminds me of my grandma.’ His eyes filled with tears. Everything’s so growing.’ he said.” Later, when the author realizes that slugs have consumed the heirloom watermelon she was trying to grow, she states “Other people suggest drowning them [slugs] in beer moats crafted out of tunafish cans. The slugs would fall into the moat and die a drunken, Janis Joplin-esque death. This seems suspiciously close to buying the slugs a beer, which was more generous than I felt.”

As time passes, the author expands the garden and begins to raise bees, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, and pigs. She begins to identify herself as an urban farmer, noting that “The term ‘urban farm’ had become part of the popular vernacular, and people –especially real, rural farmers — took umbrage at it. They were especially annoyed when the self-proclaimed urban farmers had only a few heads of lettuce and a pair of chickens. My definition of ‘urban farming’ involved selling, trading, or giving the products of the farm to someone else. There couldn’t just be a producer; there had to be a separate consumer. A real farm also had to involve some kind of livestock.”

I am definitely not an urban farmer and have no plans to raise livestock in my yard, but I do enjoy having a small garden in my backyard. Despite not being an urban farmer, I appreciate both the humor and the sentimentality expressed in the book. Farm City is an enjoyable account of the author’s growth as an urban farmer, but it also serves as a handbook on how to grow community by the way you interact with nature and neighbors.

Tomato Pie

The most recent edition (July/August 2011) of Food Network Magazine features a Heirloom Tomato Pie on the cover. Inspired by fresh tomatoes currently in season, I decided to make this heirloom tomato pie for dinner.

Tomato Pie and Food Network Magazine
Tomato Pie and Food Network Magazine

I followed the magazine’s recipe with only minor changes. Jill and I do not typically have mayonnaise on hand, so I substituted that ingredient with sour cream. I also forgot to add the caramelized onions to the cheese mixture, so I topped the pie with them instead.

The recipe is moderately labor intensive because of the homemade crust, but the final result is definitely worth the effort. The homemade crust holds up to the juices that cook out of the tomatoes much better than a pre-made crust. The fresh tomatoes, I used UglyRipe, yellow, and green tomatoes, provides a meaty, but slightly sweet filling for the pie. Next time, I will use another type of tomato in place of the green tomatoes because they stayed firmer than the other tomatoes after being cooked (this is why green tomatoes are usually fried). My favorite part of the pie is definitely the caramelized onions, which add significantly to the depth of flavors in the dish.

If you can, I highly recommend that you pick up some heirloom tomatoes from your local farmers’ market and make this pie this weekend.

A slice of tomato pie
A slice of tomato pie

Adventures in Canning

My family has a long history of canning and preserving food. Like clockwork each summer, my grandma, parents, and extended family spread into the fields like hungry locusts and gather up the harvest. They then go home and begin the process of washing, blanching, shelling, slicing, chopping, boiling, and so on. They bring out big pots and pressure cookers and jars with lids and rings. I’ve observed this family ritual many times, but I’ve never actively participated in the process.

My parents shelf of food they

Not wanting to miss out on this time honored family tradition, I decided to give home preserving a try. I bought the book Put ’em Up!, a canner, and some jars. I’m still not sure why the process is called canning when you use glass jars.

Clean glass jars
Sparkling clean glass jars

Using recipes from the Put ’em Up!, I made pear chutney with some pears that were on sale at New Leaf Market and peach salsa with ripe Georgia peaches from Tomato Land.

Pear chutney simmering on the stove
Pear chutney simmering on the stove

Careful to avoid the dangers of home canning, primarily contamination and botulism, I followed the directions in the book (consistent with the USDA guidelines) exactly.

Jars of chutney resting briefly after processing in the canner
Jars of chutney resting briefly after processing in the canner

After filling and processing the jars of chutney and salsa, the jars were removed from the heat and moved to a towel covered counter. Within a few seconds, the jars each make a quick popping sound, indicating the lids sealed tightly to the jars.

Lids sealed tightly to the jars
Lids sealed tightly to the jars

Preserving food takes a little more work than just cooking it, but the overall process ended up being rather simple. I am also excited to have several jars of chutney on hand for making curries and several jars of peach salsa for weekend snacks. The rewards are well worth the extra effort.

Jars of pear chutney
Jars of pear chutney

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

I wrote the review below two years ago when I first listened to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. This week, as we criss cross the state, Artie is joining me as I listen to the book again. So far we’ve listened to about 3 hours and it is just as good, if not better, than I remembered. As evidenced by the review below, I’m a huge fan of this book and would put it at the top of a list of great summer reads for anyone interested in food.

Okay, so technically I’m not reading this book, I’m listening to it. Regardless of the delivery mechanism, I am ingesting every morsel of this tasty read and every serving leaves me hungry for more. So far I’ve listened to about five hours of this 14-1/2 hour audiobook. The 2007 book by Barbara Kingsolver, Steven L. Hopp, and Camille Kingsolver is part memoir and part journalistic investigation. The book tells the story of how one family spent a year deliberately eating only locally produced food. The writing is engaging and, at times, almost conversational in a way that draws the reader and/or listener into the story. In addition to talking about the family garden, feeding a party crowd with only locally produced food, and the joys of eating freshly cut asparagus, the book outlines real problems related to our food, including the controversy over genetically modified foods, greedy seed companies, the problem of food distribution, and the extinction of the local farmer in favor of large, subsidized, commodity crops. The sidebars by Hopp provide information about numerous topics that are interesting to me, including the cycle of poverty and hunger, where he gives a shout out to Heifer Project International – yeah! I know my review isn’t doing justice to this wonderful book. Let me conclude by saying that this book is interesting, engaging, and thought-provoking. Although I consider myself a person who is conscious about the size of my carbon footprint, and the quality of my (mostly vegetarian) food, this book has prodded me to think more closely about seeking out fresh, local produce. Although Artie and I already travel to Bainbridge on a regular basis to raid the in-laws garden, there are still many foods that we eat that travel a long distance, and are therefore heavy laden with oil. Not literally laden with oil, but lots of oil went into producing and transporting the food. For what? The convenience of out-of-season, watery tomatoes? Tomatoes that were bred for uniform size and disease resistance, perhaps to the detriment of their flavor? This book has asked me to consider whether I am willing to seek out local, seasonal flavors, and reduce the amount of oil in my food. Whether I am willing to pay a little bit more to make sure that the family farmer doesn’t become a thing of the past, relegated to the pages of children’s book and folk lore. More to come as I progress through this juicy read. Pun intended.

More information: http://www.animalvegetablemiracle.com