Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Dirty Life

I read a beautiful book recently. The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball.

Kimball, a 30-something Harvard grad living and working in New York City, finds herself strangely attracted to a rugged, opinionated, almost antisocial farmer from Western Pennsylvania whom she visits on assignment for the magazine for which she was writing at the time.

Something about his lifestyle; something about his convictions; something about the work involved: she seems unable to resist the siren song of the farm (and Mark, the guy who will eventually become her husband).

Kimball tells us how they form their relationship and how, eventually, they came to start the farm that they now run, Essex Farm near Lake Champlain, in Essex, New York.

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There are a few points where I wonder whether and to what extent Kimball embellishes the truth just for the sake of beauty. For example, very early in the book, on p. 13, she says,
I wasn't much of a cook back then. I appreciated good food, but I didn't have a steady relationship with it. Food was more like a series of one-night stands, set in front of me at a restaurant or delivered in little white cardboard containers by a guy on a bicycle. I wasn't sure the oven in my apartment was functional, since in the seven years I lived there, I never used it. The refrigerator work, but in my small studio it was more valuable to me as storage space than as a kitchen appliance.
I don't find any of that description hard to believe. But then, suddenly, with that kind of background, she says she was on Mark's farm, unable to contribute effectively to the manual labor out-of-doors, so she volunteers to cook a meal:
I . . . grabbed a basket and a knife and went back out to the field. . . . I looked at all the food that there was for the picking. New potatoes, broccoli, lettuce, herbs, teas, beats, and blackberries. . . . I filled my basket with tomatoes and kale and onions and basil, . . . and went back inside hoping to do them justice. . . .

I set to work, cutting ribs out of the kale and chopping tomatoes and onions without knowing exactly where the meal was going. . . . I heated the skillet on two burners and sautéed onion in butter, adding some diced carrots and the tomatoes and a bit of water to steam the kale. . . . [W]hen the kale was soft I dug shallow divots in it and cracked a dozen eggs into the holes to poach. Then I minced some garlic and basil together and mashed it into a knob of butter and spread that on slices of bread I'd found in the cupboard. I put the garlicky bread under the broiler, and just as the crew walked in from the field I pulled the tray of fragrant toasts out of the oven with a flourish, dealt pieces onto plates, topped them with the kale and poached eggs, and crowned each with a spoonful of cottage cheese and a grind of black pepper.
I'm sorry, I find it hard to imagine someone with so little practice could create such a culinary extravaganza with such relatively abnormal or unfamiliar ingredients! And it is even more unbelievable to imagine someone with so little experience being able even to know the names of the foods that went into making the meal, much less being able to recall all the fine details.

But suspending my disbelief at moments like these (and I must admit, the primary points at which I find myself questioning the narrative all have to do with her detailed (and scrumptious!) descriptions of meals that she and Mark create), the book is an absolute delight: at turns romantic, lighthearted and funny; elsewhere brooding and philosophical, thought-provoking and able to bring you to tears; almost everywhere, fully engaging and gorgeously written. I recommend it highly.

It is definitely an adult book written to and for adults. (For example, though there are no graphic sex scenes, she does make several obvious and unabashed references to sex outside of and prior to marriage. Just for example.) But if you enjoy looking into the soul of another person, I can't imagine you'll find better.

I thought I would quote two passages from the book that give you a strong flavor of how Kimball writes. I quote them partially because they spoke to me; partially because I want to illustrate the unflinching honesty with which she writes (and, yes, I mean real, honest-to-goodness, thoughtful honesty, despite my questions about whether she makes up some of her "memories" of details about certain meals she and Mark cooked!).

So: A passage about relationships and conflict. From pp. 158-159:
[W]hy, oh, why, does passion always spawn conflict? As the farm began to take form, Mark and I argued fiercely over everything. We discovered that we had different desires, different fears, different visions for the farm. We are both way too stubborn.

We lost whole precious daylight hours fighting over how to build a pig fence or whether the horses should spend the night inside or out. "But farming is my art," he would say finally, when we were both thoroughly frustrated and close to tears.

That seemed ridiculously pretentious to me at first. How much further from art could we be, sweating it wallowing in the dirt like this?

Later, after I'd been on many different farms and met many different farmers, I had to concede this point. A farm is a form of expression, a physical manifestation of the inner life of its farmers. The farm will reveal who you are, whether you like it or not. That's art. As a trump card, though, it was still junk. If this farm was art, then it was going to have to be a collaboration between equals.

I am a passive aggressive disputant, happy to avoid the direct confrontation and tenderly nurse its grudge instead. Mark is a plain old tenacious arguer. He will grab hold of a disagreement and worry it, shaking it back and forth and back and forth until the crux of it drops out. That's why I know that those arguments were always about our two different basic fears.

I was chiefly afraid of money--of poverty, of debt. It looked like our profit margin would be slim at best, and I thought that paying interest could enslave us. And if this thing failed, I did not want to be left to shovel out from under a pile of old bills. I had some experience with that, and I had a deep fear of going back there.

Mark, by contrast, had a friendly and lighthearted relationship with money, based in part on the fact that he has very little attachment to the having or not having of it. He could be happy living on a park bench, I told him. He did not disagree. But his history with money was actually much healthier than mine. He'd taken out a loan to start his farm in Pennsylvania, and he paid it back early. He had even saved enough from his poultry farm salaries to bail me out of the last part of my debt when I left the city for New Paltz.

His fear was not of that but of ruining ourselves with overwork. He'd seen it happen to other people, the farm gaining mass and speed until it ran over the farmer and squashed him. He worried that we would become so overwhelmed by work it would not be any fun anymore, or that his freedom to farm the way he wanted to would be limited. That freedom was worth more to him, he said, than so-called security.

He was fond of quoting a farmer under whom he had apprenticed, who said that organic farms most commonly failed not from bankruptcy but from burnout or divorce. I wasn't sure about the former, but if we kept fighting like this, we were well on our way to the latter, and the wedding hadn't even happened yet.
And then this one about the positive and negative aspects of buying from a farm like theirs, a CSA--Community Supported Agriculture--enterprise. From pp. 160-161 where she describes the marketing problems they faced as they began their farm:
We were pitching a radical all-or-nothing, year-round membership model that was untried, even in the most agriculturally progressive pockets of the country. We were asking people to fork over thousands of dollars for the promise of a return that was by no means guaranteed.

At the price we were charging, most people in our community couldn't afford to use our food as a supplement to their usual grocery store bill. They had to give up, like I had, that familiar and comforting experience of pushing a cart down the aisle. The central question in the kitchen would have to change from What do I want? to What is available?

The time spent in the kitchen--in planning, in preparing, in cooking--would jump exponentially. Moreover, our frost-free growing season is only about a hundred days. To eat perishable food out of season, you have to make the time to can or freeze it while it is fresh and abundant. Those projects are fun and satisfying if you have the time for them, but if you're working a full-time job while trying to satisfy the needs of your children, they begin to seem sweaty and tedious.

Maybe most important, farm food itself is totally different from what most people now think of as food: none of those colorful boxed and bagged products, precut, parboiled, ready-to-eat, and engineered to appeal to our basest desires. We were selling the opposite: naked, unprocessed food, two steps from the dirt.

I knew, from what I was experiencing in our kitchen, that if we could get people to take a taste, some things we were producing would sell themselves. You could not have a pork chop from one of our pastured pigs and ever want to go back to the factory-raised kind. Same with our eggs, with their bright orange yolks standing at attention in the pan. But other things would be a harder sell.

Our grass-fed beef was tastier but much tougher than the corn-fattened beef Americans are used to. We experimented with hanging the sides in the cooler for three, four, or even five weeks before butchering. This gave the meat a buttery texture but also a high flavor that I absolutely relished but some people found unpleasant.

Also, we were talking about whole animals, and for reasons both ethical and economic, we needed to make use of every part, from tongue to testicles. We'd be asking people to eat things they couldn't identify and didn't know how to cook.

We found, from giving away samples, that the rich, flavorful Jersey milk I loved so much was just too different from the store-bought kind for some palates to accept, especially if they were used to drinking low-fat or skim.

Moreover, we couldn't offer the kind of consistency that consumers have come to expect from grocery store food.

Could we really expect people to change their habits so radically, and pay good money for it?
I encourage you to read the book for the pleasant and not-so-pleasant realities of life on a modern, tractorless (yes, horsepower only!), organic farm.

It might actually change your view of the world!
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