Posts Tagged ‘culinate’

Adventures of an Urban Farm Gal

August 20, 2009

Uber-funny urban farmer Novella Carpenter has gone from indie garage band status to full-fledged rock star of the urban homestead movement in a matter of months. In part, perhaps, because of zingers likes this one, about the lengths she and her partner go to — including nightly dumpster diving sporting head lamps — to keep two hungry and hefty pigs fed in the city. “If we had had time to think about it,” she says, “we would have realized that we had become these pigs’ bitches.”

novella-carpenterPhoto: Sarah Henry

Carpenter, who grows greens and raises livestock on a dead-end street in the ghetto, is the author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer.  For the past decade, the 38-year-old has cultivated land in the city, the last six years on GhostTown Farm, the sunny, squat lot in Oakland, California next to her rundown, coral-colored flat — complete with a back porch covered in goat poop  — where she lives with mechanic boyfriend Bill and a menagerie of her so-called edible pets, including rabbits, chickens, and, on occasion, a turkey or two.

The ‘hood is also dotted with long-shuttered businesses, drug dealers, prostitutes, multiethnic neighbors, and what Carpenter affectionately refers to as “fellow freaks.” She feels right at home there. “The neighborhood had a whiff of anarchy,” she notes in her memoir. “Spanish-speaking soccer players hosted ad hoc tournaments in the abandoned playfield. Teenagers sold bags of marijuana on the corners. The Buddhist monks made enormous vats of rice on the city sidewalk…And I started squat gardening on land I didn’t own.”

A child of back-to-the landers, Carpenter has received stellar reviews, most notably in the New York Times, for chronicling her exploits in the urban jungle. An excerpt from the book — some 15 pages on raising pigs and learning the craft of charcuterie — fills the August food issue of San Francisco magazine. She’s been featured everywhere from mainstream outlets like Time, foodie circles, like Culinate, and eco-green arenas like Grist. Not bad for a first-time author.

A former student of Michael Pollan’s, she regaled an audience at a recent reading in Berkeley with tales of foraging for food for her ravenous pigs (everything from rotting fish heads, frosted cakes, and organic peaches for these well-tended swine), before the hogs eventually wound up as cured meat. “You work your ass off trying to feed your pig really well,” she tells a crowd who eats up her colorful quips. “And then you find yourself thinking: This is going to be good. It’s a little sexy.”

But hers is not some sort of groovy-urban-gal-goes-green shtick. She’s the real deal. On a recent Friday at 7 am she greets me at the door and then diligently goes back to milking her goats.  Once the task is done, she heads outside for a farm tour. She checks in with and feeds her animals and waters her plants by hand. Clearly, tending creatures and crops nourishes her in more ways than one. “I realized that not only did I make the garden, it made me,” she writes in her book. “I ate out of this place every day. I had become this garden–its air, water, soil. If I abandoned the lot, I would abandon myself.”

It’s also clear it takes discipline to be a city farmer. She goes to great lengths to source supplies for her animals (like trips to the local racetrack to pick up alfalfa for her goats). And she takes personal responsibility for killing the animals she eats. She’s surprised that some vegans buy her book — and pleased that people on either side of the omnivore aisle respect her efforts to eat meat with integrity. (Still, I suspect many vegetarians would wince at her descriptions of slaughtering animals, however humanely and humbly she goes about it.)

For those of us who have a hard time growing veggies in the backyard, a big part of her appeal may simply lie in knowing that a modern day urban homesteader like Carpenter is out there doing her thing, day in and day out. She’s a fixture in the ‘hood, along with hookers, dealers, homeless dudes, and kids who stop by to visit the animals. Her Cuban neighbors take care of the farm when she’s away; the Yemeni liquor store owner down the block offers advice on goat husbandry pulled from his earlier life as a goat herder. Talk about community.

I admire Novella’s moxie, and I suspect others do too. I’m not much of a meat eater, but the fact that she buys these farm animals and learns as she goes, in true D.I.Y. fashion, how to raise them and get them on the table for dinner is pretty impressive. Plus, just like me, she really doesn’t like rats, an unfortunate fact of life for an urban farmer.

Novella estimates that about half of her food comes from her farm and she sells some of her animals to fancy pants restaurants that want well-fed, farm fresh meat on the menu. But the girl isn’t raking it in, with animal expenses, vet visits, and seed and feed costs this is a labor of love not a moneymaking venture. The advance for her book, for instance, promptly paid for a milking goat.

So when she’s not tending her farm, Novella divides her time between writing, she’s currently at work on a how-to book for folks intrigued about urban farming, and running a biofuel station, the Biofuel Oasis in Berkeley, where she’s one of the owner/worker biodiesel divas. It may well be the only fueling station around that holds classes on raising chickens and bees in close quarters.

Her advice to those interested in joining the urban farming bandwagon? Start small, go slow, and grow what you like to eat. Radishes are easy, she points out, but if you don’t love ’em, why grow ’em? “The easiest urban farm animal is the bee, since they do most of the work and require little maintenance,” she says. “After that, try chickens; the eggs are amazing and they’re funny to watch.”

Curious to learn more? If you live in the Bay Area, check out Novella on the farm in person on Saturday, August 29, during Oakland’s Eat Real Festival next weekend. She’ll give farm tours, sign books, teach workshops on slaughtering chickens and raising goats, and harvest food to share. Oh, and she has a trio of dwarf goats for sale. Anyone game?

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What Do You Eat When You Eat Alone?

June 13, 2009

True confession: When I’m home alone at night sometimes I forget to make dinner. Ten o’clock rolls around, the kitchen is closed, and so I grab a bowl of cereal and call it a night. Terrible habit I know. At least it’s whole grain cereal. It turns out, I’m in good company.

Here’s another cereal-for-solo suppers supporter:

Flickr photo by Brian Auer used under the Creative Commons license

How about you? What do you eat for dinner when nobody is looking? I’ve been thinking a lot about this particular pastime since my domestic situation shifted about 18 months ago. Half the week my kid and I eat dinner every night, mostly at home, no exceptions. The other half of the week he’s dining with his dad, leaving me free to whip up something fabulously indulgent for myself, right?

Not likely. I typically take the opportunity to eat out with friends. That’s sort of cheating. And expensive. And on a week when my son is doing a five-night stint at his father’s I rarely eat out every single one of those evenings. So, then, what’s for dinner at my house?

Initially, I had grand visions of simmering batches of soup on the stove on solo supper nights. Somehow I don’t seem to find — or make — the time to prepare these meals. So I’ve been conducting an informal survey, asking folks who find themselves making dinner for one on a regular basis what they eat. The 81-year-old widow whose memoir I’m editing tells me she cooks herself a meal chock full of vegetables. A male friend’s frequent solo feast of choice is a stir-fry. A galpal swears that Trader Joes frozen shrimp and mango cubes can be called into service to make a delicious meal. And a chef friend recalls that during her single days she delighted in buying the best cuts of meat or priciest seafood justifying the cost because she only needed small portions of each.

I’m suitably impressed. All these people take their meal at the table, with napkins and place mats, and maybe candles and a glass of wine as well. Truly, eye-opening. Clearly, eating well on your own is a learned skill.

Now, thanks to Deborah Madison, of Greens restaurant fame and the author of the wildly popular cookbook Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, we’ve got some more insights into what people chew on when no one else is watching.

Her new book, What We Eat When We Eat Alone, is a departure from her usual fare (and not just because meat features prominently). It’s written with and inspired by her hubbie, Patrick McFarlin, who got in the habit of asking this very question as an icebreaker on food trips the couple took with the Oldways Preservation Trust.  McFarlin’s whimsical illustrations accompany the stories. The book includes some 100 recipes, tweaked a tad for your solitary pleasure.

Check out the funny video found here for a flavor of what folks told the couple about eating alone. And read an excerpt, on the universal appeal of leftovers, over at Culinate.

The results of the authors’ unscientific research may surprise you. At a recent reading at Mrs. Dalloway’s book store, the couple drew laughter when they acknowledged that there appears to be something of a gender divide surrounding solo dinners.  Men frequently eat meat when on their own and their cooking often involves “sticking something into something,” like the flank steak stuffed with bacon, cheese, and mushrooms featured in the book. Women often opt for good carbs with salt or something like a salad that involves chopping and dicing. What people do when supping solo is also interesting. Some eat while watching TV, with their animals, while reading — or even in bed. Others (again, often men) pace, eat while surveying the contents of the fridge, or even wolf dinner down while leaning over the sink.

This respectful yet voyeuristic read gives a glimpse into the secret life of those of us seeking solitary sustenance, whether we’re eating alone as an aberration or on a regular basis. The book reveals that people tend to cook simple, satisfying meals that they know and love or opt to make something their partners don’t like, such as okra or sardines, when on their own.  There’s also some weird stuff like margarita mix poured over white bread — yikes — though not as many strange food choices as you might imagine in such a book.

What do this duo eat on their ownsome? Madison says she’d choose pie if it was available, though that’s usually not an option. She’s fond of braised vegetables. McFarlin’s a fan of panini.

My personal favorite food for a satisfying solo supper? Scrambled eggs. I know many Americans couldn’t imagine eating this so-called breakfast staple for dinner but, heck, throw caution to the wind and give it a whirl.  The secret ingredient for lovely, moist scramble? Cream, glorious, cream. Thank you Bill Granger of the much-lauded bills restaurants in Sydney for this ingredient insight. For scrambled eggs for one use 2 eggs and about a third a cup of cream. Find the full recipe here. I look in my veggie crisper and dice up nice and fine anything fresh and colorful and whack that in as well. Often orange pepper, baby spinach, and red onion find their way into the mix. Goat cheese is a nice addition too. Bill scrambled egg purists may sniff at such suggestions. So be it.

Now it’s your turn. Do tell: What kind of grub goes down your gullet at nighttime when no one’s looking? Feel no fear, guilt, or shame. Judging by Madison’s and McFarlin’s account, it appears that there are many culinary commonalities among solitary eaters, revealing that we’re never really alone even when we’re dining at a table for one.

Flickr photo by avlxyz used under the Creative Commons license