Posts Tagged ‘novella carpenter’

A Culinary Confession

March 23, 2010

I blame Bakesale Betty.  If the blue-haired Aussie-American Alison hadn’t lured me into her store with lamingtons and sticky date pudding I would never have succumbed to the charms of her legendary fried chicken sandwiches, which cause perfectly sane people to line up on Telegraph Avenue in North Oakland. For a sandwich. I kid you not.

It also doesn’t help that Bakesale Betty is on my way home from my editing gig and I’m often ravenous as I drive by, doing a quick scan to see if there’s 1. a line snaking down the street or 2. any parking.

If the parking gods and queue karma are on my side, I’m in and out with one of her sandwiches before you can say hello hypocrite.

Let me explain. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 17, when I gave up meat in what my mum, a good cook, viewed as just another one of my rebellious teenage acts. Despite growing up in a meat-loving land, where the backyard barbie rules, I became a greens and legumes kinda gal.

For more than a quarter of a century, I lived the veg life. To be precise, I guess I’m technically a pescatarian, as I sometimes eat seafood. Especially in my hometown, Sydney, because — news flash — fabo fish to be had Down Under peeps.

So how to explain the recent chicken sandwich obsession? What can I say? I think I’m having a middle-aged meat crisis. Some 20 years ago I introduced the man who would become the father of my child to the virtues of a vegetarian diet. Hell, I married him at Greens. My 11-year-old kid has never, ever eaten an ounce of animal flesh.  (His choice. I’m no zealot.)  My blog is called — duh — Lettuce Eat Kale. I’ve watched Food, Inc. I frequent farmers’ markets. You get the idea.

I should be a poster girl for a pro-produce life.

And yet…a couple of years ago around a certain time in my cycle I began craving protein. No worries, fish usually did the trick. Then I started to slip a bit when sharing food at ethnic restaurants around town. Chicken raised with love, care, good feed, and bucolic views began to find its way into my mouth. What the heck was happening?

I wasn’t sure, but I suspected hormones played a role. I also knew I wasn’t dealing with this particular omnivore’s dilemma on my own.  My friend Connie was a vegetarian — until she got pregnant with her first kid 16 years ago. Then it was off to the steak house for her and she’s never looked back.  My dance instructor, Amara Tabor-Smith, eschewed animal protein for decades — she didn’t like the texture — and is now tentatively getting reacquainted with meat.

I’d always assumed, along with many others I suspect, that vegetarian cookbook superstars Deborah Madison and Mollie Katzen didn’t eat meat. Not so, I discovered in the past year during chats with both chefs. Mollie describes herself as a “meat nibbler,” and Deborah’s not opposed to the occasional piece of grass-fed, local beef.

Their most recent books, Get Cooking by Mollie, and What We Eat When We Eat Alone by Deborah, include meat recipes. Still, both women favor a diet where greens, grains, and legumes dominate the dinner plate.  Mollie supports the Meatless Monday campaign and both believe most meat eaters would do well to eat less animal and more plant foods.

Eating meat after years — or even a lifetime — of a solely plant-based diet seems to be something of a trend. For people who chose vegetarianism for ethical or environmental reasons, sourcing meat sustainably is now often a viable alternative to factory-farmed animals, and so some have decided to include it sparingly in their diet.

(Bucking this seemingly female shift, is wonder boy writer Jonathan Safran Foer, who dabbled with vegetarianism for years but fully committed after he became a pet owner. He will probably convert masses to the cause with his description of chicken fecal soup and other horrors of industrial animal slaughter in his recent book, Eating Animals.)

In this confusing time, I feel I’ve found a kindred spirit in Tara Austen Weaver, the warm and witty writer who blogs about meat and many other food matters at Tea & Cookies.  I can so relate to the mental tug-of-war that underlies her recent book The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis.  Tara didn’t have a choice in her vegetarian childhood — she was raised that way by a Northern California hippie mama.

Several years ago, she started exploring eating meat for health reasons.  Her descriptions of buying, prepping, and cooking meat resonate with me because I haven’t actually ever gone and purchased a chicken or, um, chicken bits and made dinner. That notion makes me feel nauseous, to be honest. I don’t even like looking at raw meat.

I know, I know, I’m the worst kind of turncoat. I leave the house to get a bit of hot flesh on the side. When my son stopped by home unexpectedly the other afternoon, I found myself hiding aforementioned cluck, cluck sandwich before opening the door. Clearly, I have some conflicted feelings about my dietary changes.

So what to call myself: A lapsed vegetarian?  A vegetarian who cheats?

I thank the funny Adair Seldon of Lentil Breakdown for introducing me to the term flexitarian, which seems to fit for now, loathe as I am to saddle myself or anyone else with a label.

For the record, I seem to have no desire to move on to “harder” meats, like beef, pork, or lamb.  (An aside: Why isn’t it cow, pig, and sheep? I suspect it’s a way for many of us to remain in denial about where meat actually comes from.) Speaking of denial: No pics of meat in this post! The hypocrisy continues.

And I’ve never had any interest in eating creatures I see on hiking trails such as ducks, rabbits, quail, deer, elk, and the like. But since chicken is becoming a somewhat regular fix (once or twice a month), I’ve learned never to say never.

My vegetarianism stemmed in part, from my inability to kill an animal, hence my healthy respect for folks like Novella Carpenter, who don’t flinch at taking responsibility for ending the life of an animal they’ve raised for food. I feel cowardly in the carnivore arena by comparison.

Penning this post has probably blown my chances of ever writing for Vegetarian Times or VegNews (though I do think this topic is one such mags would do well to cover.)

But you won’t find meat recipes on this blog, although I’m sure some veggies will unsubscribe in disgust at my wishy-washy vegetarianism.

That would be a shame. Because I am still the girl who obsesses about eating greens. Nothing makes me happier than a meal packed with produce. I am, to borrow a term Mollie Katzen used in a recent Civil Eats story, very much a pro-vegetable person, a vegetabilist.

And I view healthy eating in much the same way I see sexuality.  In my mind, most humans are basically bisexual, it just depends where on the spectrum you fall in terms of how you define your sexual orientation.

Similarly, we’re probably all on an omnivore continuum, with some of us falling firmly on the carnivorous end and others of us way down on the other end of the line very much in vegetarian or even vegan territory.

In the end, come dinner time, it’s a personal choice what we put on our plate and the justifications we make with ourselves and our sometimes contradictory culinary choices are our own to live with as we figure out our place on the food chain and what our bodies need to stay well.

I welcome your thoughts below.

Book Giveaway: Farm City by Novella Carpenter

August 31, 2009

In conjunction with the Eat Real Festival in Oakland last weekend, urban farm gal Novella Carpenter hosted an all day soiree at Ghost Town/Goat Town Farm, the one depicted in her very funny food memoir released earlier this summer. I swung by the event, which drew a steady crowd, to see what’s growing in the author’s garden (lots), sample some of Grandma’s peach cobbler, and ask Novella to sign a copy of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. (For the uninitiated — and locavores — she’ll be reading at Mrs. Dalloway’s in Berkeley this Sunday.)

So, attention all city farmers and wannabe urban homesteaders: There’s a free, autographed Farm City to the person who writes the most entertaining comment about their endeavors growing or raising their own food in the asphalt jungle (or their fantasies about doing the same).

Do you have a tale to tell about a veggie patch planted in the ‘hood that produced nary a thing to eat? Have you devised innovative strategies to keep metro-dwelling predators at bay? Are you contemplating or already raising bees, chickens, goats — or even a cow — in city limits?

Bring it on. Tell us a witty, eye-opening, or inspiring snippet about city farming and I’ll pick a winner by 10 P.M. PST on Monday, September 7, which just happens to be Labor Day. Happy Harvesting.

Update: Thanks to all for creative comments about the joys and challenges of city farming.  It was hard to single out just one entry but the autographed copy of Farm City goes to….Velma for her planted chicken story (scroll below for details). The author herself judged the comp and Novella noted that she chose Velma because she was moved by the childhood innocence of her tale.

Velma: Send me your contact details and I’ll ship the book off to you. My email is: sarahhenry0509@gmail.com.

Thanks again for playing. And stay tuned for a school food book giveaway later this month.

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?

Find Food Books at Friendly Independent Book Stores

August 9, 2009

Photo: Courtesy of Omnivore Books on Food

Call me old fashioned: I just don’t see myself curling up any time soon with a Kindle. After two beloved bookstores in my neighborhood — Berkeley, a legendary university town no less —  closed up shop this year (Cody’s & Black Oak) I swore off Amazon forever.

So, today, in time perhaps for your vacation reading, a shout out for the independent book store.

Recently, I ‘ve had the pleasure of puttering around Omnivore Books on Food in my former neighborhood in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. The one-time butcher shop is chock full of tempting cookbooks, new, old, rare, and out-of-print. Today, the store hosts Novella Carpenter, discussing Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. I’ve packed this much-lauded memoir to read on a pending trip — when I’m not floating down the Russian River. (So no posts, folks, while I take some time with my son and some friends to explore the real world.)

A couple of weeks ago I ventured inside another SF gem, The Green Arcade, which specializes in eco-conscious works, and includes books on urban homesteading, manifestos on eating well, all manner of writings about the slow food movement, and cookbooks on niche subjects such as gluten-free foods.

Back in my hometown, Mrs. Dalloway’s stocks a nicely curated collection of food and gardening tomes, and hosts events like the recent reading by chef Deborah Madison and her artist husband Patrick McFarlin, who talked about what people eat when they eat alone. And Book Passage, both in Corte Madera and the San Francisco Ferry Building, frequently hosts “cooks with books” events. Listening to Molly Wizenberg read from A Homemade Life at one such evening inspired me to finally launch Lettuce Eat Kale a few short months ago.

I do realize that in these economically uncertain times buying new books — hardbacks no less — is a luxury many can’t afford. It’s one of my few, if infrequent, indulgences. I’ve also had great success with bargain finds at the three Pegasus & Pendragon locations in the East Bay. For some reason I get terrific Aussie cookbooks there by the likes of Donna Hay and Bill Granger for a fraction of the price I’d pay in Australia. It’s also a good spot for used paperback food memoirs. Okay, despite the recent closures we’re spoiled rotten for bookstores in the Bay Area. How about your hometown?

I do my bit to share the wealth. I’m hosting a monthly food book giveaway on this very blog. I no longer believe in hanging on to works of fiction I’ve loved just so they can gather dust in my bookshelves. So I pass them on to friends who I think will enjoy them as much as I have. My son and his buddies have started doing something similar, which makes me very happy.

So, folks, is the dead-tree read well on the road to obsolescence or do you think it will survive? is there still a place for shops peddling inked paper in the modern world? Hope springs eternal here: Just this week the news that indie Books Inc. will open not far from the space formerly occupied by Cody’s. Happy summer reading.

The Urban Homestead: An Old Idea is New Again

July 20, 2009

You know how right after you first learn the meaning of a word or hear an unfamiliar expression you find yourself running across that word over and over again? Maybe it pops up in a book, on the news, or in conversation. It’s like the term was floating out there in the universe all the time and you just didn’t know it.

That’s how I feel lately about the au courant label urban homestead. Everywhere I turn the term seems to be sprouting, in chats with friends, in interviews with farm and food folk, in discussions with colleagues, and in the press.

Not sure what urban homesteading looks like? It’s city dwellers who both enjoy all the urban jungle has to offer and turn city lots, their tiny backyards, balconies, or roof tops into little farms by growing their own greens, preserving, brewing, keeping bees, and/or raising and butchering their own animals for milk, eggs, and meat.

Why are city slickers cultivating this way of life in increasing numbers? For some, it’s a way to connect directly with nature and the food they eat. For others it’s about self-sufficiency, independence, food safety, or food security. Some get going for economic reasons. Still others site its eco cred, lowering their carbon footprint (especially those who opt to go off the grid–as much as humanly possible in the urban environment–by installing solar panels and rain tanks, recycling gray water, and hanging laundry). Of course, for many urban homesteaders, all or many of the above apply.

At its core, this homegrown urban farm revolution marks a cultural and political shift from consuming (buying food) to producing (growing and making your own chow). What makes it different from previous back-to-the-land moments? It’s taking place in major metropolitan areas — and there’s an underlying ethos that participants derive pleasure and build community from all this D.I.Y. production and preservation.  It’s meant to be fun, as well as good for the body, soul, and planet. Urban homesteaders throw canning parties, team up to cure meat, exchange eggs and milk for honey and herbs, and enjoy the fruits of their labor in elaborate feasts with like-minded foodie friends, or so recent news accounts suggest. It seems the domestic arts are groovy again and these newly-learned or rediscovered skills and home-based habits may very well outlast the current economic downturn.

For those of us barely keeping a few chives alive on the windowsill it can feel a tad intimidating. Urban homesteading may be a new kind of extreme sport. It no longer feels enough to cook your own dinner from scratch with organic produce from the farmers’ market and whole grain, non-GMO ingredients from the bulk food bin of your neighborhood natural grocer or food co-op. These days folks are routinely making their own yogurt, pickling and drying their own produce, foraging for fruit, baking bread, making pasta, catching, filleting, and smoking fish — the list is long and admirable. (It may also feel a bit insurmountable and exhausting for well, at least this writer, who is just trying to get a meal on the table after a day at the office.)

This emerging trend echoes earlier grow-your-own efforts, like the World War II-era victory gardens that took root after Eleanor Roosevelt planted a veggie patch at the White House. The Grand Pappy of the modern-day city farm trend may well be Jules Dervaes in Pasedena. On his family farm Dervaes and his three grown children cultivate just one-tenth of an acre, which has produced over three tons of food from some 350 different vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Their online urban homesteading journal dates back to the pre-blogging, olden days of cyberspace, circa 2001.

In my corner of the globe several urban homesteaders are making names for themselves beyond their home base. Food forager Asiya Wadud is profiled in a previous post. Anya Fernald, who served as executive director of Slow Food Nation in San Francisco last year, and who recently launched LiveCulture and is organizing next month’s Eat Real Festival in Oakland is another garnering national attention.  More on this food activist’s projects to come. Writer Novella Carpenter, whose memoir Farm City hilariously chronicles the joys and hazards of squat-lot farming in the ghetto, is another. Carpenter and her edible pets will make an appearance in a future post.

Looking to learn about how to start your own small-scale urban farm? Check out the blog spot homegrown evolution, by SoCal city farmers Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne, authors of The Urban Homestead, who pass on urban homesteading tips and techniques gleaned from their experience. “Once you discover that lettuce actually has a distinct flavor, or you eat a sweet tomato still warm from the sun, or an orange-yolked egg from your own hen, you will never be satisfied with pre-packaged and factory-farmed again,” writes Coyne, summing up her urban homesteading philosophy elsewhere in the blogosphere.

Do you keep bees on your roof, chickens in your side yard, or goats on your back deck? Have you hijacked an abandoned lot and become a pirate gardener, turned your front yard from lawn into lunch, or revitalized that strip of unused land between the street and the sidewalk into an edible oasis? Since a central tenet of the city ag movement is sharing the wealth, feel free to fill us in on your success stories, food-raising failures, or obstacles (legal, logistical, or otherwise) as an urban homesteading adventurer.

Flickr photo by chotda used under the Creative Commons license

Book cover image by Gregg Einhorn

The First Lady of Food

June 19, 2009

So the week began with Paul McCartney’s plea for Meat Free Mondays and ended with Michael Pollan and Novella Carpenter discussing slaughtering chickens, rabbits, goats, and pigs for dinner.

What a difference a few days makes. Carpenter, in case you’ve missed her, is the author of Farm City, a new book on urban gardening that’s garnering rave reviews, like this one from Dwight Garner in last week’s New York Times. She’s not just growing greens people, she’s got an animal farm in her ghetto-fabulous digs. She describes how she lovingly cares for her edible pets and the respectful rituals she performs before readying them for the family meal. There are amusing accounts of dumpster diving near chi-chi restaurants for high-end swill for her hungry pigs.  She’s very funny, peppers her speech with cuss words, and this past week she packed both the bio-diesel gas station that sprang up overnight in my neighborhood and a church, no less, full of folk eager to here her talk dirty. She didn’t disappoint. “You work your arse off trying to feed your pig really well,” she told the church crowd, “and then you find yourself massaging salt into her leg and thinking, ‘this is going to be good’ — it’s a little sexy.”

Linda McCartney just rolled over in her grave. Meanwhile, I’m probably the only person alive in Berkeley who hadn’t attended a Michael Pollan food chat. As advertised, the man who urges us to Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. is accessible and charming and graciously played the role of the proud professor lavishing praise on his student and her success.

But here was the real take-home message from the evening. Carpenter, the relative newbie to food writing, asked Pollan whether this whole obsession with what we eat isn’t getting a little out of hand. Pollan used the opportunity to point out that the politics of food is just getting interesting, now that there’s an administration that gets why it’s important to reform this country’s food system. Of course, as he pointed out, it’s one thing to “get it,” and quite another to bring about change.

That’s where the First Lady of Food comes in. It seems Michelle Obama is on a mission to raise people’s consciousness about our diet. The White House Victory Garden was just the beginning; this week she revealed a plan detailing how to profoundly alter the way we eat. Pollan thinks if the Obama administration can get people to realize that to carry out health care reform the country also needs to overhaul its food industry (drawing the connection between obesity, type 2 diabetes, and skyrocketing health care costs) then maybe real change is possible. That’s something to chew on.

Photo: Lynn Sweet.

To learn more about what Michelle’s got cooking on the culinary political front follow her every food move at Eddie Gehman Kohan’s amazingly exhaustive Obama Foodorama blog.