Not Oprah’s Book Club: Farm City

I’m still on my food politics book kick, this time thanks to Heather and her holiday gift. Thanks Heather!
Novella Carpenter’s book, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, is a definite departure from the more political books about food. Rather than focus on the broken system of industrial agriculture, she focuses on her own strange attempts at doing things differently–from keeping bees in her urban backyard, to creating a full-on farm on a plot of abandoned land (replete with old concrete and urban trash) in a neighborhood in West Oakland that she refers to as the “ghetto.”
She goes as far as to raise two pigs in this backyard turned farm plot, feeding them from the dumpsters of Berkeley’s fancy restaurants and eventually turning their meat into fancy prosciutto and other Italian pork delicacies.
Her story is by no means predictable. With every turn and progression in her urban farming adventure, you’re left wondering what in the world she is thinking. Two pigs that will grow to 500 lbs? A turkey that flies around the neighborhood? Slaughtering poultry in her backyard?
Maybe it’s the absurd twists and turns that make Novella’s book interesting–you’re never sure what she’ll try next.

While Novella’s book didn’t make me want to go out and start raising animals in my urban backyard, I found her style and journey enjoyable–from a safe distance.
It was hard to ignore the issues of privilege in the story. Novella is in many ways a hippy white gentrifier in her West Oakland neighborhood–she just brings much more to the community than just rising real estate prices, namely a flock of chickens and ducks. She’s not blind to these differences, and talks frankly about her interaction with the mostly African-American low-income community. She gladly shares her garden produce with the neighbors and even donates veggies to the local Black Panther chapter.
But these acts of kindness, or awareness about her relationship to the community around her don’t absolve the differences.
She ends the book with an impromptu apprenticeship with a top Berkeley chef–one who takes a liking to her after she is caught dumpster diving behind his restaurant to feed her pigs. An act that others (perhaps her West Oakland neighbors?) might get arrested for, and she ends up in his kitchen, learning his secret prosciutto and salami recipes.
At least Novella directly addresses issues of race, class and privilege. It’s hard to ignore that almost all of these food politics authors (and all of the one’s whose books I’ve written about) are white, well-educated and mostly upper middle class.
You can purchase Novella’s book here, or read her blog about her farm here.

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