It would be easy to mock a grad student who decides to put down roots with her auto-mechanic boyfriend in a sketchy part of Oakland, Calif., better known for its murder rate than fresh produce.
But Novella Carpenter did and readers should thank her for it. In "Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer," Carpenter comes across as the sort of person you’d hope to meet at a dinner party, nutty enough to be captivating and charming enough to draw you in. From her opening sentence, “I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto,” she had me hooked.
No survivor’s tale of crime and desperation, Farm City is a memoir based on living off the land with modest expectations. Carpenter writes about establishing and then subsisting on a garden plot located on an abandoned 4,500-square-foot lot next to her apartment building.
In a decaying city suffering from “beautiful neglect,” Carpenter and her boyfriend join a community called Ghost Town, which is composed of immigrants, outliers and miscreants unfit for the slick precincts of San Francisco or the manicured lawns of Berkeley. They befriend Lana — who says that’s “anal spelled backward,” by way of introduction — and Bobby, a junk-collecting homeless resident.
Expanded from a series of articles published in SF Gate and her own blog, the book unfolds in three chapters: Turkey, Rabbit and Pig. Carpenter chronicles her escapades with vegan-anarchists (too many rules), Dumpster diving, and navigating the mean streets of West Oakland — and the result reads like a hybrid version of "The Wire" meets “The Whole Earth Catalogue.”
Breaking down the barrier between producer and consumer, "Farm City" is largely about a lapsed vegetarian’s relationship with hand-raised livestock, which she intends to kill and then eat. Beginning with harvesting honey, Carpenter works her way up the food chain.
Her conversion experience begins with a trip to Los Vegas and a run-in with a banquet table loaded with bacon, “the gateway meat” that has led to the downfall of many a vegetarian.
The urban homestead she calls Ghost Town Farm offers a glimpse of what’s possible when no one is paying attention. Aside from a handful of curious neighbors and the specter of development, Carpenter is free to do as she pleases.
Although she rejects the hippie lifestyle of her parents, she readily admits their DIY values are hardwired into her DNA. With her urban farm, Carpenter restages her early childhood in the Pacific Northwest. “I recognized that if my parents were Utopia version 8.5 with their hippie farm in Idaho, I was merely Utopia 9.0 with my urban farm in the ghetto, debugged of the isolation problem.”
Realizing that “having a dialogue with life,” means having a conversation with death, Carpenter literally delves into how the sausage gets made, so to speak. She’s faced with the dilemma of how to humanely dispatch animals that she dotes on, but are destined for the cooking pot. She becomes a culinary assassin, cuddly bunnies get wacked (a technique involving a garden rake), and trusting ducks are decapitated (a bathtub and gardening shears).
Farm life can be gritty, like her rural counterparts, with a unique Ghost Town slant — the police bust a grow house, feral dogs decimate her ducks, prostitutes troll the streets.
Rather than recoil from what she witnesses, Carpenter responds with a great deal of candor and wit. “This place is getting Third-World apocalyptic,” she writes.
Ultimately she finds her own tribe among stealth farmers, foragers and enterprising home cooks. Coming under the tutelage of foodies dedicated to the curing of pork into salty and savory cuts of meat, Carpenter finds a mentor in the chef/owner of Eccolo, Chris Lee, a luminary in California’s farm-to-plate food scene. Lee generously imparts his trade secrets on transforming pork into something almost sacred.
"Farm City" takes hold of you from the first page to the last sentence. And it might lead you to believe it’s possible — even worthwhile — to grow good food regardless of the circumstances, whether it’s the weed-chocked lots of Oakland or the grasslands of Kansas.