Category Archives: Reading

Farm City

my friend Novella's book is AWESOME

Farm City is an awesome read, written by Novella Carpenter, whose book I rank up with Bill Buford’s Heat, with the spirit of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. And I love the voice–Novella the narrator often wonders why people open up to her and accept her so readily (among others, Chris Lee of Eccolo, who teaches her how to prepare pork from her pigs); the voice of the narrator (straightforward, funny, unblinking to the point of childlike wonder, compassionate) is hers, and as a reader I found myself liking her so very much.

I mean, she describes her community in the ghetto with compassion and humor (describing the “tumbleweeds” as “tumbleweaves”).

I’ve been meaning to buy the book at one of our local stores, at one of Novella’s book tour readings, but my availability did not intersect with her schedule. And so I ordered the book off Amazon–but for as long as I waited to buy her tome, I wasted no time in cracking it open and settling in for what turned out to be an absorbing, delightful, educational reading of a book that drips with optimism and moxie in a world that has in recent months, gone dark and brooding.

Novella has a farm.  She has a farm on an abandoned lot in a part of Oakland nicknamed “Ghost Town,” near the freeway and BART tracks. I’ve visited her farm and was astonished on my first visit to discover an oasis in a part of town that is not a destination site for many–most people drive past it on the freeway, ride past it on BART, there are very few grocery stores, and abandoned lots are many. Like the Valley of Ashes in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  But on her street corner, behind a chain link fence, is a lot full of green vegetables and myriad fruits, with a quiet symphony of animal noises.


The farm is serious work, with its share of tragedy: some of her birds die at the mercy of wild neighborhood dogs. Because the abandoned lot on which she squats and plants the garden is purposely unlocked, sometimes others come by and harvest things without permission.  (This, she takes in stride–it’s not “her” land and she willingly shares the harvest).  A farm, rural or urban, is not a perfect fairytale. Nature is unpredictable–but rewarding and complex, too.

When Novella’s animals are slaughtered (by her or, rarely, by a third party), it is not a heartless act but a very complex one; sad, respectful, awful, spiritual, and ultimately, pragmatic.  Once during a visit I commented on how “cute” her rabbits were and Novella quickly responded, “They’re food. Don’t fall in love.”  BTW, they were totally cute.

When she buys pigs at auction, unsure of what “Barrow” or “Gilt” might mean, she asks a boy, “Does G mean ‘girl’?” The way she describes the boy’s reaction, “He looked at me as if he might fall over from the sheer power of my enormous idiocy. Then he nodded, so stunned by my stupidity he couldn’t speak,” is so full of humility and frank humor that I was bowled over as a reader. I laughed out loud. (lol to you). Most writers in the foodie/food realm are so pompous and full of themselves, that I was truly delighted and charmed by Novella here, as I am in real life.

I’m always interested in novel structure (in recent months, I’ve been blogging less because I’ve been steeped in writing my fiction), and I took a quick look at how Novella structured Farm City: Rabbit, Turkey, Pig. (Those who read her blog know she has added goats to her farm in recent years, goats with whom I have visited and fallen in love).  She now has goats because during her month of living exclusively off her farm and a 100 yard circumference, which she includes in Farm City, she decided she wanted to have a ready source of milk, sorely missed during that month.

Bilbo and the baby goats sunning on the steps
(Bilbo, Georgina, and Orla).

The book is written, more or less, chronologically–because Novella really did start with rabbits, moving on to turkeys, and then pigs.  But I still found the livestock-centric structure interesting and effective because yes, to a farmer life and time revolves around the livestock at hand.

The book is on Oprah’s list of 25 books to read this summer, and deservedly so.

Tastespotting Chickens


Recently, I found out that my recent post on North Korean chicken soup with ohn bahn was getting a lot of traffic–where from? The answer: Tastespotting.

A simple click took me to a tantalizing website filled with food/gastroporn–simple and gorgeous pictures of food, with short descriptions and a link back to the featured site. This is a webportal for the appetite! And while browsing a bit, I found that I’m not the only one who loves this site; the venerable food blogger, Chez Pim, loves Tastespotting, too.

Of all the posts up there today–the beautiful cakes and muffins and cookies and noodles and soups and food products, a picture of fresh eggs caught my eye. The caption: “The best way to get fresh eggs? Raise your own chickens. Yes, even if you live in the city!” I clicked.

Because I love chickens. I have always wanted a chicken coop in my yard–and reading about it makes me want chickens even more! Fresh eggs, and new characters, pecking about my yard…and free manure! And pest control! It would drive my dogs nuts, and I’d have to find a way to shield the chickens from vicious predators like raccoons, but how lovely would it be to gather eggs in the mornings?

So much have I fantasized about this prospect–Melanie, another writer here on Muffin Top, and I have even go to the extent of researching different breeds. (“Oh, that one’s PRETTTY! But this one’s more productive! But–blue eggs!”) And we are not alone–my friend, Anne, loves chickens too.

Do I sense a zeitgeist movement of raising chickens in our semi-urban backyards?

I remember visiting my mother and father, who used to live in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Every morning, we’d be awakened by a rooster’s crow. Someone in their neighborhood was keeping chickens and a rooster. “Ah! I like it! Rooster is natural, good alarm clock!” my nature and animal-loving dad would say. I rather liked it, too.

literature and food

I don’t know about you, but I absolutely LOVED Gourmet Magazine’s literary supplement last summer–the one that included fiction from Monique Truong, Pat Conroy, Jane Smiley, Ann Patchett, Calvin Trillin, and the long-absent-but-very-much-missed Junot Diaz. It was thrilling to read essays from the Literati–and now I see that Gourmet magazine has continued its relationship with literature on their blog.

Most recently, there was a post by Ann Patchett on 7 reasons she prefers home cooking

And previous to that, were a couple posts by Elizabeth McCracken (Patchett and McCracken are incredible writing buddies) on New Orleans.

I am a big lover of food magazines, and I am a big fan of literature. Imagine my delight. I hope you are delighted, too.

Food Network for 72 hours

Bill Buford, author of the must-read-book Heat, has a fantastic article in the New Yorker on the Food Network. Yes, the man watched the Food Network for 72 straight hours.

Foodie Gossip!

There is a very juicy article about Chez Panisse in this month’s Vanity Fair.  Just so you don’t have to flip to the Baby Suri photo spread, I’m posting a link to it here.

Read. Cook. Apologize.

I must post this swiftly and regrettfully, with most of those regrets to Eric. Last night, the last day of August, I attempted to make the hash browns from Garlic and Sapphires. They were abysmal. I don’t know how a person could f**k up freaking hash browns, but I managed to achieve this quite easily with a spare list of ingredients (8 new potatoes, an onion, salt, pepper, butter). I think I didn’t boil them long enough. I think I used too much potato. I think I need to stick to what I’m good at, which is deep frying and pressing the button on a rice cooker.

Anyway, my bf thought they were good, although they needed more salt he said, and then he said they were like really good baked potatoes in a cake form, and then he said I’m going to put some salt and butter on these ok? And then he was throwing slabs of Plugra on it like frosting. Holy shit is it that bad, I said. And then he said, no! They’re great!, but with a mouthful of the sort-of hash browns, so it was more like Mfno, fey’re gwate! We ate them all, so they were tasty overall, but believe me – they weren’t pretty.

So no picture for now. Sorry, Eric! I’ve failed the RCE club, and think I may be forced to renounce my membership.

If the two shots on Marcus’ cameraphone end up being not so horrific, I’ll post them later…but if I don’t, just imagine the Texas Chain Saw Massacre — with potatoes.

She Likes It! Hey Mikey! Spaghetti Carbonara

Well! I finally did it. Tonight I was rushed, harried, had a houseful of hungry people, and just happened to have in my kitchen a pound of spaghetti, a pound of bacon, some eggs, parmesan and garlic. What else could I do but make the Garlic & Sapphires Spaghetti Carbonara?

It was fantastic. It was delicious. Everyone loved it, although I suspect my Very Healthy Husband was biting his tongue at the combination of major cholesterol items all on one plate. The kids seemed shocked. My mother said, “Um, where’s the sauce?” I answered, “You just made it.” (she had been stirring the bacon pieces in the pan) I asked everyone, “Would you eat this again?” I got a resounding YES. (husband was washing the dishes, so he did not get to participate in the vote)

I have a confession to make. I was afraid of this egg business and worried that it would NOT get cooked by the hot pasta, that my pasta just would not be hot ENOUGH, and I would end up with slimey, not quite cooked egg all over my pasta. I added just a teensy bit of half and half to the beaten eggs on the bowl. As if that would somehow help? As if it would cut the degree of horribleness in case the eggs didn’t cook? I don’t know. So I did cheat a bit. But the eggs did cook, we all ate it with great gusto, and now I have something new and wonderful and EASY to make. Thank you Ruth Reichl, and thank you Eric for the assignment, and thank you Muffin Toppers for encouraging me to go for it.