I feel a little like LeVar Burton when I talk about books, but let’s just be real: Reading Rainbow was the coolest show on PBS.
I loved the beautiful nerdiness and heartfelt honesty of Novella Carpenter’s Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. Her writing style falls somewhere between Michael Pollan and Anne Lamott. The first line of her memoir reads, “I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto.”
I can relate. Although I’m not the squat-farmer of a vacant lot in Oakland, I do live in the Chico city limits where I keep 22 noisy and slightly stinky chickens that produce a plethora of beautiful, fresh brown eggs year-round.
In a society like ours, where protein prices fluctuate with commodities like corn, and we are increasingly unaware of the living conditions meat animals are raised in, what those animals were fed, and what may have been added to the meat after that animal died (in what was probably an inglorious mass murder), it has become more relevant to think about raising our own food.
I am on the side that says, like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall did in The River Cottage Meat Book, “…to those who play the socioeconomic card, saying that about the poor, they’ll never be able to afford your fancy, organic, rare-breed meat from pampered farmyard pets…I say don’t peddle that hypocritical line to me.” He goes on to explain that, “Principally what’s needed is the education to understand that…a modest amount of good meat (and not a mountain of cheap burgers made out of meat recovered mechanically from slaughterhouse slurry),” is an important component of healthy eating.
What modern people have forgotten, but was previously common practice, is how to keep animals for our own consumption. In Farm City, Novella talks about raising pigs on the vacant lot in Oakland, and the fact that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, “…many American cities…had pigs within city limits.” Experts like Michael Pollan suggest that, instead of a cat, people should consider getting a chicken, because while your chicken will supply you with one glorious egg per day, you can’t actually milk a cat, Focker.
It may sound crazy, but for me, the awkward and makeshift way of living in the city limits with 22 squawking birds, three children, one dog, and an herb garden just makes sense. Admittedly, I have always loved farms. My grandpa grew up a sugar beet farmer and was later a cattle rancher, so when he and my grandma retired to a ranch in Lake City (a tiny town in Northern California), I was excited. The experience of tending chickens, feeding lambs, brushing cow’s hides, and riding a dirt bike around 50 acres of land stuck with me like the crisp sweetness of a snap pea fresh off the vine.
And I’ve protected those memories like a hen protects her egg…whether she lives in the city or not.