Book Review: “A Dirty Life”

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Category : Book and Movie Reviews, October, Seasonal Menu Ideas

The Dirty Life by Kristin KimballIn the Island Library (part of the Whatcom County Library System), there is a special rack of books with a “Hot Picks” sticker on each of them. A lot of them have had to do with food, gardening and farming. I recently found a book on farming that was too good not to share.

“The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love” is by Kristin Kimball, whose lifestyle as the book opens is about as far from farming as a person can get. She was a freelance writer living in New York City’s East Village neighborhood (before gentrification) across from the Hell’s Angels’ headquarters. She frequently partied until 4 a.m., played pinball for recreation, and secretly longed for a family.

She meets farmer Mark while working on a story about young farmers raising organic local produce. When she shows up to do the interview, Mark immediately puts her to work hoeing broccoli in heels on the small farm he manages. It takes her two days to get him cornered long enough to complete the interview. By then he has decided he wants to marry her (though it’s some time later before he lets her know), and she is perplexed about how she got conned into working so hard and why she wakes up at home wanting to do more.

Later they decide to try farming together. An acquaintance lets them use his long neglected “summer home” farmland. Their dream is to create a farm which will produce organic food sustainably using horses instead of machinery. They want to sell their products directly to consumers as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Each CSA share will include ALL food needs–meat, dairy products, grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, eggs, etc. And they wanted to get it all up and running in a year, with only $18,000 in savings between the two of them.

I was totally engrossed in the book by this point. First of all, I know how much work it is to start even a small garden, much less a farm. I also know from my grandparents’ farm in the Midwest that raising livestock adds another level of complexity (which means more work). To do all this without a tractor means even more physical difficulty, and to have it operational within one year seemed–well, “naive” is only an approximation of what I was thinking.

Amazingly, they succeeded in making a profit that first year, enough to purchase some of the land and the farm  buildings. The story of how they did it is good reading, but also a valuable education for anyone who eats, which is why I’m recommending it to you.

Many of us have a view of farming as a pastoral, even tranquil, occupation. This book quickly puts those romantic notions to rest. While Kimball talks about spiritual dawns and peaceful milking times, she also describes the “to do” lists that grow longer every day and dangerous situations that arise suddenly from a failed fence post or an error in judgement at the end of a long, hard day.

In short, the book provides an honest account of the day-to-day life of one pair of farmers. While their story is unique to them, it gives a feel for the lifestyle, commitment, and just plain effort that goes into any small farm operation. It can’t help but increase your appreciation for the incredible work our local farmers do for us.

Since the book describes the importance of using all parts of an animal, I thought this stew menu would be an appropriate accompaniment. (Note: The name “oxtail” is a carry over from earlier times. These days the “oxtail” is from a cow.)

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Comments (2)

I read this book too! I loved it, she does a really good job of describing a farmers life and she is a great writer! Do you have any other suggestions that are similar to this book? Thanks for sharing 🙂

Hi, Cara! I don’t know of anything exactly like this, but there are some other interesting books related to farming and food. I especially liked “Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. He’s also a great writer, and there’s a lot of his own personal experiences in the book, which always makes for a more interesting story, I think. I also liked “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver about her family eating locally for a year. Fabulous writer and interesting story. You can purchase any of these through links on my Bookstore page from Village Books in Bellingham.