Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Book Review: The Dirty Life

Another way a gardener makes it through the long cold winter, is reading gardening books. I have a lot of large, glossy "coffee table" type books to supplement my favorite veggie magazine and seed catalogs, but what I really love is personal experience type books. Garden Novels. I was surprised, when I searched back through this blog, to find that I have never reviewed any books.
The first one I ever read was "The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden"

This is a great book about how a normal middle class person can go insane trying to create, maintain and make use of the perfect kitchen garden. It's a struggle I am now quite familiar with. But a far better book is Animal, Vegetable Miracle, a Year of Food Life.

Animal Vegetable Miracle diaries a family's year long attempt to eat nothing but local food. Food they raised in their garden, and in their chicken coop and food bought from other local farmers. These are the pretty much the only two I reread over and over. I've now got another "read again" book. The Dirty Life a Memoir of Farming, Food and Love by Kristen Kimball. She hasn't written anything else, but she has a website and a blog to be found at

The book tells the story about how she fell in love with a free thinking, rather challenging man and left her life as a writer in NY City, gave up her vegetarian diet, and helped him create a "whole diet" CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm in Upstate NY where they farm with horses, feed a couple of hundred "members" and have learned to use all parts of the pig except the oink.
She soon learns there is a lot more to gardening and farming and the far rural lifestyle than meets the eye.

"Did I really think that a person with a genius for fixing engines, or for building, or for husbanding cows, was less brilliant than a person who writes ad copy or interprets the law? Apparently I did... There' s no better cure for snobbery than a good ass kicking."

She also learns to milk cows by hand, butcher chickens, pigs and cows, till crops with a team of Belgians, and get along with her husband-to-be in the process. This isn't just a book about gardening, although they have acres and acres of garden crops this is about farming as a whole and the lifestyle that goes with it.

“‎A farm is a manipulative creature. There is no such thing as finished. Work comes in a stream and has no end. There are only the things that must be done now and things that can be done later. The threat the farm has got on you, the one that keeps you running from can until can't, is this: do it now, or some living thing will wilt or suffer or die. Its blackmail, really.”

And it is about eating locally and seasonally.

"The central question in the kitchen would have to change from 'What do I want?" to 'What is available?"
I thoroughly enjoyed this book right down to the last paragraph. I have to admire her for her resourcefulness and determination. While I would happily learn how to adjust harness and aim a harrow, I don't think I could either make or eat blood sausage. I can certainly relate to her not feeling clean for weeks or months at a time as she toils in the fields. And I can commiserate with the havoc a wayward herd of cows or a runaway team of horses can cause.
I don't often recommend books. Taste in literature is a very subjective thing. But, if you enjoy this blog, you will enjoy any of these three books, and The Dirty Life in particular.


  1. I've read them, all but the last one and I concur with both your recommendations and judgement.

    After skimming the jacket on the one I haven't read I believe I might actually know the farm in question and if I'm mistaken I am very familiar with the general area. When I first came to the United States I did so as a dairy rep for Blue Seal Feeds and I covered parts of the Champlain Valley in Vermont as well as parts of the west side of Lake Champlain....Washington and Essex County NY if I remember correctly.

  2. I've LOVED Baraba Kingsolver's writing for years and this book in particular came at a time when I was really trying to figure out how to eat more sustainably. It made me feel like I wasn't alone, gave me some great information, and is just a great read. If you haven't already, I recommend you check out her fiction, especially 'Prodigal Summer'.

    I'm so glad you posted the other books too! I'm looking forward to reading them.

  3. This book, very timely with our national interest in eating local and sustainable food, is a touching account of a woman falling in life with a man and falling in love with the land they work. Anyone who has ever been drawn to growing their own food, or who has nostalgic memories of parents or grandparents doing so, will be greatly rewarded by this book. Kimball's writing style is direct, enjoyable, and quite humorous. A story she recounts about both she and her soon-to-be husband's parents meeting for the first time is absolutely hilarious.

  4. I agree with you in that there must be a lot of acquired taste, when Kimball goes into depth in describing some of the things she had eaten. I myself couldn't eat blood sausage, but I like knowing that Kimball presented many options in farming and many culinary options as well.