City person moves to the country, takes up farming, can't believe how much work it is, writes a book: a healthy stack of titles along these lines has come out in the last decade or so, as a new wave of back-to-the-landers and locavores has discovered the joys and perils of small-scale agriculture. The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love, by Kristin Kimball, falls into that category, although the author stumbled into farming in one of the most old-fashioned ways imaginable—she became a farmer's wife.
Kimball was a freelance writer living in New York City and beginning to long for the idea of "home" when she went to interview Mark, a young, charismatic organic farmer in Pennsylvania who turned her life upside down. They fell in love, moved to the Adirondacks and started a horse-powered organic farm on a whole-diet Community Supported Agriculture model. Seven years later, they have about 150 subscribers who pay $2,900 each for a year-round, all-they-can-eat share of produce, meat, dairy and grains. The memoir follows their first year on the farm, from those painful early days of getting used to physical labor through their wedding in the midst of the first harvest, and Kimball's continuing doubts about settling into farm life. The book, Kimball says, "is the story of the two love affairs that interrupted the trajectory of my life: one with farming—that dirty concupiscent art—and the other with a complicated and exasperating farmer I found in State College, Pennsylvania."
I spoke to Kimball recently as she took a break from putting together the weekly share for CSA subscribers.
Food & Think: I'm curious—what’s in a share at the end of January in the North Country?
Kimball: It’s pretty good, actually. We’re still bringing in kale, green cabbage, purple cabbage, carrots, potatoes. Radishes. Meat and milk. Beef and pork. And loads of eggs. Plus flour and grains.
F & T: There are a number of cooking scenes in your book. One of my favorites is the one in the prologue, where you describe in sensual detail a mid-winter meal that Mark is preparing using ingredients from your farm—plus one exotic fruit, a pomegranate, a friend brought you from New York City:
But the unlikely star is the radish... Tonight, Mark braised them in stock, which hardly dimmed their brilliant color but mellowed out their flavor. He added a dash of maple syrup and balsamic vinegar, and at the end tossed in a handful of the tangy pomegranate seeds, the heat bursting some and leaving others whole to amuse the tongue.
Why did you choose this particular meal to represent what your life had become?
Kimball: I think at that time I was pretty deeply into my farm life and I was really loving the food that we were growing, but there was still this part of me that was "New York" and that still was interested in something exotic. I loved that these could coexist harmoniously on the same plate. And I also love the way cooks and that he’s so creative, and doesn’t shy away from such a combination.
And it's also that you can eat a pomegranate and not be so didactic about it.
F & T: You mean about eating local food?
Kimball: Yes. I think it’s only in an age of abundance of food, and I don’t think we’re really wired to handle this abundance so people make up rules about how to eat.... I personally think food, before anything, should be enjoyment. It should be a pleasure. For most people, "ethical" eating doesn’t really stick unless you enjoy it.
F & T: There’s a funny scene where Mark meets your family for the first time and cooks Thanksgiving dinner, including a turkey he had helped slaughter, and your mother is sort of horrified by this “drippy white shopping bag, its headless neck sticking out obscenely.” I take it this was not the kind of food you grew up eating?
Kimball: My mom and her generation of cooks really took advantage of convenience, and I totally get it—it was a cultural moment. It was a tenet of feminism that you weren't going to be a slave of the kitchen. My mom just didn’t enjoy cooking.... For me I feel like it’s one of my great creative outlets.
F & T: You have two daughters now, a 3-year-old and a 4-month-old. Does the 3-year-old like vegetables and meats that non-farm kids might be squeamish about?
Kimball: She’s never been picky. In fact, one of her very first words was "testicle." Every year when we kill the bull it’s like a festival, and we fry up the testicles—it’s like the farmer’s answer to chicken nuggets. So one of her earliest words was, "more testicle."
F & T: You wrote about feeling like you were playing a role as a farmer during that first year. Was there a moment when you realized this was who you really were now and you were no longer trying something on?
Kimball: I think if you pretend to be something for long enough—I forget who said that—it becomes true. Probably that moment in the book in Hawaii, when I thought I was there to get away from it and all I wanted to do was farm. Now I'm seven years into it and every day I feel like I have so much more to learn—especially on a farm as diverse as ours.
F & T: Why did you decide to go the whole-diet CSA route instead of a simpler, more specialized operation?
Kimball: I feel more and more sure that farms are a pretty accurate reflection of the farmer. I don’t think either of us would be interested if we were just growing microgreens. It is frustrating, though, because it’s so complex.
F & T: What part of yourself from your old life would you say still survives?
Kimball: I really like going back to the city when I go back there. I love when I go back to see my friends and we go to bars. Most of my dearest, oldest friends are people who knew me as a city person, so that part of me lives on through them.
F & T: Do you still write?
Kimball: I'm working on another book. It's a continuation of The Dirty Life, filling where we are now—turning 40, seven years in, and how that is for a person like me who loves novelty. It's taken me three years to write, but I had two babies during that time.