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Learning to embrace the dirty life

Muddy farmThe first section of The Dirty Life tells how a New York City girl and a farmer fell in love.  Kristin heads down to Pennsylvania to research a story about Mark, but the farmer is too busy to talk with her right then.  After hoeing broccoli with his assistant and helping slaughter a pig, she finally makes Mark sit down for an interview.

"When Mark tells the story of our relationship, this is the moment he counts as the beginning.  Sitting on a log and answering my questions, he says, he began hearing a voice in his head, a persistent and annoying little voice, like a mental mosquito.  'You're going to marry that woman,' the voice was saying.

"He did his best to ignore it.  He wasn't looking for a girlfriend.  He'd recently ended a long-term relationship.  Moreover, it was high summer.  He had a farm to run.  He had to focus.  The last thing he needed was the voice saying he'd been found by a wife.  'You're going to marry this woman,' the voice insisted, ' and if you were brave enough, you'd ask her right now.'"

While the personal parts of the culture clash make for riveting reading, the more thought-provoking side is the contrast between Mark's hippy upbringing and Kristin's urban Republican family.  Kristin brings her boyfriend home to meet the parents for Thanksgiving dinner, and of course Mark provides the food and cooks it too.  Unfortunately, the first impression doesn't go well.

"I'd forgotten how very clean my mother's world is until we walked in with those boxes, which were smudged with field dirt, a few limp leaves clinging to their Dining at Essex farmbottoms.  It appeared we would contaminate any surface we put them on, so Dad directed Mark to the garage, and my mother asked me quietly if I was sure it was safe to eat the turkey, which was wrapped in a drippy white shopping bag, its headless neck sticking out obscenely.  I'd also forgotten that my mother prefers her food highly packaged, associations with its origins as obscured as possible.  When we were kids, she would never buy brown eggs, because they seemed too 'farmy.'"

So here's your discussion question for this week: Have you had to overcome the perceived uncleanliness of real food in yourself or your family?  Was it hard to learn that tomatoes with green tops taste better than uniformly-colored grocery store offerings?  Are you forced into hiding the bug-bitten cabbage leaves from your spouse and to trickery to tempt your family into eating garden produce?  If so, what techniques did you use to get your family to embrace the dirty life?

Weekend HomesteaderUnless I hear that I'm making you read too large (or too small) chunks, we'll discuss part two next Wednesday.  And, as usual, feel free to chime in with your observations about the first section of the book even if they seem off topic.  I'm looking forward to your take on this fun read!

The Weekend Homesteader provides projects for those who want to get their hands dirty...and those who want to become self-sufficient but stay clean.

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I can vividly remember a time when I thought composting was dirty, stinky and nasty. Of course, I had not yet started my own kitchen garden or embraced my local CSA. I was still shopping at Safeway instead of New Seasons. In my defense, it was how I was raised and I've obviously made significant changes for the better!! Interestingly, my grandpa was a wheat and cattle rancher in Eastern Oregon. But that all seemed so rural and, of course, I was urban! Also, that kind of ranching is so dramatically different from anything that you (Anna and Mark) or I are doing that it isn't fair to compare them. All his land was devoted to wheat, hay or cows and there was no such thing as a kitchen garden. Which is actually really sad because it would have been an amazing thing to learn about as kid.

But, yes, I have had to overcome the 'uncleanliness' issue. I now love food that still had dirt on it because I now know how much better fresh food tastes! I enjoy getting to show less open minded friends what a huge pleasure it is to pop cherry tomatoes into your mouth when they are still warm from the afternoon sun. I really liked this book because I could see some similarities as Kristin's food philosophy evolves. Obviously, I didn't go the whole farming route and I think she started out from a more open minded place than I did. This book was a great selection, BTB.

Comment by Jess Wed Jul 25 12:37:06 2012
We joined a fruit/veggie CSA last summer, receiving a large box every other week. Between the selections from the box, and our weekly trips to local farmers markets, we've exposed ourselves and our kids to many an imperfect piece of fruit! I hide overripe or banged up bananas with whipped cream. Whithering but delicious strawberries become sparkling gems once sliced and macerated in sugar. Any ugly fruit can go in the blender with yogurt and become a smoothie. Sometimes I'll ease in a new variety of veggie from our garden via pairing it with something the kids are comfortable with--like mixing varieties of carrots for roasting.
Comment by jen g Wed Jul 25 12:40:47 2012

Jess --- Interesting to hear that you followed a similar path to the author of the book. I think you're right that really large-scale farming doesn't do much for helping you embrace the dirty life --- I remember reading in various sources that most of those farmers buy their produce from the store because it's simply easier.

Jen --- Getting food from CSAs and farmer's markets does seem like a good first step, not only on learning about blemished produce, but also getting a handle on eating in season. Thanks for sharing your tips on winning over the unbelievers. :-)

Comment by anna Wed Jul 25 13:26:57 2012
While I haven't had an overwhelming amount of experiences, I know that I feel like I'm personally being judged when I offer produce I've helped create. I'm usually bursting at the seams with pride, almost a "Look what I did!" bounce in my step when I offer it, but find that I am more sensitive to any criticism that develops because they are unused to what they are receiving. I found myself educating a LOT about how eggs actually develop when I started giving away my hens' over abundance of eggs. I received feedback such as shells being thin, blood flecks, double yolks, strange (aka, different than storebought) coloration, etc. All very normal things that I have no issues with because I simply already know and accept them. It surprised me how little other people knew about food straight from the source and not from the store, and how industry standard has spoiled others with their consistency. I was also surprised to find lettuce I gave away go uneaten because it didn't look like 'normal' lettuce. It was simply a red variety of butter lettuce. I think I assumed that because I'd had no problem understanding that fresh produce has dirt, spots, and different varieties, that others would automatically understand the same. I've learned to educate when I give things away, taking it as an opportunity to widen their horizon while also cushioning myself from the bulk of criticism.
Comment by Brandy Wed Jul 25 14:25:37 2012

Brandy --- Excellent points! I actually won't give away produce to people unless I'm 98% sure they're enough my kind of people that they'll eat it. (That's why these cucumbers are so hard to find homes for --- I won't let Mark simply give them to folks we vaguely know, because I don't want my biomass in the landfill.)

Our movie star neighbor is the same way with honey. He'll give friends a jar, but the next time he sees them, he'll ask about it. How did they like it? What did they eat it on or in? If you're too vague, you don't get any more honey! :-)

Comment by anna Wed Jul 25 14:33:09 2012
I've embraced the "dirty life" openly. After discovering all the "un natural" lurking in the grocery store, I quit cold turkey. We now have a garden, I jar a good bit during the more active growing season, we raise chickens, and more. The hardest part I think, is getting my children, (9 and 4) to understand that I was wrong for so long. The ugly cabbage out of the garden is much better than the pretty one at the store.
Comment by Megan Wed Jul 25 15:00:52 2012
Anna - I wished we lived closer. I loved those bumpy cukes you left at the 40th anniversary party and I'd be happy to have more. I believe they were getting snatched up by others as they were leaving. What kind are they? My mother gardened in suburbia so I was used to "dirty" vegies and didn't think too much about it. Even when living in West Phila. I attempted gardening and always felt like the food was more "real" (not to mention, tastier) than that which came from the grocery store. My daughter seems to have inherited that tendency as well - when living in the middle of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, she started a roof top container garden above her apartment.
Comment by Alice Wed Jul 25 15:52:08 2012

Megan --- "I've embraced the "dirty life" openly." Ha! You made me laugh! :-) It does seem, from reading various comments, that kids are easy to train if you start them from birth, but harder to change.

Alice --- I wish you lived closer too! It would be nice to get to trade forest-gardening info in addition to pawning off cucumbers on you. :-)

To answer your question, the cucumbers we're growing this year are Harmonie F1 from Johnny's. I've also grown Diamant hybrid, which seem pretty similar. Both are pickling cucumbers with thin skins that are delicious unpeeled, and they do remarkably well at withstanding the diseases that have previously wiped out our cucumber stands after a week or two. (Thus the overabundance of cukes this year --- we planted them over and over because I thought they'd die!)

By the way, I enjoy reading your daughter's blog still, although she never posts enough. Beautiful photos when she does, though!

Comment by anna Wed Jul 25 16:03:41 2012
I was RAISED on dirt. LOL My husband not so much. I am a firm believer on kids needing to eat a lil dirt along the way to grow up healthy (and happy). Luckily DH has come to believe the same. I have a daughter who thinks the most awesome thing in the world is when I dig carrots out of a box of sand during winter. For us embracing dirt is natural :)
Comment by MamaHomesteader Wed Jul 25 17:51:05 2012

I grew up dong the Dirty Life. I still can, pickle, freeze and dry every summer.

All our kids grew up with baby chickens or ducks every spring to run around the back yard (in town).

Hubby learned to garden and cook. I haven't got him into canning yet, but he is really into eatting what I can.

Comment by Mona Wed Jul 25 22:56:53 2012
With my allergy, I have gotten into the habit of being very selective in my produce purchases, using farmer market or organic as much as possible. WHen I see all the shiny perfect produce at the grocery store or on a tv show, my first thought is ewww, look at all the pesticides and wax on that flavorless produce, I bet it would both taste bad and make me sick.
Comment by rebecca Thu Jul 26 12:56:07 2012

Hi, esp. to Brandy--I was taught by my father in his potato and carrot garden out back in South Weymouth, in the mid 40s, when I was 3 or so,to just wipe the fresh-pulled carrot off on the grass, or to spit on it and wipe it off on my coveralls--the dirt added flavor! I am sorry when relatives won't eat "bitter" (old) Buttercrunch, which, to me, like strawberries fresh-picked, tastes better unwashed. I think there is a free market in Abingdon of vegetables and fruit that have been culled as not good enough to sell in supermarkets.

I do think that the writer of Dirty Life rushed too much, and that the book would have been better if it had been more serious, in terms of her husband, Mark's philosophies! I've just found a brand-new book, Urban Farming, by Thomas Fox, with a great resource appendix, that discusses aspects of Marks' philosphies.

Comment by adrianne Thu Jul 26 13:05:00 2012

MamaHomesteader --- "I am a firm believer on kids needing to eat a lil dirt along the way to grow up healthy (and happy)." I couldn't agree more! I figure my iron stomach is a result of eating lots of dirt as a kid.

Mona --- That's essential, to have family members willing to eat what you make!

Rebecca --- It's fascinating how our eyes are so integral to our thought-processes. You'd think that after a while, folks would taste grocery store produce and realize how insipid it is, but for many people, that aesthetic beauty is too hard to turn away from.

Mom --- Nice job on the extracurricular reading! Does that book talk about his philosophy specifically, or does it just seem similar to the bits Kristin threw into her book? I suspect she kept the book light on purpose to appeal to the masses, which it definitely has done --- it's currently in the top 3,000 on Amazon.

Comment by anna Thu Jul 26 15:48:38 2012
the book is glossy,full of pictures. Does talk about how important and doable it is to have urban gardens (esp. for Detroit). I think The Dirty Life gives more philosophy, actually. But the in Urban Farming is worth looking into. For ex., it lists resources from Small Farms Library, Journey to Forever; lots of Agriculture Topics, incl. GRIT mag (!); a free bimonthly journal, The Overstory, on;and other websites that you, Anna, probably know of, like the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center; plus a Distance Learning site on Urban Agriculture (, plus sites on Edible Schoolyards and on Food Policy Councils. The Dirty Life, on the other hand, is one-of-a-kind!
Comment by adrianne Thu Jul 26 19:43:38 2012
Now Anna, we only fed you dirt in late winter when the potatoes were gone.
Comment by Errol Thu Jul 26 20:11:51 2012

Mom --- Sounds like you're tapping into the new network of information. There is an astonishing amount of it out there right now in book, website, and magazine form.

The Potato Eaters

Daddy --- Ha! You made me laugh. :-)

Comment by anna Fri Jul 27 07:37:23 2012

Well, my copy finally showed up yesterday and I delved right into it; it certainly is a much easier read than Walden, although the researcher in me wants to go back to Walden and start drawing up comparisons between Thoreau's philosophies and her husband's! I'm also still trying to decide if it's a good thing or a bad thing that I didn't meet him when I was in my college years; a lot of what he says seems to mesh pretty nicely with my utopian ideals of the time, and I think that he's the type of pied piper who can manage to drag people into his world pretty easily if they're considering that road already! It would have been a different life, anyway. :)

As far the "dirty life" goes, in general, I was brought up on dirt and gardening. My mother was the type who just plunked us in the tub when we came in covered in mud from playing "catching crayfish" in the drainage ditches - no upset, no "don't you ever do that again" - she figured dirt was good for our immune systems, and I think she was right! She also came from a family of gardeners; my great-grandmother excelled in vegetable growing, and her son (my grandfather) kept a garden back by the garage until he couldn't make it out the door without a walker (in his late eighties). As for me, nothing is more beautiful than a curly, homegrown Ping-Tung eggplant or a smooth and multi-lobed Pink Brandywine tomato, still warm from the sun. They taste better too, of course, but I really can't see that plastic-like produce sold at the supermarket is any more gorgeously perfect than the vegetables that come out of my garden; even a little laciness where some insect has been nibbling my lettuce just adds to the beauty. That's my take, anyway, and most of the people around me either share that view, or keep their views to themselves.

On a side note, I really liked her description of the food that they brought for Thanksgiving dinner. We get our turkey from an Amish farmer as well, and it really is a far cry from those plastic-encased things that other people buy. You certainly can't pretend it wasn't once a bird - sometimes there are still some tiny feathers that got missed - but oh, the gloriously crisp skin that keeps the meat inside unbelievably tender and moist, not to mention the rich broth that the carcass makes. My mouth is watering just thinking about it - how long 'till Thanksgiving? :)

Comment by Ikwig Fri Jul 27 21:51:21 2012

I am enjoying the book, although it certainly does not romanticize farm life, like some other books I've read like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It is amazing what the couple has achieved and cool to hear the story of the start of it all!

I grew up in Florida, not on a farm, but the daughter of two farmer's children. I spent most all my growing-up summers on my grandparents' farms in the Midwest and learned weeding, harvesting, freezing and canning (not planting or readying the soil though!). My husband grew up in Guam and cared for the families' chickens and ducks, plus he fished and spearfished and helped to slaughter pigs. In Guam, they also get TONS of food from the jungle right around their homes, so it was very common for him to climb and cut and dig to harvest jungle food (taro, guava, mango, coconut, carambola, etc). The two of us have raised our sons to value home-grown food as the best food available. We live in suburban Seattle and have a front and back yard square foot garden plus a few fruit trees and bushes that produce 100-150 lbs of food per year - a thimbleful compared to your farm! We also attend our local farmers' market weekly for organic food grown east of the mountains - in the sun we don't get here!! Our garden is so very clean and sterile compared to the book's farm!

Comment by Paula Perez Sat Jul 28 09:13:39 2012

Ikwig --- At one point, the author of The Dirty Life specifically references Walden, and I suspect she was purposefully referencing him when she broke the book up by season as well. It's fascinating how many authors refer to Walden, given how difficult that book was!

I liked hearing about your dirty childhood. Mine was similar, and I have to say that from an adult standpoint, I can see how a parent could be miffed at kids who constantly got wet and filthy. (I always think of The Tale of Tom Kitten now when I come in from the garden filthy.) We got lucky to have long-suffereing mothers.

Paula --- Fascinating to hear about your husband's childhood in Guam! And interesting to hear how you feel your garden --- even though it grows lots of food --- is very clean and sterile. Do you think that makes your kids less prone to handle dirty tasks? What would they do if you wanted them to help you slaughter a chicken?

Comment by anna Sat Jul 28 13:29:28 2012

I love my husband's Guam stories! When he was only about 12, a big typhoon hit the island and the whole island was without power for MONTHS! He had to take care of his 3 younger sibs while his parents went to work (for the FAA and government), build a fire to cook them lunch, etc. My Square Foot Garden is extremely compact and weed-free. I have 5 beds in the front yard, each 3 x 8 feet, with a different crop in each square (made with wood lathes). They are raised beds with a 1:1:1 mixture of peat, vermiculite and mixed manures. I do not step into the beds at all so the soil is never compacted. I water and weed by hand, a few minutes every few days. It works great for me, with only a 1/5 acre lot and most of it too heavily shaded to plant at all. Compared to the plowing and rock-picking and weeding in the book, I do feel my garden is pretty clean and sterile! As for chickens... I'm considering getting some, I do live in an unincorporated area where I could, but I honestly could only see raising them for eggs! I'm a wimp about guts! (so far)

Comment by Paula Perez Sun Jul 29 23:19:46 2012
I ended up feeding the goats an entire patch of lettuce this year.. after watching our dog lift his leg and pee on it. No amount of washing was going to get that image out of my head. :-)
Comment by Mrs. Truckenmiller (@htruck) Sat Aug 4 21:04:56 2012
Mrs. Truckenmiller --- I figure rain washes away all evils. No matter how filthy lettuce is, after a good thunderstorm, it's clean in my book. :-)
Comment by anna Sun Aug 5 12:58:51 2012

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime