Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Review: This Organic Life

Have you ever read a book that changed the way you viewed the world?

For me, this past winter, one of those game-changers was This Organic Life by Joan Dye Gussow. The friend whose slow-food eating inspired me to start this blog had referenced the book a couple times, but I never got around to reading it. It's not new; I'm very much a Johnny Come-Lately to the table of Joan.

In short, the book chronicles Joan's 40-year-old garden, which moved to a new location when she and her husband moved from a large Victorian home to a funky house on the Hudson River in New York. The garden over the years had grown until Joan, a food advocate, was fairly insistent that she grow all the food she needed -- a huge and life-dominating undertaking. Through talking about the garden, sharing recipes, providing tips for better yield, and relating her noble battles with rodents, Joan also documents major life changes and how often the one constant in her life was the work to be done in the garden.

I was transfixed by this book; it should be on the shelf (or in my case, loaded on the Kindle) of anyone looking to learn more about modern food culture, ways we can take back the family farm, and how to cook a delicious potato and kale soup.

I had trouble envisioning the new space Joan and her husband moved to so I (and I'm not proud of this) cyberstalked her. I put her name into, then plugged the address into to see an aerial view of the house. It's fascinating. The backyard, a not large suburban backyard, is plot after plot of garden beds that lead directly to the bank of the Hudson.

Since reading the book, I've read some criticism of Joan. Some disagree that she can be such a staunch food advocate and organic gardener and still unabashedly advocate meat eating. I have no skin in this game. At this point in my life I'm not a vegetarian, and to me, her arguments for eating meat made sense, so I had no issue.

Others have criticized her near-obsession with the garden and growing food, going so far as to contemplate integrating the ashes of a loved one into the garden to enhance the soil. Again, I have no criticism here. This is what she does. This is the constant she was able to come back to when everything around her felt like it was crumbling. Do ashes do more good in a vase on the mantle? Probably not.

I did think she might be a bit of a challenging neighbor; she's borderline strident in her beliefs. And I was a bit off-put by her relaying her anger at an obnoxious neighbor who "stole" four carrots and an onion, forcing her to harvest the onions before they were ready in order to save them from further pillage. I personally love the idea of having enough vegetables to get to share; would it be so bad if she ran low on onions and had to buy some from a local source?

That said, she's made me a firm believer in the power of kale, and the ability of regular folks on suburban plots to affect the food machine.

The book contains about 30 recipes for using the bounty; they are generous with the butter and meat -- my kind of dishes.

Now that the major gardening season is winding down, this would be a good read for starting to plot out next year's garden, or the next forty years of gardening.

Two green thumbs up!

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Blogger Julia @ Hooked on Houses said...

Interesting! The yards in our neighborhood aren't very big, and a lot of them are heavily wooded (like ours), but gardens have been springing up all over the place lately. The only spot we had was in our side yard, but it gave us enough space to plant everything we wanted.

Like you, I can't imagine getting that upset if a neighbor wanted some carrots or onions. Isn't sharing the bounty part of the fun of gardening?

8:50 AM  
Blogger Slowish Food said...

I completely agree, Julie! One of our neighbors a couple blocks over puts out a basket of tomatoes for the taking. Max sometimes stops and grabs one and eats it like an apple while he's riding his bike. Isn't that the ultimate in gardening? -- sharing with 8-year-olds who snack on your produce rather than Lunchables? :) You need to put up pictures of your garden!

9:10 AM  
Blogger Heather said...

I have heard of this book, but never read it. You have inspired me to pick it up. I too believe in the power of sharing harvested veggies with friends and neighbors, and what a treat those tomatoes from your own neighbor must be.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Black Pete said...

A good companion to this might be Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. Her arguments for being a carnivore make a lot of sense as well.

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