From a “graceful, luminous writer with an eye for detail,” this riveting memoir explores a year on a sustainable farm—and the real world epitome of Michael Pollan’s food philosophy.
"This book 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."
Single, thirtysomething, working as a writer in New York City, Kristin Kimball was living life as an adventure. But she was beginning to feel a sense of longing for a family and for home. When she interviewed a dynamic young farmer, her world changed. Kristin knew nothing about growing vegetables, let alone raising pigs and cattle and driving horses. But on an impulse, smitten, if not yet in love, she shed her city self and moved to five hundred acres near Lake Champlain to start a new farm with him. The Dirty Life is the captivating chronicle of their first year on Essex Farm, from the cold North Country winter through the following harvest season—complete with their wedding in the loft of the barn.
Kimball and her husband had a plan: to grow everything needed to feed a community. It was an ambitious idea, a bit romantic, and it worked. Every Friday evening, all year round, a hundred people travel to Essex Farm to pick up their weekly share of the "whole diet"—beef, pork, chicken, milk, eggs, maple syrup, grains, flours, dried beans, herbs, fruits, and forty different vegetables—produced by the farm. The work is done by draft horses instead of tractors, and the fertility comes from compost. Kimball’s vivid descriptions of landscape, food, cooking—and marriage—are irresistible.
"As much as you transform the land by farming," she writes, "farming transforms you." In her old life, Kimball would stay out until four a.m., wear heels, and carry a handbag. Now she wakes up at four, wears Carhartts, and carries a pocket knife. At Essex Farm, she discovers the wrenching pleasures of physical work, learns that good food is at the center of a good life, falls deeply in love, and finally finds the engagement and commitment she craved in the form of a man, a small town, and a beautiful piece of land
This reading group guide forThe Dirty Life includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Single, thirtysomething, working as a writer in New York City, Kristin Kimball was living life as an adventure. But she was beginning to feel a sense of longing for a family and for home. When she interviewed a dynamic young farmer, her world changed. Kristin knew nothing about growing vegetables, let alone raising pigs and cattle and driving horses. But on an impulse, smitten, if not yet in love, she shed her city self and moved to five hundred acres near Lake Champlain to start a new farm with him. The Dirty Life is the captivating chronicle of Kristin’s discovery of the pleasures of physical work, that good food is at the center of a good life, and ultimately of love.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Kristin was a freelance writer in New York City, which gave her the opportunity to travel around the world. When she first met Mark on his farm, she felt like a foreigner. In what ways do you think this feeling comforted her? Were you surprised when the situation flipped and Kristin felt foreign to the life she used to lead in the city?
2. In what ways did Kimball’s yearning for a home sway her decision to leave the city and start a new life with Mark? If you were put in a similar situation, do you think you would have made the same decision? Why or why not? What is your own personal definition of “home”?
3. Mark and Kristin start a farm that aims to provide a whole diet for their year-round members. If a farm in your area did the same thing, would you become a member? How would it change the way you cook and eat?
4. The first year on Essex Farm was full of trial and error. Kristin had never farmed before and much of her knowledge came from her neighbors and from books. In what ways did all of the mishaps shape Kristin and change her perspective?
5. One of the biggest adjustments Kristin has to make when moving to Essex Farm is learning to live with the absence of instant gratification. She finds that a farmer must continuously put forth effort in order to reap benefits. How does Kristin respond to this new kind of work? How does her definition of “satisfaction” change? Would you be able to accommodate a similar change?
6. The Dirty Life is segmented into seasons. What are the underlying issues that take place within each season and how do they relate to the year in full?
7. Have your views on sustainable farming changed after reading about the trials and triumphs of Essex Farm? Have your views on farm-fresh food versus supermarket food changed?
8. Kristin repeatedly finds that her prior assumptions about farming and farmers are false. Do you think her stereotypes were the same as those of most Americans or just people who live in urban areas?
9. As a new farmer, Kristin struggles with where she fits in the socioeconomic spectrum. It bothers her when a neighbor brings over some kitchen things because she thinks Kristin is needy. Later, Kristin writes that farming makes her feel rich even though she’s not. What makes people feel poor or rich? How much is the feeling related to money?
10. Why do you think Kristin goes from being a vegetarian to an omnivore after helping Mark slaughter a pig?
11. Kristin writes that there are two types of marriages: the comfortable kind and the fiery kind. Do you agree?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Take a trip to a local farm with your book group to observe the work that goes into its daily management and production. Visit www.pickyourown.org to find a farm near you!
2. Kristin and Mark raise a variety of produce. Kristin recalls the monotonous pleasures of planting, weeding, and harvesting. Try planting a garden at home to gain a greater understanding of the challenges and rewards of growing your own produce.
3. Make a meal with your book group using only locally grown and seasonal food. If possible, talk to the farmer who grew it. How does this change your experience of cooking and eating it?
4. Kristin spends part of the harvest season putting up food for winter. Consider buying a quantity of food in season and getting together with your book group to preserve it. Visit www.learntopreserve.com for tips and ideas.
5. Listen to Kristin Kimball discuss The Dirty Life on NPR’s All Things Considered by going to http://www.npr.org/2010/11/12/131268939/-the-dirty-life-from-city-girl-to-hog-butcher?ft=1&f=1032. Learn about how Kristin came up with the title, the best way to eat a potato, and see pictures of Essex Farm!
Kristin Kimball is a farmer and a writer living in northern New York. Prior to farming, Kimball worked as a freelance writer, writing teacher, and as an assistant to a literary agent in New York City. A graduate of Harvard University, she and her husband Mark have run Essex Farm since 2003, where they live with their two daughters.