Book Review: The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball

updated May 2, 2019
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)
(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)
The Dirty Life is one to add to the top of your pile, a memoir by Kristin Kimball about her first year as a farmer on a very labor-intensive organic farm in Essex, NY. As a cook and a passionate supporter of small, organic farms, I expected to like this book, which I did. But what surprised me was that it turned out to be quite a page turner! Read on for my review and an excerpt.

There are a lot of ‘city slicker turns farmer’ memoirs out there and I don’t claim to have read them all. But I really appreciate Kristin Kimball’s The Dirty Life for helping me to understand just how relentless (and rewarding!) running a farm and producing food really is. Her farm’s model is to go beyond conventional CSA and offer its 150 shareholders food all year long. And not just vegetables. They raise pigs, beef cattle, and chickens; run a dairy for fresh milk, butter and cheese; tap a sugar bush for maple syrup and orchards for fresh fruit. They also offer grains, flour and dried beans and can up tomatoes and other veg in the fall.

The Dirty Life opens with a beautiful passage from the present time as Kimball’s husband cooks dinner for them after a long day on the farm (see below) but the bulk of the book is about how they met and the struggles of their first year on the farm. It’s a real lesson for anyone who eats to know how much intense labor goes into providing food. The Kimball’s do much of their work without the help of modern machinery, not to mention chemical herbicides and fertilizers. The description of how an organic farm stays ahead of weeds is a real eye-opener.

The Dirty Life is compelling because it is about transformation on many levels: a seed becomes food, a derelict farm becomes a functional working operation, a city girl discovers she is a farmer, two people figure out how to do all this together and become a married couple. This is also a book about the rewards of very hard work and what it means to be passionate about something and completely consumed by its demands.

But mostly I found this book to be Ms. Kimball’s love song to her farm, her husband, their lives together and also to herself as she sheds her city life and discovers her tough, flexible, resourceful, strong and beautiful (if a little dirty) farmer-self.

From the Prologue to A Dirty Life:

Saturday night, midwinter. The farmhouse has been dark for hours and the crew has all gone home. We light a fire and open two bottles of our friend Brian’s homemade beer, and as I wash up the milking things, Mark begins to cook for me, a farmer’s expression of intimacy. He is perfectly sure of himself in the kitchen, wasting no movement, and watching him fills me with a combination of admiration and lust, like a rock star’s groupie. He has chosen a fine-looking chuck steak from the side of beef we butchered this week and had brought an assembly of vegetables from the root cellar. Humming, he rummages through the fridge and comes out with a pint of rich, gelatinous chicken stock and a pomegranate, the later a gift from my friend Amelia, who brought it up from New York City.

Mark gets busy, his hands moving quickly, and half an hour later he set two colorful plates on the table. The steak he has broiled medium rare and sliced thin across the grain and drizzled with a red wine reduction. There is a mix of leek, carrot, and kale, sauteed in butter and seasoned with juniper berries and next to this, vibrating with color, a tiny pile of this year’s ruby sauerkraut, made from purple cabbages. We are out of bread, but he found a little ball of pastry dough in the fridge, left over from making a pie, and he rolled it out and cut it in triangles and cooked it in hot skillet, and viola, biscuits. But the unlikely star of the plate 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 tangy pomegranate seeds; the heat bursting some and leaving others whole to amuse the tongue. This is why I love my husband: given these opposites to work with, the earthiest of roots and the most exotic of fruits, he sees harmony, not discord. We eat the meal, my eyes half closed in pleasure, and sip the bitter, hoppy beer, and kiss, and before my friends in the city have even dressed to go out for the evening, we slip off to bed.

• The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball, $16.50 from Amazon.
• NPR’s All Things Considered did a nice piece on the book last fall, complete with a slideshow and interview.
• The Dirty Life’s book page on the Scribner site, complete with two videos of Ms. Kimball.

Related: Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer