The Locavore’s Bookshelf: This Organic Life

Joan Dye Gussow’s book, This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader is one of those that readers either love or hate. If you want an organized instruction manual on how to grow all of your own food, you will hate it. If you like amusing memoirs which are also packed with useful information on issues of sustainable food systems, you will love it.

I chose to review this book first among the titles I have chosen to highlight this month, in large part, because Gussow set herself the challenge to eat locally a long damned time ago, and went farther with it than I think most of us would dream is possible. She then sat down and wrote a book about it, though, in truth, it is also about a lot more–the loss of a spouse, how to grow organic vegetables, how not to buy a house, and how to trap garden-demolishing varmints.

Gussow is an engaging author; while she is very much a nutritionist and retired professor, she doesn’t lecture like one. Even when she is quoting statistics, facts and figures, she comes across more as a friendly neighbor chatting over coffee than a fact-chewing drone. This may be seen as either a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on your point of view–if you don’t want to hear about remodelling a house or the death of her husband, you will get frustrated as she recounts these tales in the early chapters of the book. If you are like me, and want to know everyone’s story, then it won’t bother you a bit that it isn’t until the second half of the book where she gets down to business and starts really getting into the meat of the book, which is this: our food system is an incredible waste of resources and materials, and results in food that not only doesn’t taste so good, but isn’t necessarily that good for you.

She has her ranty moments–which is fine with me–I like a good fiery pulpit-pounding clarion call as much as anyone, and some of her rants are hilarious. Her story about how she horrified a vegetarian student in one of her classes by pointing out that farmers kill animals who try and eat their crops and that the blood of those animals is thus on the heads of those who eat those crops had me giggling gleefully. (It is the farm girl in me who is always amused at the discomfort city folks have in all the dirty, unpleasant business that goes on in a farm that gets me every time.) She also tells about her experiments with a genetically modified tomato–the tale is convoluted and long, but very amusing.

What is most valuable in this book is the fact that she set herself to only eat what she grew herself in her suburban yard (she converted grass to raised beds and grew vegetables and fruit on nearly every inch of arable space where once there was lawn) and what she could buy locally. She preserved her summer harvest for winter, and kept up this way of eating for years. Years.
She also started a community garden, so some of her neighbors could do the same.

And then she wrote a book about it, to prove that it could be done, it has been done and other Americans could do it, too.

That is the greatest value in this book, which is certainly flawed. For instance, I was disturbed at the amount of landfill waste she generated in the remodelling of her home–that didn’t seem very sustainable or organically minded to me. Her critique of veganism, while partially accurate, was still essentially flawed as well, but these minor issues do not change the fact that Gussow did what many of us food bloggers are setting out to do for a month, FOR YEARS, and not only did she survive, she thrived, and she tells us a fine and inspiring story about it, to boot.

While it isn’t perfect, it is certainly worth a read, especially this month, as some of us strive to eat more locally produced foods. Her trials and tribulations and triumphs are all very soul-sustaining and amusing, and might help us all get through some of the rough spots as we work toward our goals of eating more of our calories from the local foodshed than we currently do.


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  1. Funny. I have that book, and the first time I read it (last year) I hated it! I thought she was so smug and self-important. I re-read it this year, after two full gardening seasons here under my belt, with produce put up to last all winter and I thought, “it IS alot of work, and she has a right to feel kind of smug”. I’m just glad I don’t have a neighbor like hers who steals my veggies. It’s bad enough I have cutworms.

    Comment by Liz — August 4, 2005 #

  2. I’m rereading this book, partly because I came across it in the bibliography of another book on local eating (Eat Here, can’t remember the author) and partly because of August-Local-Eating. I really like it because of her outspokenness and her verve, and because I have fantasies of having a bigger garden (mine is a very small city garden).

    Comment by Anonymous — August 5, 2005 #

  3. Hey, Liz–you are right–she can come across as smug, can’t she? It didn’t bug me–I knew how much work she was putting into her garden, so I just went with the flow.

    But you are right–that veggie-thieving neighbor was a total jerk, wasn’t he?

    Hello, Anon: guess what? I am reviewing Eat Here, next! Look for a review of it early next week!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 5, 2005 #

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