Kurt Timmermeister is really good at making food sound disgusting. Early in his memoir, Growing a Farmer, he explains why he wouldn't eat the chicken breasts he served at his own restaurant, the storied Cafe Septieme on Broadway:
They arrive folded into an oval shape and nestled each in a plastic dimple, four across and five long, on a plastic flat... They are delivered frozen, and then the cooks flip the flimsy plastic flats upside down into buckets to defrost... After a day in the cooler, these chicken popsicles defrost into a slimy chicken product. Hour by hour, day after day, they are pulled from the buckets and placed on the grill to make chicken Caesar salads and the like.
This vivid language will stay with you the next time you consider ordering chicken at a middle-of-the-road place, but it's an odd way for someone who ostensibly loves food to begin a book. Timmermeister begins where most food memoirs end: He has established a successful restaurant in a competitive urban environment, an unattainable success for most everyone in the business. But for many reasons, including the aforementioned slimy chicken popsicles (pork loin is also involved, and I will spare you that description), Timmermeister buys a farm on Vashon Island and involves himself with food at its source—directly from the ground, or from the teat, or from the moment a beast stops breathing.
Last winter, publisher W. W. Norton treated a dozen or so booksellers, food writers, and journalists to a dinner at Timmermeister's farm. As he served us platters of home-cured bacon, fresh cheeses, and home-churned raw butter (more about this later), Timmermeister explained that he pitched Growing a Farmer to Norton as a cookbook. "Most cookbooks," he said, "start at step five or six. You go to the store and buy the meat. I wanted to do something that I'd never seen before, which is a cookbook that starts at step one." Timmermeister says his publisher talked him into doing a memoir instead, with the promise of a cookbook if he could draw enough interest with the book that would become Farmer.
It's clear that Timmermeister has no interest in writing a traditional memoir. For one thing, there are almost no people in Farmer. You won't find farmers who gradually come to accept Timmermeister's city-slicker ways, even as their hardscrabble lifestyle comes to affect him on a spiritual level. You'll hardly find any supporting characters at all. The few times that he manages to include other human beings, he strikes a maddeningly tone-deaf chord, as when he finds a way to relate to the daytime mommy clique in downtown Vashon by sharing milking stories with them:
Generally we would have little common ground. [But] conversations thrive at the local coffee shop about mastitis, colostrums, switching from milking twice a day to once a day, ovarian cysts and other milk topics on which the thirty-something women love to compare notes with me. I have quickly learned, however, never to use the terms bred back or bagged out to describe females of the human race, though it's of course standard fare for the bovine crowd.
But Timmermeister's concern and empathy for animals more than makes up for the absence of people in Farmer. Bees, for example, "draw you in with their simplicity and their complexity," and beekeeping "is a short performance, but full of drama." After an early mishap kills an entire hive, you can feel Timmermeister's frustration and—yes—his mourning at the loss. In great detail, he explains the thoughtfulness behind his beekeeping shirt: "It is made of cotton: cotton is a plant, familiar and unthreatening to bees; wool is of an animal and potentially a sign of aggression to the bees... It is rarely if ever washed and most certainly has had no perfumes or cologne near it."
His love for mammals is even greater, especially his first milk cow: "I bonded with Dinah, for lack of a better term. I know her, know how she moves, how much room she needs, how to converse with her, and by extension cows in general. I sang to her every day as well." And the how-to parts of Farmer—especially the making of Timmermeister's raw butter, which is so clearly an animal product in the finest sense, it seems to breathe and put off heat on its own—inspire hunger in a reader as easily as his earlier description of chicken repulses. He churns the milk until it puts off tiny, rice-shaped globules of fat, and then never refrigerates the finished product. You have never eaten anything like this raw butter; it is magnificent. Even the byproduct of the process is wholesome and healthy: "I save the buttermilk that drains off the butter. I save it because it must be saved. The cows were well fed with beautiful alfalfa, lush pastures and sweet grains, and they produced this product. It must be saved; it must be kept in the farm."
Those expecting a traditional memoir will be disappointed with Farmer. But fans of that small genre of live-off-the-land stories, most especially Helen and Scott Nearing's inspirational The Good Life, will find much to appreciate in Timmermeister's ability to take a concept back to its root and parse it until its simplest, most elemental truths remain.