It’s one thing to rhapsodize about forging a connection to your food at the local farmers market. It’s another thing entirely to harvest that food from a rabbit hutch on the back porch. But while straw piles up in the crooks of the stairway, and sacks of soon-to-be-cured olives hang from the pantry ceiling, the home Novella Carpenter and her partner, Bill, share is far from rural: It’s a one-bedroom apartment in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Oakland, California. Counting the back porch, a small yard, and a vacant lot where Novella grows vegetables, it’s a complete, working farm in a very unlikely place.
On the winter solstice Novella slaughtered one of the turkeys she raised and let Meatpaper document the process.
Tell us about this turkey.
I think there were six turkeys who came to us, and he was one of four who survived. They had a nice little flocking relationship. The garden was one of their favorite places to go. They’d march down the sidewalk, and they’d hang out and play in the garden until it was time to go back to their area behind the house. When they were really little, one of the turkeys almost died. I came out one day and found him flattened and freezing. I picked him up and I brought him back to life, so maybe it was this one, I don’t know.
You can’t tell them apart?
No. There were three Bourbon Reds, and they all look the same.
You were vegetarian at some point, a real “meat is murder” person.
I must have been about 16. I can’t remember what it was I read, but my mom put a steak in front of me and I was like, “I just can’t do it. This is an animal!” Then I was a vegetarian for about two years in college. So all told, maybe four years. Not that long.
What do you make of that period now, looking back?
I think [my] philosophy was really juvenile. It’s hoping something doesn’t have to die. It’s very Babe or Charlotte’s Web. But the final, logical conclusion to being a vegetarian or vegan is that farm animals will cease to exist.
Some people have argued that a life lived for the purpose of dying is not a real life.
You could say that, but you’re ignoring human culture. [People] and domesticated farm animals are tied together. They’re interlocked; they’ve coevolved. We’ve made [farm animals] exist, and they’ve helped us survive. And so for me, it’s like, why don’t we keep up that beautiful tradition? Part of that tradition is dying, but part of that is surviving. Those animals continue to exist because of us.
It’s funny to see you positioned as a champion of carnivorism when you’re such a conscientious meat eater—you pretty much only eat meat you kill yourself.
A lot of my vegan and vegetarian friends have told me, “This is the only acceptable way for you to eat meat.” I think that’s true. You see the conditions that [factory-farmed animals live] in. If it’s this mindless thing where you don’t know where the meat came from, you don’t know how it died—to me that’s kind of gross.
But there’s a reason most people don’t know how their food animals die—it’s an upsetting thing to see.
That’s part of the reason I build a ritual around [the slaughter], burn tobacco and so on. Obviously, the ritual is for us, not the animal, but there needs to be a boundary between regular life and killing something. The ritual is to keep human; it’s to admit to ourselves that what we’re doing is something that needs to be forgiven.
When I visit you I’m always struck by how much work it is to run a farm out of one’s apartment.
I guess so, but it’s not like, “Go to your job.” You can do it whenever you want. I’ll go pick stuff for the rabbits at midnight. Some animals, like the pigs, are a huge amount of work, but then you never have to go to the grocery store. Last July I spent a month living entirely off the garden, and I felt like I had tons of free time. If I wanted food I just walked downstairs.
That sounds wonderful, but I can’t imagine people doing what you do on a mass scale.
In Third World countries, urban farming is huge, but they don’t call it “urban farming.” People live with the goats in the house because it’s practical. So many people are moving from the country to the city, but they’re keeping their culture, too.
It’s not part of our culture, although I would argue that, more and more, it’s going to be. The future is going to be crammed with animals, because there’s not enough farmland for everyone to live like this.
And not enough oil to transport the food from the farms to the cities.
Yep. It’s all going to be super localized. People will [see pictures of cities] and be like, “What? There used to not be goats in these alleys?” What a waste of space! I look out at this park we’re sitting in, and I can imagine a couple sheep out here.
Novella Carpenter’s book Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer comes out in spring 2009. Excerpted from Meatpaper(#3), a journal of meat culture; www.meatpaper.com.