Saturday, September 3, 2011

The $64 Tomato - William Alexander

Summary:  Who knew that Bill Alexander's simple dream of having a vegetable garden and small orchard would lead him into life-and-death battles with webworms, weeds, and a groundhog named Superchuck?  Over the course of his hilarious adventures, Alexander puzzles over why a six-thousand-volt wire doesn't deter deer but nearly kills his tree surgeon; encounters a gardener who bears an eerie resemblance to Christopher Walken; and stumbles across the aphrodisiac effects of pollen when he plays bumble bee to his apple blossoms.
When he decides (just for fun!) to calculate how much it cost to grow one of his beloved Brandywine tomatoes, he comes up with a staggering $64.  But as any gardener knows, you can't put a price tag on the rewards of homegrown produce, or on the lessons learned along the way.  (Summary from book - Image from )

My Review:  The $64 Tomato is a cleverly written chronicle of a swath of land and a man obsessed with living the life of a gentleman farmer.  Bill Alexander writes with a charismatic voice as he shares amusing anecdotes and endearing family moments surrounding what he calls the “self-imposed purgatory of endless weeding, pruning, and harvesting,” otherwise known as small-scale organic farming.

I waited to read this book until well after planting season so that I wasn’t overcome with the desire to cultivate a massive garden.  It turns out, I needn’t have worried.  This book was terrifying.  Funny -- but terrifying.   My romantic notion of sun-drenched soil and a plentiful harvest was obliterated in a matter of chapters.  This book was brimming with gardening horror stories that would make the greenest thumb shrivel and darken: rampant deer populations, bizarre tree diseases, inept contractors, insect epidemics, masochistic groundhogs, and a variety of other gardening misadventures.  I admire the author’s fortitude in dealing with it all.  I would have thrown in the trowel in a matter of weeks and high tailed it to our local farmers market.

I found the author’s experiences in extreme gardening to be more informative than inspirational or instructive, and I didn’t relate as well to this book as I would have liked.  First, I wanted pictures -- of his home, his orchard, and his garden.  Call me snoopy or intrusive, but I'm a visual person and I feel that seeing the places he was talking about would have helped me connect to the story.  Also, despite his protests to the contrary, the author seemed to have a bit more money on hand than the average household would have for things like mulch, steel edging, and hand-powered lawn mowers.  Perhaps this was simply a matter of priorities, and the whole family was going without socks or something, but I know that our budget would never be able to accommodate the costs of small-scale farming, even with the reduction in our grocery expenses.   As a result, I quickly moved this book from “something I could learn to do” to “an experience I will never have” and I ceased paying attention to the more tedious details. 

While I sincerely enjoyed reading about the author’s life, and could feel his exasperation with (and love for) farming, the final chapters were a little too existential for me. I was bored with the arithmetic and he tended to wax entirely too poetic about his tomatoes.  I did leave this book with a little something, though.  First, RECIPES!  Second, did you know tomatoes are a lesser known member of the berry family?  I didn't think so!  Third, thanks to all that poetic waxing, I will definitely be planting Brandywines in my garden next year. 

For those of you whose food cravings run toward the whole grain variety, you might want to check out Bill’s latest book, 52 Loaves, that chronicles his quest to recreate the perfect loaf of bread.

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  One mildly sexual reference (think pollination) and a handful of profanity, though not all of it is "biblical."

Sum it up:  A humorous account of the ups and downs (mostly the downs) of small-scale farming. 

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