I recently had a new literary experience. Usually, both fiction and nonfiction touch on familiar emotions and universal struggles—even if the actual milieu is alien to me. Take, for example, Elissa Altman’s Poor Man’s Feast (Chronicle Books, 2013), which I just started reading and already know will make me nearly miss many a metro stop. In this story, I grasp and learn from this editor-turned-memoirist’s search for love and satisfaction in life. The environment of the Altman family’s Thanskgiving/Chanukah feast accessoried with candied-violet-topped pumpkin flan and $100 scotch, on the other hand, isn’t exactly my grandfather’s green beans with slivered almonds.
With Gaining Ground (Lyons Press, 2013), by Forrest Pritchard, I found something different. Like Altman’s book, this is a memoir about food. (Or, as the subtitle sums it up, it’s “a story of farmers’ markets, good food, and saving the family farm”). But this time the entire setting is familiar to me. I’ve ridden past the old apple trees lining Smith Meadows’ main road, which we learn about in the book, and I’ve traipsed through the grassy fields that the budding farmer learns over several chapters to rotate in a sustainable animal grazing pattern. And I instantly knew the wooden chicken the 22-year-old Forrest digs out of the basement to display the price of eggs at his first farmers market, because more than a decade later, that avian silhouette still perches at his booth at the Takoma Park Farmers Market.
There is just one morsel of information I recall learning as I read: I never knew that my go-to weekend market was the first place Forrest dipped a toe into the big-city market scene.
What proves wholly unfamiliar in Gaining Ground is the tenacity Forrest exhibits throughout the book. The fresh-off-the-campus graduate flings himself into one doomed project after another, at one point holding his breath for a whole season of corn and soybean production to receive an $18 check for his acres of crops. The young farmer also chases AWOL poultry for hours and runs from a maniacal, tooth-gnashing hog. Then, finally, he achieves the deep satisfaction of making a living as a sustainable food producer.
The farm world would have lost me at the first errant hen. In this book, the reader gets to know a character at times stubborn to the point of foolishness but who is overall a testament to what passion and ingenuity–and maybe a hernia here and there–can accomplish.
After experiencing both kinds of stories, I won’t say I prefer the tale of new human experience over the common emotional one. I do think I’ve had the insight, though, that innovators and philosophers who most often achieve the latter. Forrest Pritchard is certainly both.
Forrest is doing several readings and book signings in the D.C. area this month. Check out the video above for a taste of his presentations style, then catch him July 11 at the Riverdale Farmers Market, July 18 at the Takoma Community Center or July 22 at the Eat Local First Week kickoff event in downtown Washington. See the full schedule. Or catch him at his Takoma Park Farmers Market stand on Sundays.