The Call of the Farm: An Unexpected Year of Getting Dirty, Home Cooking, and Finding Myself
By Rochelle Bilow
A tantalizing memoir of the author’s love affair with farming, food, and a freckle-faced farmer—and her journey of self-discovery along the way.
Rochelle, a classically trained cook and devoted foodie, was nursing a broken heart and frustrated with her yet-to-take-off writing career when she was assigned to write an article about a small, “full-diet” farm in central New York. It took just one day of moving hay bales, feeding pigs, and tapping maple sap for her to become hooked on farm life. The air was fresh, her muscles felt useful, and the smells from the kitchen where the farmhands gathered at the end of the day were intoxicating.
All these, plus a sweet, mysterious young farmer whose soulful gaze meets her own, set in motion The Call of the Farm. Rochelle Bilow’s enticing memoir charts the unexpected year that unfolds, as she immerses herself in life on the farm—helping to care for livestock, grow vegetables, work the farm-stand, and, as the designated cook, prepare each day’s meals. Bilow also sensitively portrays the arc of her passionate romance with that handsome freckled farmer. Honest, self-aware, and wonderfully tender, The Call of the Farm is for anyone who has daydreamed about farm life—or who has fallen too deeply in love.
I’ve mentioned before that I have trouble with memoirs. I have yet to fully put my finger on it. I know I dislike the ‘dropping out of life’ stories because, to me, that would be shirking my responsibilities. I admire people who are candid about their emotions but on paper that can come across as dramatic. It’s a strange perspective for me. I have had plenty of dramatic emotions and moments in my life and if I wrote them down they would come across that way. Maybe that’s why I don’t write essays or memoir myself. I find drama and strong feelings easier to swallow in person through conversation instead of in writing. I need to think about this more.
With this disclaimer of an obvious prejudice against a genre, I should say I picked up The Call of the Farm very easily. I saw it on the library’s new non-fiction shelf and it seemed interesting. A woman goes to live on a farm. Antics ensue. Maybe love. Sure.
Rochelle Bilow’s book is fine. As the subtitle states, she does get dirty and does some home-cooking (recipes included). But did she find herself? Putting that statement in a title sets a high bar, one which Bilow may have reached personally but that I didn’t see in the book.
I presume the ‘finding herself’ part relates both to her career and her relationship with a farmer named Ian. Bilow begins the memoir as a freelance food writer but can’t cobble together a steady income. While visiting a year-round CSA farm for an assignment, she finds herself wanting to be a part of the farm. Several more trips and she begins to insert herself into the farm life, including Ian’s bed. (I’m not implying she slept with Ian to get onto the farm. Although it does raise the fair question – did Bilow want to be at the farm because of Ian or was Ian a happy side benefit? That’s never clear.)
The descriptions of farm life are excellent. She doesn’t hide how difficult most of the work is or her own ignorance at many things that resulted in mistakes or something breaking. The appreciation of having a weekend off chores, of having a full day off, let alone a week’s vacation, is very clear. Also apparent is her appreciation of how good it feels to work with your body. It can be exhausting day in and day out but, especially in the beginning, she notes the satisfaction of feeling sore at the end of the day because she accomplished something. I personally love that feeling myself but am not sure if I could deal with 4:45am alarms to go feed the pigs or move the cows to a new field.
Bilow writes about how she talked about balancing her writing with farm work but it’s pretty obvious that she was quickly immersed in the farm and rarely addressing freelance work. There are a few times when she questions what she should be doing – making a stronger effort at writing, going back to cooking (she went to culinary school) or farm life – but even by the end of the book nothing was truly answered. I should point out that Bilow is 25 when she is on the farm which is a pretty standard age to wonder what the hell you should be doing with your life.
All right, time to say SPOILER. Ian and Bilow don’t work out. I think this is the reason the title says “Finding Myself” instead of “Finding Love”. Throughout, Ian is very consistent that he is reluctant to commit to Bilow. He’s monogamous but unwilling to move the relationship further, despite them living in the same room at the farm. It is very obvious to the reader what is coming but Bilow writes as if she is still in that moment so there is no knowledge of what is to come. And what comes is Ian’s admittance that he wants to break up because he’s not ready to never date anyone new again. Bilow cries a lot, talks to everyone on the farm about it, moves into the room across the hall but keeps climbing into his bed. Eventually she decides to leave the farm, a move that feels like it is borne out of the pain of the breakup than actually ‘finding’ out that she doesn’t want a farm life.
The memoir ends with Bilow driving away from the farm. The end. I only know, vaguely, what happens next because her bio on the book says she’s in New York writing for Bon Appetit. I guess she found out she wants to write full-time and live in the city. I don’t begrudge her that. I just didn’t enjoy the abrupt ending of the book without any resolution.
I think I may be realizing what I dislike about memoirs – or, I should qualify, most memoirs I have read, including Wild. When they are written in the moment of the past event, there is no acknowledgement of what was ridiculous or what was learned or the impact of that moment. I think I want a memoir that looks back and recalls a story with some color commentary. Any suggestions are welcome.