Eat the City
Eat the CityRobin Shulman
Crown, 335pp., $26
When it comes to artisanal food, as any small-batch-pickle lover will tell you, Brooklyn is where it's at. A recent issue of New York magazine devoted several pages to the borough's burgeoning precious-foodie phenomenon, opening with a description of the prodigiously bearded siblings behind Mast Brothers chocolate, who handcraft their bars in a Williamsburg loft before wrapping them lovingly in thick Florentine paper and slapping them with nine-dollar price tags.
Robin Shulman's Eat the City is populated with several such Brooklyn "hipstavores." There's David Selig, the dashing young restaurateur who tends beehives on the rooftop of the row house he shares with his girlfriend, "a fashion muse and editor of an avant-garde magazine." There's Tom Mylan, an art-school graduate with "steel-blue eyes, a square jaw, and Clark Kent glasses," who, in his old-timey butchery, leads evening classes for tattooed 20-somethings on how to break down entire animals. And there are conceptual artist Josh Fields and "sculptor and fabricator" Jon Conner, who craft microbrews and give them names like Frank Lloyd Rye and Cream Master (after the Matthew Barney film series, of course).
If these characters made up the whole of the book, I know of at least one jaded Brooklynite who'd have tossed it in the recycling bin before reaching the second chapter. But Shulman takes on something much bigger here. In telling the "tale of the fishers, trappers, hunters, foragers, slaughterers, butchers, farmers, poultry minders, sugar refiners, cane cutters, beekeepers, winemakers, and brewers who built New York," the rural Ontario native reaches back across the centuries, intermittently setting aside her present-day hipstavores to focus on people from ages and industries long since forgotten. It makes for a fascinating, if not always entirely coherent, ride.
"There are coal cities and steel cities and car cities and gold cities," Shulman begins what is arguably the most compelling of her seven thematic chapters. "New York, in some ways, is a sugar city." After Christopher Columbus introduced cane to the Americas in 1493, the crop spread throughout the Caribbean, where slaves were brought in to cultivate it, overseen by "a small-eyed, sharp-nosed bureaucrat named Peter Stuyvesant." Transferred to New Amsterdam, Stuyvesant imported slaves from "the sugar islands" who went on to build, among other things, the wall on Wall Street and the road to Harlem. Today, Jorge Torres, a Puerto Rican–born Bronx resident who was forced by his parents into the grueling work of cane cutting at the age of 9, cultivates a single piece of sugarcane in his community garden as a way to maintain a tie to his home.
Toggling skillfully between past and present, Shulman uses each chapter to illuminate how the city's eating and drinking habits are woven together with the threads of its ethnic fabric. During the late 1800s, when Germans accounted for a third of the city's population, New York reigned as the brewing capital of America. "In a sense," she writes, "beer marked the city's shift from an English place, with English-style ale, to a city of immigrants." By the turn of the twentieth century, the city was home to 290,000 Jews and 250,000 Italians. The history of American winemaking is in many ways a story of those two communities, from the Prohibition-era Lower East Side (dotted with "hundreds of shady wineries and wine stores ... purporting to serve the religious community that had suddenly grown in size and enthusiasm") to a Brooklyn dock circa 1980, mobbed with Italian grandfathers come to pick up the California grapes they'll stomp in their basements, and on to an Upper East Side rooftop in 2011, where an Iraqi Jew named Latif Jiji is pressing his own wine, keeping alive a tradition learned from his father back in Basra.
An exhaustive ferreter-out of historical detail, Shulman, who's written for such outlets as the Washington Post and the New York Times, traipses out at all hours to the far reaches of the boroughs, persuading seemingly anyone to open his life to her notebook. The stories of Torres, Jiji, and many of the others she comes to know tell of connecting, through the stomach, to an often geographically distant past. People bring their hunger with them, Shulman seems to suggest -- whether a hunger for a lost land or a lost way of life, or simply a yearning to create something out of nothing.
It's illuminating to realize how much of the Big Apple's history is tied up with food production. Yet it does feel as if Shulman missed an opportunity by not putting her disparate chapters into a larger context. In looking back at the history of food production in New York, what do we learn, and how might we apply those lessons moving forward? Are there parts of New York's food production system that could serve as a model for other cities? Just how important is urban food production to a happy and well-functioning society? And if it is integral, what sorts of policies should be put in place to ensure that it continues and thrives?
Shulman doesn't answer those questions, but her parade of compelling characters and her exhaustive mining of history make this inquiry into the kitchens, gardens, and basements of New York City a rewarding read nonetheless. In tracing its transition from an agricultural town to an industrial center to the place it is today -- one where do-it-yourselfers in abandoned nineteenth-century factories cook up small batches of granola while next door three generations are stomping grapes the Old World way -- she delivers a vivid portrait of a city in flux, forever inventing itself anew.