BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Godzilla likes the title ...

Some times I'm amazed at what I find at the dollar store, and this was one of the treats. Robin Shulman's Eat the City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York (yeah, quite the sub-title), is a fascinating book, at once a travelogue (if within one large city), a series of history lessons, a look at a spectrum of food/beverage industries, and an overview of current (well, those active up to 2012 when the book came out) purveyors of these products (and how they're making them) in New York.

The author grew up in rural Canada, but moved to New York at age 16. She was an English major at Columbia, studied Journalism at U.C. Berkeley. Her journalism credentials are impressive, having been a reporter for the Washington Post, New York Times, L.A. Times, and San Franciso Chronicle, among others, and those skill sets are certainly on display here, with a combination of deep historic research and probing, wide-ranging interviews. Oddly, her main news beat was the Middle East, and she was off reporting on “war, terrorism, and destruction” for a decade, before returning in 2005, when she saw a city transformed from a “wilderness of human neglect” … so much so that she felt “unmoored in the place I had called home” … which led her to “literally plant roots” by working in a neighborhood garden. However:
Soon I realized I was more fascinated by the stories of the other gardeners than I was patient with the solitary labor of coaxing life from soil.
As she heard more of these stories in her neighborhood, the idea of this book began to come together, she had a lot of questions about how the the modern city, which was now exhibiting glimmers of an “urban back-to-the-land trend”, had gotten here, what were the antecedents, legacies, and remainders of food in our country's biggest city, that were somehow informing a new blossoming in the past few decades. She notes that she gathered material for this from 2005 through 2009, and did most of the intensive work in 2010-11, with the book debuting in 2012, and the paperback (which is still in print) coming out a year later.

I'm somewhat frustrated in writing this, as the book is dense with both very attractive prose and amazing factoids that I'd love to pass along. Frankly, in the Introduction alone, I've had to talk myself out of blockquoting a good half-dozen paragraphs, because the material is so good. And this just ramps up in the seven chapters (I was going to list them, but you can pretty much figure them out from the subtitle, and they'll be evident as I get to them), each of which could easily be a free-standing look on that particular topic … in terms of structure (there is very little cross-pollination between the subjects, although I recall some occasional name-checking here and there), and length, averaging around 40 pages or so each. As much as I enjoyed the book, I was surprised to find only one of my little bookmarks in it (and that for something I wanted to research further), but this is due to the depth of the information here, I'd be looking at pages and pages of quotes to get “the good bits”, and neither you nor I, nor the author/publisher really wants that, so I'm going to be improvising and cherry-picking in the following, trying to give you some sense of each of the topics/chapters.

The first subject here is honey. Beekeeping has become “a thing” in many cities, Chicago among them (I've been familiar with the Bike-a-Bee group here, and shot a video of them doing a presentation a few years back). An unappreciated factor in urban honey is that whatever is destroying bees generally, doesn't seem to be in the cities, and bees tend to thrive in this environment. Another is the concept of “terroir”, a French term most commonly related to wine, but in the context of urban beekeeping, the honey from a hive on one end of a park may end up markedly different from that on the other end.

As one might expect (and this is a recurring theme here), large government bureaucracies are typically more interested in oppressively regulating (or outright banning, as New York City did from 1999 to 2010) activities that seem out of the ordinary, which certainly includes “a ball of 30,000 bees flying through the air making a noise like a buzz saw”, that will try to make their home in “one of many tree-like structures such as a traffic light or a street sign”, which is the result of a hive dividing and half “swarming”, and something that needs to be dealt with by the beekeepers. This chapter has, perhaps, the least historical material here … focusing instead on a half-dozen or so individuals involved in the honey business. I found this bit especially charming:
      Much of city beekeeping is vertical work. Up a narrow stairway in the dingy darkness, carrying tools to hives on a roof in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Down six flights of stairs from rooftop hives on a different building on Second Avenue, balancing heavy, oozing frames of honey.
One thing that surprised me here was from an interview with a “bee expert at the American Museum of Natural History”, who noted that there were “more than 240 kinds of wild bees recorded in New York City”, so there's a lot of company for the Apis mellifera honeybees! Aside from the challenges presented by the government, sometimes hostile neighbors, and the complicated geography of the city, there are often mysteries to be solved … such as the red bees/honey that started to show up in hives in the in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn. The effected beekeepers tried researching this as some sort of disease or mutation, but eventually (after having the honey tested and finding it contained Red Dye No. 40), discovered that the bees had found a local maraschino cherry factory and were opting for the easy sugar syrup there over foraging for more natural sources. It turns out that this is not unusual behavior, with stories of candy and gum factories providing the raw materials for rainbow-hued honey, or not-quite-organic spearmint flavored honey.

The next chapter deals with what most folks would recognize as “urban farming” – vegetables from city lots – and focuses on one Harlem grower (and former numbers runner – before that business got eliminated by government lotteries), Willie Morgan, who harvests a wide range of produce from “skinny, shady strips of land between tenements all over Harlem”. You might think that Harlem was an odd place to be growing food, but:
… For hundreds of years, Harlem was a farming village. Lenape Native Americans cultivated the fertile terrain spreading from an inlet off what is now 125th Street, near Willie Morgan's garden. …

      The first Dutch farmers found the land they called Nieuw Haarlem easy to farm, as it had already been cleared … The rich dark earth yielded more than the soil of lower Manhattan, and … helped make New Netherland self-sufficient.
      As time passed, the great families of the settlement planted vegetable fields, fruit orchards,
{etc.} … Their names are familiar to us now mostly through street names: the Delanceys, Beekmans, Bleeckers, and Hamiltons.
This then tracks the eventual urbanization of that part of Manhattan, through various waves of development and decline, and how food memories survived over the decades, yet had a profound change with the Black migration north following the Civil War. In Willie Morgan's case, he got into urban farming as a promo ploy for the gambling business:
Early on, he understood the importance of marketing to women. Many of his first customers were mothers playing the numbers to put food on the table. A bit of fresh, free produce could certainly make the difference when such woman decided where to gamble.
Of course, as New York declined in the 70's, more and more vacant lots opened up in places like Harlem, and the city started to rent lots to gardeners for a buck a year, figuring that a cultivated lot was a lot better than a wasteland with the detritus of the drug trade. With the upturn in the early 2000's, the city started to sell off the lots to developers, and this disrupted much of the local gardening. However, many organized, and brought a suit against the city, which resulted in many garden lots being protected, and others being offered alternate spaces.

Meat is the subject of chapter 3. It's somewhat difficult to picture Manhattan as the home of pastures and piggeries, but run the clock back to the late 1600's, and you find not only the native meat sources (“buffalo, raccoon, beaver, wild rabbit, turkey, and deer” … Coney Island got its name from the rabbits), but cows, sheep, and swine brought over by the boatload from Holland. As the city grew, and industrialization spread, you also have the grim specter of urban meat processing right out of Upton Sinclair's look at Chicago's meat packing industry, The Jungle, albeit with the noted variation of specialized kosher factories to service the expanding Jewish population. As late as 1929 it was noted that “the stench of slaughterhouses filled the air a few hundred feet from Times Square”, and while much of the meat business was shuttered or moved (to the Bronx and beyond) by the 60's, there were still hold-outs such as the Fourteenth Street meat market, which had a dedicated elevated line bringing in stock as late as 1980, and that the New York Times reported “the sidewalks run with rivulets of greasy blood” … due to a single real estate investor buying up much of the area, this market was able to survive until his death in 1999 – a remarkably recent date to imagine this sort of business happening in the heart of New York.

Of course, few people around these days ever had the experience of this sort of meat processing, as post-WW2 marketing brought the factory butchering/packaging operations that deposit styrofoam-cradled and hygienically plastic-wrapped cuts of meat into most of the grocery stores. It wasn't until 1970, however, that this was able to be sold in New York, as the unions refused to handle it. Now, lest you think this chapter is all history lesson, it switches back and forth between these fascinating looks back to a narrative of “the conquering hero of hipstavore Brooklyn”, Tom Mylan, whose “The Meat Hook” combines small-town butcher shop intimacy (with both the butcher and the butchered), with trendy classes in the disassembly of recently deceased critters. Like many things in this book, much of what he sells is raised locally, with craft-inspired uniqueness.

The next discussion covers sugar – which, frankly somewhat surprised me, but it's one of those things whose history in many ways parallels the growth of the city. The Dutch West India Company was set up in 1620 to trade in sugar, tobacco, spices, salt, and other goods, and a few years later they founded the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam at the lower tip of Manhattan, later ceded to the British, who, of course, renamed the island and surrounding areas New York. Shulman suggests: “Sugar was the industry that elevated old New York, helping transform it into a cosmopolitan, powerful financial center in the 1700s.”. Like the previous chapter, this bounces back and forth between history and a local figure (Jose Torres) who stands in for all Puerto Rico, and the culture from the islands that is such a presence in New York. Here, the history goes way back … sugar cane apparently originated in New Guinea as far back as 8,000 years ago, and eventually made its way to India, where a general in Alexander The Great's army wrote of it in 327 bce, and it expanded with the Arabs around the Mediterranean. Christopher Columbus (who had at one time been a sugar buyer) brought it to the Americas, where it thrived in the Caribbean, and eventually in large parts of South America.

Growing, harvesting, and processing cane was a key driver of the early slave trade, and the many forms that sugar took, including rum, were significant engines for the growth of New York, although, obviously, the growing and harvesting were not done there, “by 1770 the city supported seventeen rum distilleries”. Numerous forms of sugar, recipes for sugar and molasses, and rum drinks are noted here, as well as individuals and organizations involved in its trade (interesting, there were a lot of pirates based out of New York), and those involved in developing new forms of refining. It was the sugar interests who made sure the U.S. obtained Puerto Rico in the war with Spain, and within days of our Navy taking the island, industry representatives arrived to organize production. For fifty or so years, sugar cane was the cash crop there, and the workers, no longer slaves, per se, were institutionally locked into the industry. The life of these folks is illustrated with Torres' story, and the diaspora to New York when the cane industry began to fade in the 1950s.

The story of beer in New York is largely more recent, and that chapter looks primarily at a few craft brewers in various boroughs of the city, and the history. As is the case with most of these subjects, New York was at the one point the center of brewing in the U.S., with roots that went back to the very early Dutch presence. Germans eventually followed, and many traditional European brewing styles became established. This was eventually problematic during the World Wars, and prohibition certainly didn't help. Nearly as frustrating as that governmental intrusion are the off-putting “arcane regulations and overlapping bureaucracies” that current-day brewers have to deal with, and (I'm hoping this isn't going to be “a spoiler” for anybody) the two featured beer entrepreneurs end up ditching NYC to move out to Portland, OR.

This chapter looks at the evolution of the beer biz in the U.S., how it thrived and then faded in New York (the last industrial brewer closed there in 1976), how styles changed over time, how marketing changed (Lite, anyone?) the industry, and how assorted cultural shifts re-shaped the brewing world. I found a lot of the historical bits of how different European traditions expressed themselves in bars/restaurants as new immigrant groups swept in (Germans made up 1/3 of NYC's population in 1875, for instance), including the brewery-owned locations (there are still numerous Schlitz-branded buildings around Chicago from this era) of the Rupperts company, among others. An interesting note about this sort of establishment: “Beer came with a free lunch – Bismarck herring with onions, vinegar, and Tabasco, sandwiches of fresh-cut bologna full of garlic and cloves, highly seasoned wursts and limburger, mustard, and horseradish.”

I guess herring makes an adequate segue to the next chapter, dealing with fish. It's hard, even today, to disassociate New York from its maritime roots (given the docks all around Manhattan), but local fish is not something that immediately comes to mind (oddly, when contemplating this, Snakefinger's 1980 tune I Come From an Island does, with its lyric Fish, that's all we get to eat here, fish … It is our national dish.). The chapter starts with a 12-year-old girl working crab traps in the surf off of Coney Island, right by a sign warning against eating anything from those waters, which are polluted with a nasty mix of toxic chemicals. However, if you're poor, and want to get something to eat, it's a tempting resource. I was surprised to read here just how productive they can be … a community organization polled “two hundred Greenpoint and Williamsburg {neighborhoods in Brooklyn} anglers and found that they caught an average of fifty-seven fish a week each: blue crabs, eels, bluefish, and striped bass”, with their family members averaging eating nearly 10 of these each per week, against the recommendations that women and children never eat any, and men only once a month or so … that's a lot of seafood, as well as a whole lot of risk (I can remember as a small child in NYC catching crayfish using a can-and-string contraption up in Harlem Meer, the lake at the north-east corner of Central Park … an activity she mentions … so I have some experience with this, but I never even considered eating what we caught!).

It really is pretty horrific what's been done to the waters around (and within) Manhattan since the mid-1800s, when it was reasonably clean. The Industrial Revolution began the downward trend, and it still continues with raw sewage being dumped into Newton Creek (which had become notoriously noxious as early as 1881), between Brooklyn and Queens, along with a long list of toxins (the author devotes a paragraph), as an example that's detailed here. This list contrasts one of fish available in the New York waters back in 1679 … including foot long oysters, once a signature food of the city. This chapter somewhat rambles, as it goes from fisher to fisher, from crab trapping teens to chartered fishing boats, and pretty much all points between, discussing the people, the catch, and even the ways they prepare the food. The ecological dangers are certainly chastening, but there evidently are a lot of people choosing today's meal over the possibilities of PCBs, mercury, and even radioactive waste eventually ruining their health.

The final chapter looks at wine, and at one point Shulman pretty much defines the theme of the chapter as: “New York City wine-making has not been about quality wine, but about expressing tradition”. This topic probably has the least historical material in the book, a few paragraphs giving the broad strokes of wine (of all sorts) in various cultures, a few quotes about the native grapes found by the Dutch locally (deemed no good for wine), and how the European wine grapes kept failing (due to a vulnerability to an indigenous parasite), leading to the development of hybrids. It's primarily focused on immigrants and their wine cultures, specifically the Jews and the Italians, here personified by stories from two modern New Yorkers, Yatif Jiji, a college professor who grew up in a Jewish community in Iraq, and Sal Meglio, whose family had imported California grapes into NYC for generations. An interesting data point here is that both of these cultures “took advantage of a Prohibition loophole … the law did not prohibit all alcohol consumption – but allowed people to make limited amounts of wine to drink at home”, a loophole that, as one might expect, got abused quite a bit during the time the 18th Amendment was being enforced.

This latter factor is another element here, with the development of Kosher wines that were permitted, and were marketed by Rabbis of sometimes dubious provenance, eventually leading to still-familiar brand names like Manischewitz. Most of the chapter, though, deals with the family/neighborhood wine-making of previous decades … where nearly every housing unit had barrels of home-make wine sitting in the basements … and how this tradition faded as people began to move long distances from their families. The author also notes a number of modern commercial vintners who operate in New York (such as the Red Hook winery in Brooklyn), but the tale here more centers on figures such as Jiji and his huge (if somewhat unintentionally begun) grapevine that grows up the back of his townhouse on the Upper East Side, which can produce as much as a dozen cases of wine in a good year.

As you might have surmised by the length of this review, I found Eat The City quite engaging, and I've barely skimmed the surface of the information packed into it here. If you have interests in agriculture, cuisine, urban history, or the growth of the Green city, you will find a lot of fascinating material in this. As noted up top, I found this hardcover at the dollar store, but it's relatively recent (only five years old as of this writing), and still in print, and has since been joined by a paperback edition. The on-line big boys presently have both of these at more than 60% off of cover price, making them quite affordable (if you can't find a copy at the dollar store), and what they have the paperback going for is even less than what the new/used guys are offering when shipping's figured in. Needless to say, I really liked this one … and would highly recommend it to anybody with similar interests!

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