Friday, August 24, 2012

Eat the City

a tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Bee Keepers, Wine Makers, and Brewers Who Built New York
By Robin Shulman
Crown Publishers (Random House), 335 pgs
Submitted by Random House
Rating: 4

"Go on bite the big apple..." Richards and Jagger warned us. I always took this to be a metaphor. Who knew one of the world's megalopolises had such agricultural bounty? Turns out New York has a history of growing and producing any number of crops: honey, beef, fish, sugar, beer, etc., etc.

Chapter 2. During the economic catastrophe of the 1970s hundreds of vacant lots appeared where buildings once stood. Today a large percentage of those lots are no longer vacant. Community gardens have sprung up all over the city thanks to passionate local growth advocates and many transplants to the city from the South with rural agricultural backgrounds. Community gardens are producing everything from corn and potatoes to squash and tomatoes, even sugar cane. Okra is itchy to pick, did you know that? I did. I used to pick okra in my aunt and uncle's garden as a little girl in West Texas.

Chapter 3. New York was the largest meat processing center on the East Coast until Work War II. Cattle were herded down the middle of city streets. Millions of immigrants flooded the city and discovered that meat was plentiful and cheap, unlike in their homelands. Eating meat was a measure of success. One man recalled that his grandfather would put a toothpick in his mouth as he left home "to give the impression that he had eaten meat." By 1980 there were only six slaughterhouses left in the city. Then came another wave of immigrants and a slaughterhouse renaissance of sorts. Now there are eighty. Another reason for the growing number of slaughterhouses is the large Jewish population that ensures a healthy kosher slaughter business. How you ever considered there to be anything sexy about butchers? Try this on for size, regarding a butcher named Tom: "He's confident and sure of his touch and his impact on the meat, and if there's something sexy about butchering, it's that - it shows a man who's comfortable with flesh." Think about it.

Chapter 5. Beer has been brewed on the island of Manhattan since before the Dutch bought it in 1626. One might think that the Midwest was the king of beer in this country but this was not always so. New York was the king of beer until refrigeration technology made it possible to get ice-cold beer from Milwaukee and St. Louis to the larger markets on the east coast. Breweries declined precipitously in New York. Then came the local micro-brew movement. Now apparently every hipster has a still in the laundry room. The same can be said of wineries. They are making a comeback. Time was when people bought grapes from upstate and fermented their own wine. Like bell bottoms, it's cool to be a vintner again in Manhattan. Friends of another aunt and uncle tried their hand at homemade wine back in the 80s. Word has it that the wine was terrible but I wouldn't know about that. I was just a kid, certainly never tasted it. Certainly.

Another factor in the decline of breweries was Prohibition. However the New York Telegram claimed in 1929 that you could buy alcohol in the following places: "In open saloons, restaurants, nightclubs, bars behind a peephole, dancing academies, drugstores, delicatessens, cigar stores, confectioneries, soda fountains, behind partitions of shoeshine parlors, back rooms of barber shops, from hotel bellhops, from hotel headwaiters, from hotel day clerks, night clerks, in express offices, motorcycle delivery agencies, paint stores, malt shops, cider stubes, fruit stands, vegetable markets, taxi drivers, groceries, smoke shops, athletic clubs, grillrooms, taverns, chophouses, importing firms, tearooms, moving-van companies, spaghetti houses, boarding houses, Republican clubs, Democratic clubs, laundries, social clubs, newspapermen's associations." Smile.

Eat the City is a great book. I love this sort of thing, sort of esoteric history, learning something in an entertaining, humorous way. It does lag in a few places but I think you'll find it worth it in the end. Not all is good news though. The situation with the water quality is truly atrocious and I hope something can be done so it's safe to eat the fish again. It hadn't occurred to me that this sort of agricultural history existed in a city the size of New York. (Have you been? Wow.) Omaha I would have believed. I am a fan of organic, locally grown, community-based foodstuffs. We even have a community garden here in Colorado City, Texas. I sincerely applaud the residents of New York in their attempts to take back the city's more blighted neighborhoods.

In closing, can you guess why David Selig's Brooklyn bees began making red honey? Have you ever considered that the color and flavor of honey depends upon the diet of the bees making it? This had never occurred to me, though it makes perfect sense. You'll never believe what David's bees had gotten into!

The author, Robin Shulman, is a writer and reporter whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Slate, etc. For more from the author:

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Last Camel Charge

Texas Book Lovers we have a special treat today: guest reviewer Doug Baum. I went to high school with Doug a million years ago. He is the proprietor of Texas Camel Corps outside Waco, Texas. He and his family travel with their camels to historical reenactments, Christmas pageants and guided tours of the Middle East every year. Doug is one of the most interesting and genuine people I've had the pleasure to know. Please enjoy his review of The Last Camel Charge.

The Last Camel Charge (2012, Berkley), by Forrest Bryant Johnson, is the most recent book to chronicle the US Army Camel Experiment of the 19th century. This being a topic very dear to my heart, I picked up a copy the minute it was available, hoping to discover something new.
I can’t say I was disappointed. In fact, the book was a page-turner and I didn’t want it to end. Placing the camels’ US military story against the backdrop of the Mormon migration was very creative and helped weave together two different pieces of Western history. The titular “Charge”, too, was riveting and served to teach me, the ol’ camel man, something new (I’ll not spoil that part of the tale). That said, I do have some problems with the book, most of which are borne of my intimate knowledge of this quirky bit of history AND the fact that I make part of my living as a writer. Most of these “flaws”, if you will, are admittedly noticeable by only a few readers and surely this will cement my place in the pantheon of nerds. Still, I consider books to be sacred and authors should set for themselves the highest of standards.

The technical offenses first: The seventeen typographical errors, inconsistent spellings or similar oversights I found were horribly distracting. I addressed these and other concerns with Mr. Johnson, via email, making clear I had no intention of offending him, and he was incredibly gracious in his response. He wrote, “I wish to thank you for your comments on my book and the excellent editorial work.  I am not offended.  I'm impressed.  You should be working for Berkley for they sure made a lot of screw-ups on the proof.  Many you mentioned had already been brought to my attention and I have passed them on to the editors, as I will your corrections. In a way I am at fault.  I did the final proof and can offer only this. I had left the basic editorial work to their people and now I realize, they dropped the ball. Also, I'm an old guy (76) and familiar with hard copy proof reading which they no longer do, I learned with this book.  The MSS was sent to me by some sort of electronically generated editorial system I had never seen before.  The instruction for working with their system was 45 pages long with computer terms I did not know.   I write by long hand and need a typist to put my work on a cd.  Then, they gave me five days to edit their work.  So, I'm not surprised with the number of typo mistakes.”

As for the historical points of contention, one of the biggest myths of the old Army camels is that they were simply released at the end of the Civil War. This didn’t happen and Mr. Johnson doesn’t imply such, but he does help perpetuate the myth by including a photo of camels in Texas with a train in the background captioned, “They are still with us! Wild camels in Texas.” A cursory search on the web would’ve shown this image to be of camels owned by the McNair family in North Texas, near Wichita Falls. If ever there were camels (and there were some) roaming the desert US Southwest, they’d be scientifically classed as “feral”. This is an important distinction. A mountain lion is a wild animal. A coyote is a wild animal. Hogs, much of the southern US is dealing with today, are feral. Feral is a term used scientifically to denote any domesticated animal (or its descendants) that has reverted to a “wild” state. To this point, Mr. Johnson said, “You are correct, but it is difficult to convince folks of that fact.  For example, I drive and sometime walk tours into the desert near Vegas and the Federal Bureau of Land Management has large signs along the highways stating ‘It is illegal to feed wild burros and horses.’   If they used the word feral they would have millions of visitors (Vegas gets 40 million a year) searching the web or dictionary.”

I say seek and ye shall find. If we continue to set the bar low, people will surely meet it every time. As a lover of the written and spoken word, this makes me sad.

Another easy, but flubbed point is the number of stomachs a camel has. Mr. Johnson gives the number four, like a cow, sheep or goat, all of which are ruminants (meaning cud-chewing). Camels, though, are classed as modified ruminants due to their stomachs containing only three chambers. In the camel, the omasum and abomasum are combined. Camel nerds, raise your cups.
There were a couple of other historical points dealing with routes the Army camels took, crossing this creek or that river in a chronologically and geographically reverse order given the fact they were headed west. Mr. Johnson provided me with the military journal excerpts from which he pulled the passages and he’s off the hook. We can agree, though, that nineteenth-century recall wasn’t all it should be or, at the least, place names have changed or disappeared in a hundred and fifty years.

While I’ve spent the majority of this review on the handful of negatives, it’s imperative I restate how much I enjoyed the book and I do recommend it to the ardent historian as well as the casual observer. Mr. Johnson’s responses to my handful of emails lead me to believe he is a warm-hearted individual who wanted only to retell this interesting story. Mission accomplished, sir.

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