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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