Book Review: Eat The City
Robin Shulman's fascinating book on urban sourcing
If you love New York City and food — especially meat, honey, vegetables, sugar, beer, fish and wine —you will be riveted by Eat the City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Bee Keepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York. The book is beautifully written and skillfully reported by Robin Shulman and tells the present and past story of people who produce, grow, hunt and butcher their food in New York.
Eat the City begins in an unpredictable way — Shulman describes walking up to her East Village apartment building one afternoon in the 1990s only to come upon a man shooting heroin into his arm. This moment paints the picture of what the Lower East Side was like in the early '90s — drug-ridden —and sets the scene for an improbable development — her neighbors begin cleaning up a vacant lot to grow vegetables and raise chickens. Many of those gardens thrive to this day. What Shulman sees is that: “In a place that had seemed bent on self-destruction, people had figured out collective action to sustain themselves with something as elemental as food. It was like an old-fashioned morality play, the destroyers against the producers, where the producers win — with the rooster as the stand-in for the phoenix rising from the ashes.”
Each chapter focuses on a food and the New Yorkers who make, grow or hunt it. The vegetable chapter features a numbers-runner turned farmer and explains the highs and lows of farming and real estate development in Harlem. The meat chapter reveals that cattle roamed the streets of Manhattan as late as the 1950s and introduces the reader to Tom Mylan — the owner of the hippest butcher shop in Brooklyn. The honey chapter makes you want to become a beekeeper. In telling the rich stories of these fascinating characters and foods Shulman unravels layers of New York lore. As she puts it: “I began to see how the history of food is geography, immigration, culture, urban planning, science, technology, education, health, real estate, economics: the history of the city itself.”