It is tempting to think of the urban farming revival as a modern movement but like many things the current generation believes it discovered, this latest iteration is a echo of earlier times. In Eat The City, journalist Robin Shulman chronicles New York’s artisan food purveyors and finds that each has a story as interesting as they food they produce. Peel back the veneer of a city where it seems no one even cooks in their kitchen and you find a host of farmers, butchers, beekeepers, brewers, and vintners.
New York City once had plenty of room to grow. Into the 1880s Brooklyn and Queens were two of the biggest vegetable producing areas in the country. Victory gardens sprouted in Manhattan during World War II and 1960s Harlem was home to many small crops. Shulman tells the story of Willie Morgan who has been gardening in the city since 1969 and still tends crops at age 73, sharing the vegetables with the community. Meat was also produced in the city, a tradition that is being revived by the tattooed young gun butchers of Brooklyn. Sugar refining was once big business in New York and the first rum distillery in the United States was built in Staten Island. And in the late 1800s, New York City was also the brewing capital of the United States. All things food it seems, once passed through NYC.
Producing food in the city provides unique challenges. Beekeeper and restaurateur David Selig noticed his bees were making bright red honey and traced the source to a nearby maraschino cherry factory. Brewers find their drafty loft rental is tomorrow’s hot real estate find and are stuck looking for a new place to make beer. The fish caught in local polluted waters may not be safe to eat, although that doesn’t stop most of the men and woman who catch striped bass or lay traps for crabs.
Shulman does an excellent job of weaving together the New York of old with the city of today, tying them together through food production and food entrepreneurship. While we produce far less food where we live these days, there has also been back to the earth movement popping up in the concrete jungle. There’s something hopeful about these stories, like a tree pushing roots through a sidewalk, nature has a way of making itself known. Shulman’s book is a chronicle of food but also of hope and persistence.