From micro breweries in Brooklyn to beekeepers (including on the roof of the Waldorf Astoria) and urban farmers in Harlem not to forget butchers and fishmongers, New York City is buzzing with food and drink producers.
With Eat the City A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers and Brewers (Crown, July 10, 2012) Robin Shulman tells us parallel stories of today's players and New York's rich past feeding and quenching the thirst of its residents.
She took the time to answer a few questions.
Q: Robin, did idea of 'Eat the City' germinate in your head from the get go as combination of past and present in your narrative of food in New York City history?
From the time I started writing, I knew I wanted to tell the stories of the distant and recent past to show how we got to the present, and so I researched both present and past. Very little of what is happening today is actually new.
Q: Do you see a continuity in what is grown, produced, caught in New York now and what was as far back as 16th-17th century?
Certain aspects of the city’s ability to produce food are decided by geography. New York is a city of islands, so fishing and processing goods that come in through the port—such as sugar, coffee—are obvious ways of producing food. The climate and soil of the city are amenable to producing all kinds of fruits and vegetables. Immigrants have continually come to this place from many other places, and brought with them their own techniques and traditions for producing wine and beer and meat and every other food imaginable. So in surprising ways, there is continuity. That’s what I try to show in the book.
Q: What has been added to the mix in our 21st century?
Recently, I think, people have been making a more self-conscious attempt to create neighborhood-based, handcrafted foods. It’s something that used to exist in the city but is coming back in a new way.
Q: Besides 'Willie' and his vegetable gardens in Harlem, have other strong figures put their stamp on the city's food map?
Yes, I write about many of them!
Q: How does Tom Mylan manages beer and gin while teaching 'Dating with Butchery' classes at The Meat Hook?
You know, I never attended that class, so I don’t know.
Q: Is story on immigrant butchers from old Fourth Street Market tale of 'slaughterhouse in France that required apprentice to drink warm blood of first lamb he killed' true?
That’s his story, yes. It wasn’t possible for me to confirm this with the slaughterhouse where he was employed in the ‘40s, but other butchers talk about similar rituals.
Q: Is Beekeeping as much a therapy, a way to stay grounded for Andrew Cote as it is a way to make a living?
Other beekeepers mention tending hives as a way to stay grounded, but Andrew, a fourth-generation beekeeper, did not.
Q: Do you think cities like Newark or Camden would benefit from vacant lots being turned into vegetable gardens?
Those cities are already turning some vacant lots into vegetable gardens—as are cities across the country with vacant space.
Q: Are oyster eaters of today shocked when they learn that in 1800's oyster houses advertised all you can eat for six cents oysters named Jamaicas, Amboys and Rockaways?
Q: How powerful were the German beer barons that you portray in the book?
They were really at the center of neighborhood life. They were some of the biggest employers and owners of real estate. They were often involved in politics. Jacob Ruppert, one of the subjects of my beer chapter, became a congressman and also owned the New York Yankees, and his family also partnered in a half-dozen other semi-industrial concerns, and many local saloons.
Q: Can historical sights such as beer halls of past centuries still be seen around NY?
Yes, and there are still old breweries, especially in the old German neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Bushwick.
Q: Is anyone offering walking tours of the hotspots you feature in the book?
Several different tour groups offer historical brewery tours of the city. But for most of the other foods, not that I know of—not yet!
I hope this fascinating book wets your appetite for New York edible treats.
The short Eat the City trailer video (above) puts a face on some of the people featured in the book.