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Book Review – Eat the City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York by Robin Shulman

Synopsis:  New York is not a city for growing and manufacturing food. Its a money and real estate city, with less naked earth and industry than high-rise glass and concrete.   Yet in this intimate, visceral, and beautifully written book, Robin Shulman introduces the people of New York City  – both past and present – who  do grow vegetables, butcher meat, fish local waters, cut and refine sugar, keep bees for honey, brew beer, and make wine. In the most heavily built urban environment in the country, she shows an organic city full of intrepid and eccentric people who want to make things grow.  Whats more, Shulman artfully places todays urban food production in the context of hundreds of years of history, and traces how we got to where we are.

In these pages meet Willie Morgan, a Harlem man who first grew his own vegetables in a vacant lot as a front for his gambling racket. And David Selig, a beekeeper in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn who found his bees making a mysteriously red honey. Get to know Yolene Joseph, who fishes crabs out of the waters off Coney Island to make curried stews for her family. Meet the creators of the sickly sweet Manischewitz wine, whose brand grew out of Prohibition; and Jacob Ruppert, who owned a beer empire on the Upper East Side, as well as the New York Yankees.

Eat the City is about how the ability of cities to feed people has changed over time. Yet it is also, in a sense, the story of the things we long for in cities today: closer human connections, a tangible link to more basic processes, a way to shape more rounded lives, a sense of something pure.

Of course, hundreds of years ago, most food and drink consumed by New Yorkers was grown and produced within what are now the five boroughs. Yet people rarely realize that long after New York became a dense urban agglomeration, innovators, traditionalists, migrants and immigrants continued to insist on producing their own food. This book shows the perils and benefitsand the ironies and humorwhen city people involve themselves in making what they eat.

Food, of course, is about hunger. We eat what we miss and what we want to become, the foods of our childhoods and the symbols of the lives we hope to lead. With wit and insight, Eat the City shows how in places like New York, people have always found ways to use their collective hunger to build their own kind of city.

First Line:  One day when I was seventeen, I turned onto my Manhattan block to see a man sitting on my stoop, his stringy brown hair falling into his face as he leaned forward to focus on the need he was sticking into his arm.

Random Quote:  During World War II, regular Americans all over the country grew more than 40 percent of the nation’s fresh vegetables themselves in victory gardens.  Cabbages and corn poked out of the plaza of Rockefeller Center, bushy greens took over backyards, and some people even commuted to other boroughs to plant and weed and harvest.  The Jacob Buppert Brewery on the Upper East Side ran advertisements urging, “Remember, ‘V’ stands for Vegetables … and for Victory.”

Review:  My mother grew up on a farm in during the Depression and throughout World War Two.  Although at some point my grandparents quit farming and moved into town, much of the rest of the family still farmed and those that didn’t gardened.  My Great-Uncle Shed raised gorgeous pigs and did all the butchering, sausage-making, smoked pork, and country hams.  When I was a little girl, he used to take me to see his pigs and I would scratch between their ears and chuck them under their chins.  I knew we were going to eat them, but it seemed cool to give them affection – for respect their coming sacrifice if for nothing else.  My mother and I were laughing about the fact that now my Great-Uncle Shed would be an “artisanal” butcher.  Funny, that.
I also grew up in a family of foodies so there were often gardens around us and I’ve been going to farmer’s markets since I was a kid – sometimes just a few trucks, sometimes a bunch of farmers underneath a closed off highway underpass – always beautiful food with great value for the money.  We ate locally and seasonally and never thought anything about it.  I compare those markets to local ones – here in Berkeley and the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market in San Francisco and always end up sort of depressed.  These markets aren’t bringing affordable produce into the neighborhoods, but rather extra fancy, overpriced, yuppie food.  It’s sad – we all think we’re closer to the farm and to local sustainability and, instead, we’re building food economies for the wealthy.

Despite all of that, regular people continue to garden, keep bees, brew beer, make wine, learn to butcher like my Uncle Shed did, hunt and gather, fish, and use all of these ongoing activities to build community and feed their families fresh and healthy food, particularly in places where none of that is available.  Eat the City tells the New York side of this story.  Spotlighting modern individuals and weaving the history of the city and its industries throughout, the book is unputdownable.  The absolute second that I finished it, I wanted to read it all over again.

Ms. Shulman has a wonderful clear voice, her reporting is excellent, and most of what she wrote about was uplifting to me.  I loved the stuff about beekeeping, although it’s something I could never do since I’m deathly allergic.  It was fascinating, though, to learn about all the beehives on rooftops and the terroir of honey that tells the tale of the neighborhoods.
I was also very fond of the section on brewing beer.  When I was a little girl my father and one of his friends brewed beautiful beers in the basement of one of their houses.  I loved the idea of a potter and a sculptor using their creativity in a different and almost alchemical way.  As an adult I lived in Seattle for ten years – the ten years that saw an explosion of local craft beers and have been spoiled ever since.
I have to admit that the section on fishing made me so very sad.  My grandfather took me out on Puget Sound to fish pretty much all year round if I was around.  I caught the biggest Petrale sole and the biggest salmon ever caught by anyone in the family.  I share credit with my father for the salmon because it took both of us to haul that sucker up.  I remember vividly how beautiful it was, but I also remember the amazing meal that it made for the entire family – grilled on a special grill for large cuts of meat and fish and treated with tender loving care.  I cleaned every piece of fish I caught – it was a requirement – and I can see now how much it connected us to the creature we were going to eat.  It is heartbreaking how much of our water is so polluted that the fish is essentially poisonous, but people eat it anyway.
This book just went up there with The Omnivore’s Dilemna by Michael Pollan as one of my very favorite food books that we will be recommending to everyone I know.  One of the best books I’ve read all year.  You must read this book.
FTC Disclosure:  Advance copy from publisher via NetGalley
Publishing Information:  Crown Publishing Group – July 10, 2012
Rating:
Reading Challenges:  Non-Memoir Non-Fiction, Foodies Read 2

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