Living in Brooklyn, I have a lot of opportunities to “eat local”. I can get pickles from Brooklyn Brine, or wine from the Red Hook Winery. A few friends brew their own beer (and I’m always up for a tasting party!). Knowing that New York City was a big old island covered in farms back in the day, I picked up Robin Shulman’s Eat the City to learn a little bit about the locavores of yore. You know, before “locavore” was a word and before “local and organic” were the buzzwords of the century (food-related buzzwords, anyway).
Shulman divided her book into chapters based on food type, and juxtaposed the modern fishers and foragers with how their industries developed over time in the five boroughs. She covers everything from wine to fish to even sugarcane (yes, people grow sugarcane in New York City!). As a wine lover, I knew a lot of what was covered in the wine chapter, such as the boom of the kosher wine industry during Prohibition as they got exceptions to produce alcohol for religious ceremonies, but every chapter uncovered something I’d never known before. You know I love a good nonfiction book when it’s well-researched, and Shulman clearly did her homework before putting together Eat the City.
Reading through it, I’m not sure if someone that doesn’t live in the boroughs would enjoy it as much as I did. At one point, she mentioned the corner that my beau used to live on: for me, that was exciting, for others? Probably not so much. I liked being able to envision the locations mentioned, but it helped that I’d been to most of the places before: I’ve walked by Red Hook Winery, I’ve walked over the Gowanus “Lavender Lake” Canal. If you’re interested in the history of New York, or urban agriculture, it’s a great book. If you don’t really care about the toxicity levels in the fish people are catching in the East River (or don’t know what the East River is), it may not be as interesting.
One thing is for sure, though: Eat the City is going to make you want to start living off the land if you aren’t already. I have a few herbs growing on my windowsill, but I almost want to go out and plant some tomatoes on my fire escape now, or maybe get a vine of Lambrusco grapes growing in my backyard (that I can’t actually access, oops). Although I don’t think I’ll be harvesting honey anytime soon, the beekeepers can keep their bees, please.
All those pertinent details:
- Title: 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
- Author: Robin Shulman
- Length: 352 pages (Kindle edition, including endnotes)
- Genre: nonfiction, history, food and drink
- Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Buy the book on Amazon here!