Eat the City, a book by journalist Robin Shulman celebrating the long, rich tradition of resilient New Yorkers driven to glean good things to eat from the fertile cracks in the city’s concrete shell, was released this week.
We spoke to Robin about the book, her view on what’s driving the current craze for all things good, and how the histories and stories she unearthed have affected her view of 21st century New York City.
Robin, most of the reviews of Eat the City seem to frame it as a sort of effort to push back on the assumption that food production in the city is a trendy new thing…That, in fact, it’s something that’s been part of the fabric of life here all along…
Yeah, I think that in the last few years the idea has been that food production is something trendy, for hipsters, and also the province of people with money and time to dabble in expensive, organic foods. In researching the book, I kind of found the opposite – that over time in the city, immigrants and people who don’t have a lot of money have always cared about what they eat. Often they’re coming to this country and trying to reproduce foods from home. They often don’t have the money to buy the things that would allow them to eat the way they want to eat, so they have found ways to create it themselves, for generations. So my goal with the book was to tell that opposite story – to show that this has always been a part of how the city works, even when it’s been marginalized.
It changes over time. At one point, large parts of what is now New York City was agricultural land. Brooklyn and Queens were the largest vegetable-producing counties in the country. There were farms throughout upper Manhattan and Staten Island as late as the 1950s. It was an agricultural city, and as it began to shift in the 19th and 20th centuries into an industrial city, food production became one of the biggest industries in town. When both the agricultural and industrial cities began to disappear, what remained was the smaller-scale production of food by immigrants and entrepreneurs. And that’s something that’s always been there and has never gone away. It’s flourishing again in a new way now, but it never stopped being an important part of city life for many people.
Tell us a little about the stories you tell in the book. What are some of your favorites?
Each chapter of the book is based on a food. In each chapter I tell the story of a person producing that food in the city today, and I look at the production of that food throughout the history of the city.
You’ve probably heard about this story, but one of my favorites is about honey production in Red Hook. I met a beekeeper named David Selig, who lives in Red Hook. He had grown up keeping bees on his grandparents’ farm, and he later had a wholesale honey shop in Brooklyn. At some point he decided to keep his own hives. He had the hives for a year, and everything was fine. Routine. The bees were healthy and producing honey.
The next year, beekeeping was legalized in the city, and a number of other people set up hives in Red Hook. That summer was incredibly hot. There were weeks at a time it was ninety or a hundred degrees each day. Naturally, David was concerned about his bees.
He had a habit of going up to his hives to drink his coffee in the morning. He’d relax and watch his bees do their work. And one morning he noticed something really strange – the bees coming back to the hive were bright red. They were kind of glowing red, a very unnatural shade of red. He was alarmed.
He immediately started trying to figure out what was going on. He did a lot of research online, looking for information about some kind of insect or mite that might cause that kind of reaction. He couldn’t find any mention anywhere of red bees. He started contacting other beekeepers in Red Hook to see if anyone else was experiencing the same thing. And it turned out that there were a handful of other beekeepers experiencing the same thing, in different degrees.
It got even stranger. The bees seemed healthy. They weren’t dying off or behaving strangely. They were just red. As the bees started to produce honey in the hives, he found that the honey was the same unnatural red color as the bees themselves. He was mystified. He guessed that it was probably because they were gathering something red from the environment around them. He and the other Red Hook beekeepers thought that the bees might be consuming sumac rather than the nectar from the normal variety of plants for some reason due to the heat. Or that they were gathering red ethylene glycol from a nearby bus yard.
One day David was walking home, and it hit him. He lived around the corner from a maraschino cherry factory. The factory had been there for years, and he had never had the red bee problem before, but he knew that it had to be it. It turned out that at the cherry factory, open bins of maraschino cherries were sitting outside for a few minutes at a time while they were being transported from one building to another. The bees discovered this, and just started literally diving into the bins, collecting red-dyed high fructose corn syrup next door rather than hunting for nectar from flowering plants.
So it was a confluence of things – it was so hot that many of the plants they normally sought out for nectar were wilting. Beekeeping had just been legalized, and as more people started keeping hives, there were hundreds of thousands of new bees in the neighborhood competing for nectar. And so when they found these open bins of high-fructose corn syrup, they just started feasting on it.
It was also funny because it turned out that the maraschino cherry factory owner had been equally horrified by what was happening. He’d been operating the factory for decades without any kind of bee problem. Suddenly, thousands of bees were attacking his cherries and he had no idea why! When they all figured it out, he offered to give the beekeepers as much maraschino cherry juice as they wanted so they could put it out on their roofs next to the hives to feed the bees! [laughter.] He didn’t get that for most people, the whole point of keeping bees is to create that connection to the natural environment around them. [laughter.]
Another thing I loved learning about was the history of brewing beer in Williamsburg and Bushwick. When German immigrants began coming to New York in large numbers, many of them settled in north Brooklyn. And they brought lager beer with them. They built massive breweries in those neighborhoods, and brewing quickly became one of the city’s biggest industries. There was a stretch of Williamsburg and Bushwick called Brewers’ Row, where they built all these enormous breweries that all had huge beer gardens and large open grounds where people would gather on weekends.
While I was learning about the history of beer in the city, I met these guys, John Connor and Josh Fields, who lived in Williamsburg and were trying to open a brewery. They had a sort of incubator brewery set up in this big loft where John was living, and they were practicing brewing increasingly large batches of beer for their friends while trying to figure out how they’d make the leap to commercial production. So I was spending a lot of time with them while they were developing new techniques and new recipes, having lots of big parties where they’d serve their beer and get feedback, and working hard to figure out the logistics of turning it into a business.
And then one day John’s landlord kicked them out. He wanted to sell the building. They really needed to find a new space. They began looking, and they had a friend who was an artist who had just bought a large building in Bushwick. He asked them to come over and see whether they might want to use part of the space for brewing. So they went there to check it out, and as they were looking around, they realized that the building itself was in fact an old brewery.
It was one of those old breweries from that golden age of brewing in Brooklyn. They found an inscription outside saying it was founded in 1898. And by looking closely at the architecture of the building, they started figuring out the processes they used to brew on a commercial scale back then. It was a multi-floor operation. Different equipment was on different floors, and at each stage of the brewing process, things would move from one floor down to the next. It was kind of amazing.
In the end, they actually left New York for Oregon, because to them it just seemed too onerous to try to build a brewery in the city today. Breweries are essentially about space – you need a lot of it, so it takes an enormous investment to get started.
The last one I’ll mention regards winemaking. There’s a very long tradition of making wine in Italian Brooklyn. In Italian neighborhoods, everyone used to make wine each year. The neighborhoods were divided up into fiefdoms that each had their own grape seller. In the fall, the grape sellers would go around with their carts delivering grapes. In every building in places like Carroll Gardens and Red Hook, the landlord would allocate space in the basement for each family to keep their wine barrels. In the fall, when everyone was making their wine, if you walked the streets you’d see the gutters stained purple and filled with the crushed grapes and stems that came with the dregs.
I met a guy named Sal Meglio, who started working as a grape deliveryman at the age of thirteen. His uncle had gotten into the business of delivering grapes for wine during Prohibition, when everybody wanted to make their own. He eventually passed the business on to Sal and his cousin. Sal just stopped delivering grapes about ten years ago, because he was getting older, and because there just weren’t enough Italians left in those neighborhoods still making wine, but he still makes wine with his family every year. I love that.
You spent a lot of time with a lot of people who are driven in some way to produce food in the city, today. Did you sense any common thread of motivation? Is there something hard wired into some percentage of humans to be driven to make food? Is it about connecting with nature and people in a disconnected world? Or about making money? Getting cheap fresh food…?
I think it’s all of those things and more. Obviously there’s been a dramatic increase in the amount of food being produced here in the city, and in the numbers of people who have responded to that. For something to change so dramatically, many different things need to come together to produce that change, and I think that’s what’s happening here now.
One factor is the economy. The crash made a lot of people refocus their energy on aspects of life beyond just having a job. It sparked an interest for a lot of people in making something, creating something. Before the crash a lot of people were trying to do different types of creative work to make a living, and a lot of that dried up. I think food was something that people could invest in creatively, fairly easily, and have an immediate impact on other people. Even in a bad economy people want to eat good food and enjoy it and share it. So in some way it’s a form of creative expression that flourished due in part to the collapse of the greater economy.
I also think there’s a strong sense amongst a lot of people that in our society today we’re very disconnected from things – that so much of what we purchase and use is produced completely anonymously, very far away. We don’t know what things are. People want to feel like they’re closer to the source of things. Making something like food is one of the most basic things you can do to have a sense of control over your life and environment – a sense that you’re not living at the mercy of distant, anonymous forces. I think that’s important.
And people just want to eat good food. I think we had reached a point with the food system where the mass-produced things in grocery stores just didn’t taste very good. These are things a lot of people seem to have realized recently, but I think they’re things that many poor people and immigrants here have always realized. When you don’t have a lot of money, you can create much better quality food on your own than you can buy in the store.
What about you personally? As a long-time New Yorker, has the process of writing this book changed how you see the city? Has it affected your experience of the city?
You know, when I got the idea to write this book I was working a lot as a journalist in the Middle East. I had spent a lot of time reporting on war and terrorism, and I was really…depleted by it. I wanted to find a way to write about the way people live, not the way they die. I wanted to write about the small stories of regular people, and the ways they sustain themselves, and I think that’s just as important as writing about the way people destroy themselves and others.
One of the things I’ve always loved about New York, is that there’s room in this city for regular people to make their imprint on the environment around them. It’s a city where anything goes and people are able to create things. It’s an amazingly creative place. I had the feeling when I started working on the book that that space that allows those things to happen was king of contracting – that things had become so expensive that it was getting much harder for people to take up creative projects and that maybe those things were disappearing. I wanted to find the people and places where that creativity and self-sufficiency still existed. And I found them. And it was exciting! There are a lot of people who think these things are really important, and who have built their lives around trying to create them.
That view that people can still create a city of possibility for themselves is the best thing I got out of the book. There’s a real beauty in that different things can coexist at once in this city. This is a story of immigrants and poor people pursuing a way of life that they value and that they know. And it’s also the story of people who have discovered something meaningful to them in food, and who have decided to value it and create more of it. You can find the man from Puerto Rico growing sugar cane in the Bronx because it’s a connection to his childhood, or people in Brooklyn making ricotta cheese because they want to make something with their hands that’s beautiful, and that they can share with people they know.
I love that that’s the city we live in now. And I guess that once I found that I wanted to show it to other people.