Publication date: 7/10/2012
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.
A publisher could not have created a more colorful title for an upcoming history on urban agriculture by author Robin Shulman.
Shulman has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Guardian. She lives in New York City and became fascinated by experiments with urban agriculture from Michelle Obama’s organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn to local breweries and artisanal butcher shops.
Inspired by the garden makeover of a vacant lot on her Manhattan block, she interviewed and researched other urban food producers, who have “persisted in tending, growing, fermenting, butchering, and manufacturing basic foods to eat and share and sell—because they need to and because they want to.”
Urban gardening was one of those brilliant ideas that worked like a Rorschach test to reflect whatever the beholder wished to see. It would provide food for the hungry, nutrition for the ailing, therapy for the distressed and expression for the creative. It would educate children, employ the elderly and help fix the environment. It would reclaim neighborhoods from blight, build community and reform and redeem the city.
The tendency of books on food is to serve readers with a sweet cream butter mouth feel… almost cheating. Shulman does more in Eat the City. In writing about wine, Shulman talks with generous home vintners and diligently reads about the history of local winemaking. Her news feature know-how expertly documents the colors and flavors of a wine city with kosher Jewish and Italian roots.
Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on wine:
As new grapes come in one evening in September, there’s a Willy Wonka feel to the whole operation: throttling, husking, desectioning, squirting, bubbling, frothing. Everything smells like purple grapes. Gooey stains of splatted grapes shape a gaudy mauve and violet on the stainless-steel machine that removes the stems and skins. Big silver machines are sucking out fruit juices and convection tubes are pumping the juices up across the room through various cylinders. There’s a spring in everyone’s step, all the way down the production line of volunteers who show up for the joy of making wine. Everyone seems happy. The B61 bus wheezes by, passengers staring out the window at the crates of grapes on the sidewalk. Colin Alevras, a bartender for Momofuku who has come to help shepherd the grapes through the machines, has a giant smile on his face as he says, “This is why New York is great.”
Shulman gushes about Red Hook Winery, a small commercial vintner that opened in 2008 in a former cannonball factory. She certainly advocates for the resourceful urban dwellers who have not allowed snobby tastes or Prohibition laws to deter traditional winemaking.
But, readers can forgive the marketing after sampling well-written chapters on sugar, beer, honey, fish, meat and vegetables. The chapter on wine is a perfect balance between Shulman’s mission to convert readers and her ability to present a balanced history.
Historical factoids in the book are interesting and revealing. Shulman found that Prohibition did not outlaw all alcohol consumption. Special dispensation from the federal government was granted to Catholic churches and kosher wineries. The law also permitted limited amounts to be pressed at home.
Shulman writes that a pharmacy or grocery store could sell winemaking ingredients and equipment, while fruit stands were free to sell varietal grapes, such as Marsigliana, Galante or Pirigone. Italian-American families spent $300 or more yearly to produce wine in their basements. A month after Prohibition, the Monarch Wine Company filed a certificate of incorporation, and began producing what would become the country’s leading kosher wine, Manischewitz.
According to Shulman, home and commercial vintners never attempted to create wines for critical acclaim or to impress oenology experts. She writes, “Their wines tasted good to their makers and the people whose glasses they filled.”
Eat the City by Robin Shulman is a highly worthwhile read and a colorful history of the resourceful urban food growers, who discovered ways to drink and eat and share New York City.
Category: Nonfiction, History, Food