Serious Reads: Eat the City, by Robin Shulman

Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

When I tell my farmer friends that I grew up in New York City, they're often surprised. How did I become interested in farming and food production, they wonder, in a city that embodies urban development? New York has become such a sprawling, overwhelming metropolis that many of its residents have lost much of their connection to nature and the land. But between condos and on rooftops, at farmer's markets and small butcher shops, New York is experiencing a real growth of urban food production. Robin Shulman explores the agricultural history of New York, tells the tale of the city's transformation from farmland to the epitome of cities, and highlights many young foodies who are reclaiming the city's roots through bees, meat, and wine in her new book, 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.

In its past life, New York City was highly productive farmland. Its proximity to water, extensive river network, and lush soil made the land conducive to growth of all sorts of crops and animals. In the late 1800s, about 3 million animals were slaughtered each year on the island of Manhattan. Upstate New York produced 90 percent of the country's hops, many of which were sold to breweries located throughout the slowly developing city. Sugar refineries in Brooklyn were producing most of the country's sugar in the mid-nineteenth century, creating great wealth in the city. These industries drew entrepreneurial men and their families, who settled in the still-rural uptown Manhattan. The city was one of the major food hubs of New England.

Today, agriculture in New York looks very different. Shulman has an extensive profile of beekeeper Andrew Cote, a dedicated and slightly volatile man who produces some of the city's best honey. He has worked tirelessly to train new beekeepers since the practice was legalized in the city in 2010. New York honey isn't quite pure, since it's impossible to know where your bees are feeding. But a productive hive can still produce hundreds of pounds of honey, worth many more hundreds of dollars.

Tom Mylan, butcher at the now-famed Meat Hook in Brooklyn, was just opening his new shop when Shulman spent time with him and his partners. He has a serious attitude about meat, and considers butchering and food production a form of art. But at the same time, his shop is accessible to all kinds of customers. Mylan works with farmers within the city and nearby to source deliciously-raised local meat. He holds classes to educated eaters on the best cuts and how to prepare them. It's a far cry from the cattle fields of New York's past, but a more appropriate business for the city's urban present.

And two friends named Josh and Jon, who ran a successful underground brewing operation, decided to take their beer public. Having been home brewers for a long time, the two wanted to run their own small business and share their beers with a wider population. New York has long been a brewing hub—before Prohibition, the city boasted over 70 distinct breweries. But now it's difficult to find an affordable building with enough space to house brewing machinery. Josh and Jon eventually decided to move out of the city—a decision emblematic of the changed realities of today's New York.

Eat the City is very well-researched, and highlights some of the more interesting tales of food production in New York, both past and present. Shulman contrasts the ways of life and methods of production of modern-day growers in the city with the lifestyles and livelihoods of nineteenth-century city dwellers. She has a positive outlook for growth in the city, and frames the current producer resurgence as a kind of back-to-the-land movement. I left this book inspired by my city, and with a better answer to those who wonder how a city kid could come to love agriculture.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.