Eat the City: Book Review
by Nicole Reed
Much like the Harlem gardener Willie Morgan, who Robin Shulman portrays in her book Eat the City, New York City runs a game of numbers. Everyday we stack the number of years in our city’s history, and with our latest count of over 8 million residents, we add to the number of stories to tell. It’s our fortune to have Shulman among our numbers. In order to be a great storyteller, one has to be a great listener. To gather material for Eat the City, she spent several years listening – and then reading, researching, and imagining. Now she offers readers a deeply engaging answer to the question that got her curious: “How do people mark the landscape with their own personal hunger?”
In her book, Shulman walks through centuries of New York City history and personal accounts related to seven staples: Honey, Vegetables, Meat, Sugar, Beer, Fish, and Wine. Each staple gets its own chapter and its own narrative that twills between its first appearance in the city to today’s crafting by living and flourishing New Yorkers.
She anchors her work in astonishing facts. In the Fish chapter, for example, we learn that New York City has 578 miles of shoreline throughout our five boroughs. This number sets the stage for the easy math to follow – with so many waterfront miles fished by New Yorkers from around the world in search of free protein, “tens of thousands of people likely fish each year.” In the neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, a recent poll of 200 anglers found they caught “an average of fifty-seven fish a week: blue crabs, eels, bluefish, and striped bass”. Who knew New York City is a vibrant fishing village? (But don’t grab your fishing pole just yet – Shulman includes warnings about the potential health hazards of fish from NYC waters.)
The most remarkable achievement of Eat the City is that Shulman uses her facts as a launch pad into grand imagination. This is where her storytelling opens up. In the Vegetables chapter, she writes, “As late as 1880, Brooklyn and Queens were the two biggest vegetable-producing counties in the entire country.” This was also during the time when the elevated train rambled between the buildings -- “All over the city, the El trains were level with windowbox gardens, and the New York Times observed that passengers passed by close enough to ‘snare a carrot’.” In the simple phrase to ‘snare a carrot,’ she inspires the interplay between concrete and earth that current urban farmers dig to create.
In these small details, Shulman communicates the spirit behind the food of our city. As the leading man in her chapter about Meat, Tom Mylan of The Meat Hook, notes “Food is an art the economy will sustain.” A writer and painter by training, Mylan now teaches the art of butchery in the open air of his Brooklyn shop. Shulman’s book repeatedly tells the story of these two aspects of food in New York City: its livelihood and its imagination.
As Shulman winds down the banquet of Eat the City, she writes, “When I began work on this book, I thought I would be spending time with people who had been shunted to the edges of an overdeveloped city. But over time, meeting people and reading history, I started to realize that people who produce food draw others around them; they are not isolated, but among the most connected.”
This is precisely the beauty of her work, too: In telling the stories of New Yorkers and our food through the centuries and looking to the future -- stories by people from all over the world who now call this city home -- Shulman serves her readers the nourishment of connection.
Nicole Reed is Manager of Communications & Special Projects at Community Markets.