Sunday, February 22, 2015

New York Food Revisited

Puerto Rican immigrants to New York often left back-breaking and overwhelming jobs harvesting or processing sugar cane. Though their lives may have improved, they remembered the taste of cane and many sayings about sugar cane ... a girl is "like sugar cane in February... when the cane is barely mature and the sweetest for plucking.... His machete is blunt, one might say of someone dull. That's worse less than the chaff. He's stingier than the knot of the cane. ... May your cane juice be always sweet."

Sugar played an incredible role in New York City history, not just in the lives of Puerto Ricans, but of many other people who worked in the Domino sugar factory, or much earlier were involved with the sugar trade from the islands to Europe, as well as the well-known distilling of rum from molasses.

A few days ago I wrote about Arthur Schwartz's enjoyable romp through high-end restaurant history in New York -- see my post "The Snob's Guide to New York City Food."

To follow up, I read Robin Shulman's book titled Eat the City: a tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Bee Keepers, Wine Makers, and Brewers Who Built New York. Obviously, it covers more or less the reverse of Schwartz's book. It's just what I had in mind when I said I was hoping to learn about "supplying food in such a huge city and about just what the people ate and how they cooked it." The sugar cane quotes illustrate how imaginatively this author works with materials on New York's food history (from p. 172-173).

Shulman interlaces two threads in each chapter: long-ago food history and tales of present day artisans. In the past, New York processed its own food -- up until the mid-20th century, for example, cattle and pigs were brought live into the city to a large number of slaughterhouses that served New Yorkers' demand for meat. The original Dutch settlers and their immediate successors raised wheat, wine grapes, vegetables, and many more foods in Manhattan, Long Island, and other areas that now are totally urban. The Diamond sugar factory, large-scale breweries, and other industrial food processors were large employers with customers far beyond the city.

Present-day New Yorkers have resumed bee-keeping, beer-brewing, raising grapes for home-made wine, growing vegetables -- and even sugar cane -- on windowsills, or slaughtering an occasional pig or chicken. Fishing, eeling, or shellfish-gathering, even in waters full of industrial pollution, is something New Yorkers never gave up. Upscale trendy examples of new-type foodies doing things like bee-keeping or winemaking are easy to find. Shulman also covers the way poorer members of minority or immigrant communities supplement their diet by growing food in cans or on rooftops, by fishing and ignoring warnings about the danger of pollutants, and how Harlem residents for a while turned large tracts of burned-out land into vegetable gardens (now mainly reclaimed by developers). The details for each activity are compelling, and I enjoyed every chapter!

Above all, I enjoyed Shulman's treatment of New York's transition from an industrial city to a what is now. New York was "the country's manufacturing center." By mid-19th century Manhattan was
"rimmed with meatpackers, coal yards, gasworks, ink factories, ribbon makers, iron works, breweries, bottling plants, bone boilers, dairies, slaughterhouses, glue factories, stockyards, tar dumps, garbage transfer stations, rubber factories, masonry yards, flour mills, icehouses, lumberyards, sugar houses, distilleries, oil refineries, plumbing supply houses, and elevator and dumbwaiter manufacturers." (p. 236)
The pollution from these now-departed industries stays with New York despite efforts to clean up. The reality of present-day New York is extremely different from that of the past. Now few heavy industrial or manufacturing activities remain -- most people are in white collar, financial, or service jobs. The comparison that emerges from the perspective of raising and foraging foods in this ultra-urban setting makes fascinating reading.

While I was in New York last month, ironically, I missed the discussion of this book by my culinary book club -- but I hear that they all liked it too.


~~louise~~ said...

I find culinary New York history quite fascinating, Mae. Looks like I may just need to seek out this book.

Thank you so much for sharing, Mae...

Cakelaw said...

An interesting post. I hope to try some of New York's food for real soon.