There is a running thread on this blog about the intersection of urban and rural, traditional and modern, and how it all impacts our changing culture in America. So when I had the chance to chat with Robin Shulman about her new book, “Eat The City,” it seemed like a perfect fit. In the book, Shulman, a journalist who has reported from the Middle East, explores the fascinating agricultural history of New York City.
Surprisingly, New York City, from its origins, has been home to a rich network of food production. In different times, New York was a center of brewing. Brooklyn was once a major sugar refiner, and the area around the city was the largest vegetable production center in the country. But that all changed when “people decided in the mid 1800’s that certain things should not be a part of city life, which until then had been the norm,” Shulman said.
“They didn’t want animals living in the streets, pigs grunting through the sewers and picking up the trash, which had been one very effective way of garbage collection,” she said. The city created a board of health, which was intended to clean up the city, but as Shulman told me, also had the unfortunate effect of removing the connection of people to their food. Until the 19th century, urban folks still mostly knew where the food on their table came from.
The cool thing is that urbanites are rediscovering this agricultural tradition. Schulman set out to connect the dots in New York City’s seemingly disparate and far-flung food networks, and discovered that for many people in the city, food production remains a central theme of their lives. Some of the stories and characters she introduces us to in the book are quite remarkable.
Today, you can find brewers, beekeepers, fishermen, chicken raisers, and foragers in a city most people associate with skyscrapers and Times Square. Fascinating stuff.