Although man has moved past his agrarian roots and settled in cities built of concrete and asphalt, you can sense an inherent longing to till the land, tend the animals, or simply produce something natural. Plenty of city dwellers do their share of producing food even if its a simple pot growing coriander leaves on the window sill. Robin Shulman in her book, Eat the City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poulty Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Bee Keepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York (Phew! A shorter title would’ve helped).
As the title suggests, Shulman divides the book into chapters based on the product and takes a deeper look at how each is produced in the city of New York. Although I’m sure there are plenty of products, she focuses on honey, vegetable, meat, sugar, beer, fish, and wine. Within each chapter, she beautifully captures the current efforts of entrepreneurs and places it within the context of historical narratives. The prose is beautiful for a non-fiction book especially the historical background that, I admit, I loved more than the present. Although I’m well aware of New York city’s history and its development over the past two hundred years, even I was surprised by some facts. Did you know that New York was once considered the most fertile land and had the most bountiful coast in all of the country? If trade hadn’t been imposed on the city’s coast, the estuaries would’ve easily qualified to be a national park with a thriving natural ecosystem. As the book conveys, Shulman has done extensive research and has talked to hundreds of people in writing this book and has done a commendable effort in weaving a fantastic narrative of the city and the resilience of its natural producers.
The book also helps in clearing some myths that you would associate with city life. Beekeepers have it easier than beer breweries just on account of high real estate prices. I would hate to share some narratives and spoil the reading experience for you so I’ll try to keep them to the minimum. The first chapter on honey was for me the most fun. I’m, as any ordinary person, terrified of bees so I can’t imagine someone willingly spending time around them. The urban beekeepers not only fought legislation that banned their practice in NYC but also worked with other industries that generally dislike bees. One beekeepers’ bees produced red honey because they got their ‘catch’ from a cherry candy factory nearby. The vegetables chapter explored the sylvan history of Harlem and described the amazing amount of fresh produce that Willie farmed that even I can’t dream of producing in my backyard. The fish and the beer chapter were the most difficult to read because you would imagine those two to be a perfect fit for a coastal urban city like New York. But unfortunately, due to rampant pollution in the waters and skyrocketing prices of real estate have made the two activities the most difficult.
In conclusion, Shulman writes a very engaging read and I highly recommend buying the book. If you’re not interested in urban farming, you will still love it for its indepth look into New York’s history from the perspective of each of those products. The history not only describes the products transition but also the underlying sociocultural impact on the city’s demographics.