A pig in Queens is raised on leftover mash from a brewery in Brooklyn. Empty lots become vegetable gardens that uplift Harlem, leading to so much development that the gardens themselves are threatened. A Brooklyn beekeeper is baffled after discovering the honey he has harvested is electric red — until he realizes his bees are drawn to the sweet syrup produced by a neighborhood maraschino-cherry factory.
In “Eat the City,’’ author Robin Shulman illuminates the circles of life within New York’s local food movement, and how today’s purveyors have ingeniously, if not always wittingly, adapted the traditions of hundreds, if not thousands, of years of food production in the city, with its teeming acres of cement and dense thicket of forbidding regulations.
Straightforward, but not overly earnest, and smartly layered, this well-researched social history is organized in seven chapters ordered like the courses of a meal, each of which bears a title such as “Honey,’’ “Meat,’’ and “Wine.’’
Shulman chronicles the city’s food heritage, from the Native Americans through successive waves of newcomers from Europe and elsewhere. She is particularly good at illustrating how big a part food played in the city’s social history. From the sugar trade’s role in making Manhattan the largest slave port in the nation to the role of refrigeration in building distance between food sources and consumers, Shulman is adept at shifting our perspective on the foods we eat.
She also charts the changes that took place as the population grew and the economy became more industrial. Take, for instance, the slaughter of animals in neighborhoods. Once it was relatively common, but now even small breeders must tread carefully to avoid opposition from neighbors and the authorities. Residents of the Greenpoint neighborhood in Brooklyn prefer not to waken to the cackle of chickens, for example, and police officers want no further incidents like one particular low-speed pursuit of a runaway lamb wandering along the FDR Drive in Manhattan.
Throughout, Shulman bemoans the historical loss of the neighborhood-based food industry, a viewpoint sure to evoke sympathy, especially as she tells mouth-watering stories of local foodstuffs that seem far superior in taste and experience to supermarket fare. But hers is often a romanticized vision of the past that adheres too closely to a simplified sense of lost art and community. She describes the shuttered Domino Sugar plant as a place that once sweetened the city air with its candy scent, but neglects to mention whether it also populated the area with vermin drawn by its sugary products.
Then there is the fishing industry. “Early on, New York turned its back on its waters,” Shulman writes, launching an account of how the city’s waterways suffered under the industrial pressure that hurt the local oyster business and made commercial fishing untenable. But that ignores those pockets of the city where seafood has long been a way of life, and remains so today, like Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay, which is given only a glancing reference.
While Shulman carefully catalogs loss in each chapter, she also regales readers with tales of the return of urban food production. There’s Willie Morgan, an ex-numbers runner growing vegetables in Harlem; Imran Uddin, who will utter a prayer in Arabic when he slaughters a chicken; Jorge Torres, who grows sugar cane in the Bronx from cuttings gathered in Puerto Rico; and Brooklyn brewers Josh Fields and Jon Conner.
In the end, one thing becomes clear: Growing food in the city is, and was always, difficult and not suited for everyone. That may be why Fields and Conner are moving to Portland, Ore., where presumably, space is at less of a premium, and the small enterprise runs less risk of being swallowed by a city that is ever-changing, and never sleeps.