July 23, 2012

Book Review: Eat the City

a book about local food producers in New York City
A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York
Book by: Robin Shulman
Review by: David Ackley

“Food is culture. Food is an art the economy will sustain.” - Tom Mylan, butcher, from Eat the City

Today’s fascination with craft beer is very much part of a larger local food movement. In addition to enthusiasm for local breweries, there is also great interest in locally-produced, artisanal products of all kinds, from wine, cheese, and honey, to vegetables, bourbon, and beef. But who are those people on the other side of the table at the farmer’s market? Who are the people tending urban gardens and working behind the bar at the local brewery?
A book for “hipstavores, gastronauts, and local fooderati,” Eat the City is about the people, past and present, who have produced food and beverages in New York City. Author Robin Shulman, who has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, reveals that New York City is full of life, full of nature, and perhaps more closely related to “the Big Apple” than to “the Concrete Jungle” than most people realize. She describes scenes from her extensive research into the New York City food community, writing intimately about those who have grown vegetables, refined sugar, butchered meat, made wine, and yes, brewed beer, contributing to the growth of New York City in the process.

Shulman expertly interweaves historical anecdotes from early American food producers with the stories of present day locavores. In each of seven chapters, she focuses on a particular industry or food item: Honey, Vegetables, Meat, Sugar, Beer, Fish, and Wine. She shows how Southern cuisine and agricultural traditions traveled from Africa, to the Southern United States, and up to Harlem. Shulman describes how beekeepers collect and sell honeys that reflect the terroir of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, or Manhattan. She writes without boring technical minutiae, instead vividly describing the people, their relationships, and their craftsmanship with the wide-eyed fascination of a first-time observer.

I was highly entertained by the chapter on meat, in which Shulman follows butcher Tom Mylan and describes in graphic detail his skill at dissecting various animals into chops, loins, ribs, or whatever other cut you’d like. She interlaces stories like this with stories of New York’s often not-too-charming past, when the streets were filled with the refuse from the butcher’s shop. Her work is thoroughly researched, and well balanced between the historical and the sentimental.

In her chapter about beer, Shulman narrates the story of New York’s rich brewing history. She tells of the German immigrants, who built brewing empires in New York City and fused the traditions of beer and baseball. Did you know that early U.S. Brewers Association meetings were originally held in German? Or that as recently as 1875, there were as many as 125 breweries in Brooklyn and Manhattan alone? As much as we would like to return to that mark (and we may someday), we learn that it isn’t easy to open a brewery in New York City. Shulman introduces us to homebrewers that want to take their craft to the next level, but find that real estate and ingredient sourcing are a bit too costly to make brewing in the city feasible.

I like Shulman's description of the artistry behind making beer:
Every brewer follows similar steps to make beer: Take malt--barley that has been wetted so it germinates, and then kilned in an oven so that germination stops. Add water and steep it to extract as much sugar and flavor as possible, creating the mash. Add the flower of the hop plant, which provides flavor and bitterness, and also acts as a preservative. Cool the mixture, and drop in yeast, which converts sugar to alcohol. But exactly how to accomplish each step in a matter of centuries of contention.
To be honest, I would have liked the chapter on beer to end with a modern day success story of New York City brewing, but if you want to read more about that you can check out Beer School, which tells the story behind Brooklyn Brewery. Still, it was fun to learn that Brooklyn Brewery’s leftover mash is used to feed livestock at the Queens County Farm Museum.

Shulman does well to put into context today’s enthusiasm for local food and beverage production. With the ebb and flow of the economy, consumers tend to alternate between finding local, cost-effective solutions to put food on the table during tough times, and less localized, less efficient ways to satiate their thirst and hunger during periods of plenty. Maybe this time around, appreciation for local food production is here to stay?

View slides from the author’s research at Slate.com.

Meet Robin Shulman this Wednesday, July 25th, at the South Street Seaport Museum’s Beer Book, Blog & Video Fest.

Full disclosure: Crown Publishers sent the Local Beer Blog a copy of this book to review

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