Review: Eat the City, by Robin Shulman

I LOVE food. Though I don’t consider myself a foodie, I appreciate and deliberately seek out delicious and authentic food wherever I happen to be–from Panama to Rhode Island to Ecuador to New York. Life’s too short not to eat well–but what does “eating well” mean? And as a student and educator, I’ve learned and taught about food justice and food sovereignty, of which the ability to produce and control your own food makes up a large part. As more and more people realize the failures of industrialized agriculture, more and more people try to take food production in their own hands. Robin Shulman’s Eat the City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York, tries to answer one huge, related question: What does the urban food production landscape look like in New York City?

Shulman tackles this question subject by subject, chapter by chapter, covering honey, vegetables, meat, sugar, beer, fish, and wine. New York City has a surprisingly rich history of food production, beginning with the Lenape Indians who first hunted, fished, and gathered along the shores of Manhattan. With the arrival of the Dutch, and then the Germans, English and successive waves of immigrants, agriculture in New York City expanded to include everything from pork to oysters to various types of beer. This all began to change, however, with the industrialization of the city and the increased emphasis on other kinds of production. As Shulman wrote:

New York had a brilliant agricultural past, which it cast away, then an even more brilliant manufacturing past, which it also cast away.

Recently, however, some New Yorkers have found ways to produce their own food, and Shulman tells these stories as well. The balance of historical and modern attempts at urban agriculture included in each chapter was pitch-perfect. The stories reflected upon one another organically, and I never felt that Shulman was attempting to shoehorn in more detail or facts than necessary. I learned a lot about New York City’s history as a meat producer, for example, but was never bored by it. (Though how you could be bored by learning that the city once underwent something called “the Hog Wars” is beyond me!) Reading about New Yorkers’ attempts to bring the city back to its agricultural roots was really inspiring–taking over abandoned lots for gardens, or using building rooftops for their beehives. That ingenuity and determination is one of the most impressive parts of the local food movement!

I also thought Shulman very adeptly showed that people all across the city have been growing their own food, some for decades. I imagine it would have been easy to simply focus on the “new” food movement, apparently spearheaded by foodies, locavores, hipsters, or whatever you want to call them. Relegating urban agriculture to these people (who are often white, often young, often middle-class) ignores the large populations of color who have been doing forms of subsistence agriculture in the city for years. Happily, Shulman provided a more well-rounded and authentic accounting of urban food movements. I felt that these were actually her strongest chapters. (However, it is worth noting that the one actually dangerous practice, of consuming locally-caught seafood, seemed to be  limited to low-income individuals and individuals of color, even in Shulman’s expansive account. Hearing individuals talk about how they didn’t believe in the pollutants in their fish killed me a bit, since I study the effects of urban environmental health risks on vulnerable populations!)

One chapter I would have liked to see would have been foragers of the public space. Shulman often comments, within other chapters, that certain characters used to collect berries, or mushrooms, or dandelion greens, in greenspace. I know that there are still groups that do this, and it would have been an interesting addition to hear from them.

Overall, this is a really excellent account of what it means to produce and consume food in a city. I would recommend it not only to people who are already interested in local and urban food movements, but also those who want to learn more–or even get involved themselves.

I received Eat the City free for review through NetGalley. It will be released July 12, 2012.

Bookwanderer Rating: Four out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “Soil holds the history of a place. In New York, it’s a tale of boom and bust, as almost all city soil has at one time or another had a building on it–and then, when the building came down, in it.”

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