Yesterday we sent you Delicious Reads, a roundup of some of our favorite food books from and about Brooklyn from the past year. We included Eat the City, a fascinating look at how food and food production has shaped the history of New York City. Every chapter in this book examines the production of a specific food item–honey, beer, meat, sugar, to name a few–in New York, following someone who is making or growing that thing right now, and then tracing its history. I chatted with author Robin Shulman earlier this year to ask her more about the process of reporting and researching the book. [Full disclosure, my husband, Tom Mylan, co-owner of the Meat Hook, is featured in the meat chapter. –Ed.]
The stories of modern food production span a fairly lengthy time period–how long did you work on this book?
I got the idea in 2005 and I did initial reporting, but didn’t really pursue it then because I got a job at The Washington Post. I put it on hold until 2009 and then I worked steadily from 2009 until winter of 2011.
What was the spark that happened in 2005 that gave you the idea?
I had been working in the Middle East and doing various other things, and I came back to New York City, back to Fourth Street between Avenues C and D, and basically everything was different there. I was living on the block in the early 90s and my neighbors planted this garden in a vacant lot that people were just using to shoot up in. Slowly things had transformed. When I returned in 2005, a lot of gardens in that neighborhood had been mowed over and there were condos there. New people were living in the condos, and were complaining about the gardens because there were all these roosters there and they were complaining about the racket. This became the big issue, I would get these emails that said like, The Chicken Question. People were going back and forth about whether chickens belonged in cities. At the same time, I was meeting other people, who were my age, who were professionals, who wanted to keep chickens. I wanted to figure that out.
The food scene in New York, and especially in Brooklyn was changing so fast during that time, and still is. Did that pose reporting challenges, getting a story and then finding that things had changed radically when you checked back?
Totally. When I got the idea in 2005 I felt like things were nascent, things were just starting to happen and it piqued my interest. It was like, What’s happening here? What can this be? Why are people so interested? By the time I came back to it in 2009 everything was different. When I started working full time reporting it, I just really quickly realized that there was no way I could keep up and do a survey of everything that is happening in this city. So I decided to pick carefully people I wanted to write about, just focus on personal stories and be able to put them in the larger context.
Were there foods you wanted to use for chapters that didn’t make it in?
Yeah, liquor, cheese. I realized I couldn’t do everything and I wanted to focus on stories that seemed the most important and the most critical to something I wanted to say, and the people I found who were doing something interesting.
How did you find people growing and making all these things?
I just talked to everyone I could think of for years.
I guess that’s called reporting.
[Laughs] Every time I would meet someone I would ask them, Do you know somebody who’s doing something unusual? Do you know someone who’s doing something usual in an unusual way? Do you know someone who is themselves, unusual? I just tried to find as many people as I could. I felt really lucky to find the guy who was growing sugarcane in the Bronx, I was just astounded that he was doing that.
I mean, there are plenty of beekeepers in the city but I’ve definitely never heard of anyone else growing sugarcane in New York.
Some people have said, ‘Why did you even bother writing about somebody like that because it doesn’t mean anything if he’s the only one in the city doing that.’ I actually feel the opposite, I felt like his story was so incredible that it didn’t matter that he was the only one doing it. HIs story is so emblematic of a lot of people in the city; he grew up growing surgarcane in Puerto Rico and then ended up emigrating to New York because the sugarcane harvest was failing, like so many other people who moved to New York from sugar-growing places. Historically the whole city’s economy was built on sugar. So I thought his story was maybe the most important.
Did writing Eat the City inspire you to start producing food in some way?
I decided, I’m writing about all this stuff, I’m going to grow a garden. So I got a plot in the same garden that I write about, on Fourth Street, worked in it, helped out, and it was a complete disaster. I traveled a lot that summer and every time I came back to town my plants were wilted and dying. I realized that just because I had an interest and wanted to hear people’s stories, that did not make me a natural gardener.
Were there other cities that you considered writing about or that piqued your interest?
I think every city has a similarly rich history and similar kinds of stories. Detroit is fascinating for what’s happening right now, it’s amazing. A lot of conditions there are somewhat similar to New York in the 70s. The Bay area is really interesting–on the West Coast everything is different because they have a great climate, the growing season is all year long. They’re also really far from Europe so for things like beer and wine that makes a big difference. New York always imported from Europe and they often made their own [beer and wine]. Every city has its own stories; that’s what I loved about this idea, every city is shaped by producing food.