A comprehensive history of New York City’s food industry, from the late chair of New York University’s Food Studies Program.
These days, it’s hard to think about NYC as anything but a concrete jungle, but when the Europeans first settled Manhattan, it was mostly uncultivated farmland. Santlofer, the editor of NY FoodStory, who died in 2013, takes us there first, to a group of hungry settlers who spent years waiting for provisions from their native Holland before finally learning to be self-sufficient. The first industry they tackled was beer. In the early days of New Amsterdam, settlers (even children) drank it at every meal because it was cleaner than water. Santlofer divides the bulk of the book into four industries that have played a major part in New York’s economy over the past four centuries: bread, sugar, drink (including coffee, beer, and dairy), and meat. She tells broad, interesting stories: about the problematic triangle trade system among Africa, the Caribbean, and the Colonies, which led to the establishment of some of the United States’ most profitable sugar refineries along the Brooklyn riverfront; about the role of war in the establishment of American industry (New York fed the Union Army with hard, durable crackers, which eventually led to the creation of the National Biscuit Company, or Nabisco, an enduring American brand); and about the wave of immigrants that worked in perilous conditions during the early 20th century. The author covers a lot of ground, but a number of lighter sidebars help keep the text from feeling too dense. They explain everything from how to strip sugar cane to a turn-of-the-century horsemeat scandal to how yogurt went mainstream—there were actually ads in the New York Times in the 1950s that asked, “What is Yogurt?”
Rich, impeccably researched urban history with plenty of fun fodder for foodies.