In the modern foodie scene, it’s all about local, organic, farm-to-table dining. For the average New Yorker, however, sourcing local meals is likely a matter of discovering a farm upstate or a vegetable garden somewhere else around the tristate area.
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But as Manhattan-based journalist Robin Shulman demonstrates in her enlightening new book, Eat the City, which we called “a feast for foodies of all persuasions,” there’s a thriving culture of urban food production all over the city, including vegetable farming, honey harvesting, butchery and brewing. Here, Shulman discussed the genesis of her book, the difficulties faced by many of her interview subjects and the future of urban food production.
Where do you live in New York?
I live on East 4th Street between Avenues C and D, the same block where I lived when I first became interested in food back in the early 1990s. At that time, I had just moved to New York to attend college. There was a lot of vacant land on my block, including at least 12 adjacent plots next to my building where about 12 buildings had burned down or been demolished and nothing had been built back up. People would gather there to trade plastic baggies for wads of cash and then shoot up and nod off in the trash.
But then one day my neighbors cleared and planted the place, and brought chickens for eggs and meat to the garden. It was clear that this garden and others in the neighborhood were transforming the place, and it slowly dawned on me that people were planting here mainly because they wanted to produce food. I started to wonder what other foods had come and gone from city life, and how they had transformed neighborhoods and the city itself. Years later, I decided to write this book.
Do you have an urban garden, or have you attempted any of the methods of some of your interview subjects?
One summer, I got a vegetable plot and decided to grow things in the garden on 4th Street near Avenue C. It didn’t work out well. I traveled a lot that summer, and every time I came back, I found my plants were full of weeds and withering. When I would go to the garden to do weeding or planting, I would find myself talking more with the other gardeners about the history of the place, or their own lives, than focusing on the task. I realized I was more interested in the lives of the gardeners and of the neighborhood than in planting things myself. I do have a bushy basil plant and some other herbs on my windowsill.
Did you eat any of the seafood caught in the waters around NYC?
No. My research on that made me realize just how harmful that could be. Guidelines suggest that women of childbearing age and children eat no seafood caught in most of the waters around the city, but a lot of people fishing these waters and extracting food don’t realize.
Of the many trades you describe in the book, which do you think is most threatened—by regulation, climate, etc.—and why?
I think the obvious answer is fishing. New York was once a fishing town, known for its oyster industry and its fresh fish markets. Land sales sometimes including rights to the whales on the shores of Manhattan. People would fish to feed their families.
But it’s no longer safe to eat fish from around this city—or many other cities in the United States, which have been polluted by sewage, and by the era when waterways were the superhighways. In the early 1900s, the oil industry thrived on the New York waterfront, and oil spills were common. There are stories of the water itself catching flame—oily waves of fire rolling in onto Staten Island. People said they could tell where an oyster originated because of its petroleum taste. When people installed indoor bathrooms with plumbing, it was a more efficient way for raw sewage to be expelled untreated into the water. People would catch typhoid—a disease contracted from contact with sewage—from handling oysters. Pollution continued unabated up until the passage of the Clean Water Act—but hundreds of years of contamination couldn’t be quickly reversed.
Have you kept in touch with your subjects? How are they faring?
Yes, I’ve kept in touch. The book just came out last week, so it hasn’t been so long since I was interviewing them! All are well. All of those who were doing commercial food production when I first met them have expanded their businesses since then, and have been successful, because interest in local food has continued to grow.
One of the most interesting characters in the book is Tom Mylan, the butcher who discusses the possibility of reforming the national meat supply. Could you talk about the viability of reforming such an entrenched industrial system?
There are butchers all over the country who are like Tom Mylan, who are making an effort to source meat from local farms, where the animals are humanely raised and are often from heritage breeds. These butchers are bringing whole animals into their shops, and they’re proselytizers—educating a new generation about the uses of various parts of the animal, which was common knowledge a few generations ago, but which today people have no idea about, because they’re used to going to the supermarket and staring down an aisle of chicken breasts.
A lot of people don’t like the idea of eating animals that have been kept from moving freely and pumped with antibiotics and hormones, and they’re looking for alternatives. The industrial system is already reforming in response to complaints. Burger King just committed to using free-range chicken and pigs, and McDonald’s and Wendy’s are talking about eliminating gestation crates where pregnant pigs are kept from moving. Those are big players. So the system is already changing to meet demand for a different kind of meat, and I think that demand will continue to grow.
You mention Dickson Despommier’s concept of the vertical urban farm. Could you assess the viability of such a system?
It seems like we’re many years from hitting on a good model for vertical farming in a tall building raising vegetables, fruits, poultry and fish—in most cases, in this country, it would just cost too much energy for lighting and heating.
Are you aware of similar farming and food-production systems in other urban areas in the United States?
You mean similar to Dickson Despommier’s idea? In Chicago, there’s a three-story vertical farm that is energy neutral and producing vegetables and fish in a closed system. I think there are scattered efforts elsewhere too but it’s still much more popular and viable to use rooftops for vertical farming.
In New York City, several new rooftop farms are opening up now, including a 65,000-square-foot farm being built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I was there a few weeks ago, watching a truck send soil up to the roof through a kind of hose. Men on the roof blew out soil onto the rooftop, and it came out in fluffy piles. A crew of farmers worked behind them, laying down seedlings and seeds, and in every direction was a view of the Manhattan skyline. That is something that is easier to achieve in cities now.Eric Liebetrau is the managing/nonfiction editor of Kirkus.