Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
This isn't your typical NYC food tour
Forget those images of Wall Street's pinstriped high rollers and Broadway's vampy sophisticates -- this is a different New York, New York.
Sporting a 24-word subtitle announcing how and by whom city slickers are fed, this delightful armchair tour proves that not all New Yorkers think chicken breasts and red tomatoes are magically made in factories and wrapped in plastic.
It's a stretch to think that the likes of the Prada-clad characters on TV's Sex and the City had the time or inclination to grow garden-variety melons.
But this small-town Ontario-born journalist's first book confirms that "homegrown" food does indeed find its way onto many kitchen tables in the Big Apple.
Robin Shulman discovers after touring the city's five boroughs that there's always more to New York than meets the eye:
"An uncountable number of animals are still raised for food in backyards, basements, community gardens and city streets," she writes.
Now in her mid-30s and a New Yorker since age 16, Shulman has reported for the Washington Post and the New York Times.
In Eat the City, she overthrows the myth that animal husbandry and vegetable gardening can't exist in a concrete jungle.
She uses historical background to conjure up images from the Martin Scorsese movie Gangs of New York.
Shulman interacts with such memorable residents as a Manhattan chicken-keeper "variously interested in eggs, meat, cockfighting and company" and a Trinidadian pregnant mother fishing off the Coney Island Pier in waters teeming with dioxins, PCBs and mercury.
The book's purpose is obviously to find evidence that huge numbers of New Yorkers are raising, catching or growing their own food.
But quantifying such activities would require an army of observers.
Rather, there's a sense that much of what Shulman calls food production is largely a hobby, and what is eaten serves as a side-dish to packaged store-bought fare.
Each of Eat the City's seven chapters highlights the production of a specific food group and features interesting characters like Willie, aged 73 and a survivor of Harlem's mean streets.
Willie has grown vegetables in vacant lots "for more than half his life," and according to Shulman, represents the tip of a larger iceberg, just like David, a diehard Brooklyn apiarist, who kept hives on his rooftop when beekeeping was banned in 1999.
The city spent the following decade dealing with bee swarms from countless clandestine beehives before repealing the law, and today determined beekeepers, including an eccentric lingerie designer at Victoria's Secret, openly pursue their passion for fresh honey.
Shulman also categorizes beer and wine as food. She provides erudite historical context showing why immigrant groups will forever be linked to their products -- Germans to beer, for example, and Italians to wine.
Writing about the U.S. Prohibition Era that confusingly allowed for the home-brewing of wine but not beer, Shulman reminds us that the temperance movement never did understand that consuming home-brewed liquid food was "the quickest way to dull the pain and indignities of assimilation."
New York's diverse population seems determined to practise the freedoms the city has always promised, including freedom to choose the kinds of food to eat.
Occasional street violence, neglected ghettos, and memories of the Twin Towers aside, the city can still accommodate old-time food-production, even within spitting distance of the Yankees spanking-new baseball stadium.
New York, as revealed through Shulman's unique trip, confirms that the journey is often more fascinating than the destination.
Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired Winnipeg teacher in Winnipeg who spent his entire visit to New York gawking at historic landmarks.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2012 J7
(1 of 23 articles for this week)