This is the first book I won in a "First Reads" Giveaway and I was simply happy to have won, I didn't actually expect to enjoy it.
Robin Shulman is a writer for the Washington Post and New York Times and her journalistic craft is evident. She's also a New Yorker. In this book (with the unfortunately long title), she's accomplished the impossible in my mind: she's made me appreciate newspaper writers again and she's broken down the resistance I have towards all things "city" and actually planted a sort of nostalgia in my mind for America's city, New York.
The Introduction begins with Shulman describing the heroin addict that used to shoot up on her front stoop in New York City in the early 90's. Not long afterward, she began to notice little things happening around the vacant lots - little plots of herbs and vegetables popping up, a rooster crowing, sweet smells in the air. She began to see more people tidying up than there were selling drugs. It was gradual, but it was a certain, a change taking place. And as she looked into the history of her adopted city, she learned that this struggle between producers and destroyers was an eternal theme on the city's stage. Each chapter is devoted to different hidden "producers" of the city, weaving a seamless narrative that gives a vibrant life to the past and a far-reaching connection to the present; the glue that holds the story together is, and has always been, food.
This is a book chock full of fascinating individual stories and important history that most natives of New York City probably have little understanding of, all of it based upon food: from the brave bee-keepers that traverse the city's rooftops looking for honey to the meatcutters who butcher cows in vacant lots to the homeless men who defiantly fish the polluted waterways; from the 100' grape vines climbing apartment buildings to the sugar cane growing in the windowsills to the hops plants overflowing the back yards; from the original Indian inhabitants to the Dutch and English colonist and on through every nationality of immigrant that has made New York a new home.
From the Epilogue:
"Writing this book revealed to me a rich and complicated city that I didn't know existed. New York had a brilliant agricultural past, which it cast away. For generations, planners have sought to move food production out of the city, but people have persisted in tending, growing, fermenting, butchering, and manufacturing basic foods to share and eat and sell - because they need to and they want to. People think that New York City is not a place for growing things, but it turns out to be absolutely a place for growing things. It is a place where people practice alchemy, taking the stress and hardship of city life and turning it into something nourishing."
Five stars for great writing, thorough research, and for making me see New York again for the great city it was and still is.