Living across the street from three pizza places, a Mexican restaurant, and a 7-11, I know how easily accessible food is. And I love it. I love being able to crave a taco and satiate that craving in less than 10 minutes. I love waking up at 1 a.m. and walking across the street for some cheesecake. And, I don’t admit this often, but I love rolling out of bed on a Saturday and walking to 7-11 for a box of Entenmann’s doughnuts and then downing half of them.
I’m like most Americans. I’ll never have to know what it’s like to live off the land… but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to. And I’m certainly not the only who has dreamed of capturing that feeling by making artisan food products the old fashioned way. The real-life beekeepers, butchers, and brewers profiled in Robin Shulman‘s new book, Eat the City have turned that dream into a reality.
New York City might be as partial as any other city of young hip people to follow the local and organic trends and we know it’s home to some of the best chefs and restaurants in the world. But, at the end of the day, it’s still a city, right? There’s only so much elbowroom for “homegrown” available and one would think “local” still referred to food culled from beyond its borders.
Turns out passion for living off the land has been rooted in the city itself for generations now. From beekeepers to farmers to wine makers, New Yorkers do it all and in a fashionably small space. Beehives are kept on rooftops; community gardens are lucky if they get a sliver of a city block. None of the participants seems to mind. In fact, that challenge is part of the appeal. There’s something quaint about beekeepers that treat honey like wine, claiming at tastings that they can tell their Brooklyn honey from their Manhattan.
Being New York City, though, the homegrown movement isn’t just quaint. The people behind it come with spectacular stories. Bees that get their sugar from a maraschino cherry factory glow red and produce fuchsia honey. A vegetable grower and grocer got his start disguising his illegal gambling joint.
They all channel a common human instinct, the instinct to create our own food, to go beyond cooking and follow the process from the rawest ingredients to the table.
Some of the stories are tamer—two roommates begin brewing beer in small batches for themselves and, in just a few years, had their own porter, IPA, and pale ale all being served at “beer parties” for up to 150 people. It’s every fraternity guy and closest beer hobbyist’s dream story—just like every tale from Eat the City. They all channel a common human instinct, the instinct to go beyond cooking and follow the process from the rawest ingredients to the table.
It’s an instinct and passion that inspired Latif Jiji to make wine in his NYC backyard, following in his father’s footsteps. His father made wine in southern Iraq while Latif was growing up. It’s the same desire I feel, to go out onto the Chesapeake Bay and learn the differences between hand tonging and drudging to collect oysters. My grandfather was an oysterman at one point in his life.
And that desire to connect to our food by cultivating it ourselves is more than just a trend. Yeah, eating local is good for the economy and your health. We’ve all heard the rumor that eating local honey can cure allergies. But more importantly, connecting to food connects us to our pasts. Food is something we each have a claim to, somewhere in our family. Keeping up the tradition of creating it keeps us firmly rooted in history.
Eat the City isn’t just for New Yorkers. It isn’t even just for city goers or suburbanites. It’s for anyone who has a passion for food or family history. For anyone who wants to go further than cooking their food. And it’s especially for anyone who’s tired of walking across the street for a pizza every night.