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Robin Shulman – Eat The City

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Are you sure farming is rural?

Publisher: Crown (Random House)
Pages: 301
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-71905-8
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 17th September 2012
Rating: 4/5

Shulman presents the often deceptively small groups of people who defy the notion of modern urbanisation to grow and produce their own food in the heart of New York City. Covering both traditional gardening and industrial manufacture, Shulman illustrates how history has moved from one extreme to the other and back again, showing that whilst such production may seem shocking to those who live unknowingly amongst it, it is actually part of how New York City first came into being.

Eat The City is a rather in-depth look at those who produce food, both en masse and in small quantities. It spans a range of tastes and traditions, including both solids and liquids. Each food in question is given its own section as Shulman recounts visits to the individuals who make it and refers back to historical records to detail how things used to be done. But far from the historical parts being all about the economic and culinary history, Shulman also looks into family history to explain how those she visits and interviews are culturally linked to the foods they produce.

And for the most part such a method of storytelling works well; the present flows into the past and back again and one feels that they know the individuals assessed as well as Shulman herself. Indeed it is only when right in the midst of the book that the method feels a little overused and you start to wonder whether more time ought to have been spent on the present, regardless of the fact that Shulman aptly describes the manufacturing and growing process. Yet this is more a case of retaining interest than writing style as the book requires the history – it is simply that having the book split into sections and the same method of writing being employed each time becomes wearing. For this reason the book can favour a dip-in approach so that the report doesn’t become heavy. The presence of the history fits Shulman’s aim – present-day is incredibly intriguing, but the context and reasoning even more so.

There is a good mix of vegetables and animals accounted for. The first half of the book favours natural, unaltered, produce, with the second half full of industrial manufacture and traditional methods that have been tainted by modernity, for example fishing. Shulman’s section on fishing is a particularly favourable addition because the entirety of it highlights the dangers of the practise. Whilst you are shown that it is possible to farm organically and safely in the city, fishing has inevitably been literally tainted by the chemicals that are dumped into the surrounding waters. For an overall subject that presents hardship and hard work but with resounding success, the section on fishing is difficult to read because of the knowledge Shulman brings to the table. And it is all the more harrowing given that whilst many poor people are fishing for mercury-filled fish, there are others who have the money to eat well but are unknowingly feeding themselves and their family poison.

Shulman brings the era of Atlantic slavery into the section on sugar, detailing not just the history but how the work has been passed down so that even now the successors of the African slaves grow cane. The difference being, of course, that their gardens are the result of choice. This is just one instance of immigration adding to the workings of the city, as detailed too are the Arab Jewish wines and Caribbean vegetable growers. Shulman’s book is a fantastic look at how a city is shaped by everyone who lives there, be they natives, invaders, or otherwise, and how it is impossible to separate such cultures when everything has become mixed together to become one mass society and way of life.

It must be said that the book is not apologetic. If the beginning sections invite the interest of vegetarians then the latter ones will put them off, and there are interviews on both sides of the GM debate. There are inclusions from newspaper articles on political decisions and overturning when the common man did not meet the specifications of those on high, as well as the disagreements within neighbours of those who wanted land for food and those who opposed it. And there is the ever-imposing divide between man and machine, the foodie and the real estate company, as well as the man and the Industrial Revolution. Because food production, even today, is considered backwards when urbanisation is forwards.

There is not really much to be said in disagreement to the way the book has been written. To be sure there are too many lists, wherein Shulman provides all the different elements of a particular system and the number of commas is at least a dozen over several lines, and there is the instance of a misquotation of Apollo 17 moon walker Eugene Cernan as having said “man oh Manischewitz” when he simply said “Manischewitz”, but these are meticulous points.

If ever there was an interesting tale to be told about a place that appears to be the height of urbanity, then this is it. For the European who can only view the city via Friends, the film The Devil Wears Prada, and Google’s Streetview, New York is perhaps the ultimate in urban business areas with a few residential neighbours thrown in. Indeed whilst what Shulman says may shock the average American citizen (and that in itself is a supposition) the impact will likely be greater on the onlooker.

Eat The City is a unique and inspiring exploration of an idyllic way of life, both surviving and being newly imported into a place that is not assumed to be appropriate for it. It does this whilst including a host of people who are from different walks of life and who have different goals. The traditionalist, the hobbyist, the entrepreneur and the capitalist – Shulman brings them all together as one movement: the everyday citizen, be he rich or poor, who just wants to have a hand in the way his food is produced and bring back production to a local level.

I received this book for review from the Crown Publishing Group.

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September 28, 2012, 9:37 am

Sounds like a really interesting read!


September 28, 2012, 10:47 am

Despite being a vegetarian, and perhaps not quite the reader for whom this book was written… I think it is a very interesting trend to read about.

Only a few days ago, I watched part of a documentary about preppers, a phenomenon I had not heard of before.

While I would like to plant in my (future) garden, I’m not so sure about spending all my time in it…


September 28, 2012, 6:29 pm

I’ve been curious about this one. I find food writing fascinating.

Amy Reads

September 29, 2012, 1:33 pm

Fantastic and well written review. Loved reading your thoughts on this book which I also enjoyed. It does give a great view of the city doesn’t it, showing a whole other side that we don’t usually see!


September 30, 2012, 1:02 pm

Interesting and inspiring to hear about urban farming endeavors- like little pockets of creative spirit battling back against the crush of the city. Though perhaps a very exhaustive study of it.


October 1, 2012, 12:33 pm

Jessica: It is!

Tze-Wen: That’s the thing, I mean I’m not a vegetarian, but am thinking of becoming one and it does feel slightly alienating, but yes, the rest of it seems almost geared to vegetarians and people who like organic food.

Liviania: It’s a good book, especially with the added history.

Amy: Thanks! Yes, I think it was the shock rather than anything else that made me accept this one. Farming and New York City, not something you’d think would go together. Shulman’s got me thinking it’s everywhere!

Jennifer: It is inspiring, that’s the perfect word! Yes, the research is extensive and fascinating, but the structure of the book doesn’t quite hit the mark.



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