Viorel Florescu/for New York Daily News
Author Robin Shulman, author of ‘Eat the City,’ a book about New Yorkers who grow their own food, with Jorge Torres in his community garden in the Bronx.
From the marketing executive who binge-fishes off the piers of Brooklyn and posts her catch on Facebook to the man who grows sugar cane in the Bronx, Robin Shulman reveals a decidedly alternative New York food scene in her new book.
It’s one that takes place on rooftops, backyards and abandoned lots.
In “Eat the City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers and Brewers Who Built New York,” Shulman gives names and faces to the “people young and old, poor and rich, native-born and emigre” who grow, cleave, raise, catch or brew within city limits.
Willie Morgan was running numbers in Harlem when he hoed his first vacant lot on 118th St. near Madison Ave. Other numbers men gave their clients a carton of eggs to sweeten the bet, but Morgan presented them with homegrown collard greens. Now he sells vegetables to the neighbors from his current lot on 122nd near Eighth Ave.
Latif Jiji, a mechanical engineering professor at City College, makes wine just as his father did when he was growing up in Iraq, with grapes plucked from a vine growing up the four stories of his narrow townhouse on E. 92nd St. onto the roof. The family harvests the grapes by reaching out the windows.
Jane Borock, creative director for a nonprofit, is such an ardent fisher she describes herself as an “addict.” Once she fished for 36 hours straight, pleading with friends on Facebook to bring her a change of clothes. But she hesitates to consume what she catches. The waters surrounding 578 miles of the city’s perimeters are polluted and signs warn that women of child-bearing age and children under 15 should not eat the catch. Still, more people fish for food than sport.
“I was really dismayed when I realized how many people in the city are subsisting on fish caught in polluted waters,” Shulman says. “A lot of people don’t speak English and can’t read the signs or they think those signs are just another government regulation to stop them.”
Shulman said that one of the reasons she was moved to do the book was to counter the idea that the urban food movement was new or the province of elite foodies.
“People see food production in the city as something that is just occurring now, a brand-new trend,” says the freelance journalist. “But food production has a long history in this city, and for many immigrants as well as poor people, producing your own food is just a way of life.”
Shulman connects the city’s past to its present by contrasting what was then with now. Take for instance, sugar cane. The Domino sugar factory in Williamsburg was once a major employer.
Today, Jorge Torres grows sugar cane in a Bronx community garden, the Daly Avenue Garden, from a cutting his daughter brought home from Puerto Rico.
“There were key moments when food manufacturing was critical to this city’s development,” Shulman explains. “It was different foods in different eras.”
The farms of the 1880s may have dwindled to the community gardens of today, but the impetus is still there for many New Yorkers to bring their own food to the table. For poor people, it’s the simple need to eat, while immigrants may hunger for a taste of home.
As Shulman says, “People have persisted in tending, growing, fermenting, butchering and manufacturing basic food to eat and share and sell because they need to and they want to.”
New York Daily News