Borough-ing for Food: A Brief Review of Food and the City

Ina Yalof’s new book, Food and the City: New York’s Professional Chefs, Restaurateurs, Line Cooks, Street Vendors, and Purveyors Talk About What They Do and Why They Do It, is due out May 31, food and the city book cover2016. The book, essentially a collection of oral histories, is divided into nine sections, each dealing with a different aspect of professional cooking or food supply. Yalof presents a brief introduction to each section, and then lets the professionals speak for themselves.

A quick perusal of books on “New York” and “food” reveals any number of guides to eating in the city. Some are broad, like Zagat’s, while others choose to focus only on Brooklyn, or only on pizza, vegetarian food, or street food. Some books are about particular institutions, like the Manischewitz matzo factory, or Russ & Daughters, known mostly for their smoked and pickled fish. Yalof’s book is none of these; it is not a restaurant review book, nor does it tell the detailed history of one restaurant or family. (The section on “Duck and Other Dynasties” does contain vignettes of family-owned and operated establishments, from a famed Staten Island pizzeria to Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup, one of three ingredients in nearly any egg cream.)

New York City food carts offer cuisine on the run.(www.citi.io)

New York City food carts offer cuisine on the run.(www.citi.io)

What makes Yalof’s book interesting are the themes that unite so many of the stories. There are many immigrants, each discussing why they left Greece or Nicaragua in search of financial success or stability in America, and how work in the food industry provided them with that. There are numerous examples of people abandoning other careers, sometimes successful ones, in the financial sector, in veterinary medicine, to pursue careers in food, whether as food cart operators, restaurant owners, or pastry chefs. In these cases, nearly every person was driven by a passion: either to work with their hands, to be their own boss, or to immerse themselves in the frenetic and cocksure world of gastronomy.

The other feature that differentiates this book from other food guides or histories is that the stories here are told by the involved parties. The narrative voice changes within each profile, which adds another layer to the stories. In some, you can almost hear an accent come off the page, whether from Italy, Mexico, or just the South Bronx. Each one is distinct, much like the foods made, and chosen with discretion by Yalof.

In addition to covering these traditional categories of food purveyors like chefs and cooks, she has a section on “Crowd Feeding,” which includes a profile from the chief overseer of food service operations for all of New York City’s Department of Corrections. The last section, “Counter Culture,” features some of New York’s most famous walk-in establishments, and one oral history is from an 84-year-old lox slicer at Zabar’s. These distinct voices all come to life while reading the book, even if I, an erstwhile vegetarian, have a difficult time stomaching some of the narratives (the family-owned duck farm on Long Island springs to mind).

Len Berk slices salmon at Zabar's Food Emporium. (npr.org)

Len Berk slices salmon at Zabar’s Food Emporium. (npr.org)

New York is almost unique as a food city. There are so many restaurants that many of them are famous for, or indeed focus on, one specific food item. And New Yorkers like to know all the restaurants, in their neighborhood certainly, and have strongly felt opinions on them. The only thing missing in Food and the City was some ink devoted to that other particular aspect of food in New York — delivery.

Now it’s your turn. Choose one of both of these questions to expound on: What’s your favorite cookbook or work of gastronomic literature? OR Do you know the history of any of your favorite restaurants?

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6 thoughts on “Borough-ing for Food: A Brief Review of Food and the City

  1. Hard to choose favorites, but there’s one book on my shelf that is both a cookbook and a gastronomic history: Edna Lewis’s The Taste of Country Cooking. This beautifully written book combines recipes with stories about Lewis’s youth in a rural African-American community in early twentieth-century Virginia.

    Thank you for the review. I can think of several people who would enjoy this book!

  2. Since I’m not a cook, I don’t read cookbooks–or even buy cookbooks. But my favorite is the one my mother compiled of family recipes her mother had compiled. I taught myself to type at age eleven by typing up the cards they were written on. You can imagine how some of the pages must look. (This in the day before computers or even whiteout!)

    Since Mama put this book together when she was in her 80s, with poor eyesight and arthritic hands, it looks very amateurish, despite its beautiful cover of one of my grandmother’s watercolors. But reading it is an adventure in meeting relatives I’ve never known and exploring foods I’ve never heard of elsewhere (ex. syllabub) and reliving a day with my mother..

  3. Sounds like a fun book to read—especially for the voice of the 84-yr-old lox slicer—food is definitely something that ties all of humanity together—and brings out the ethnic best in all of us. All my favorite foody books are gifts from my mother, who was unmoved when I feared I wouldn’t know how to cook when I got married. Her most memorable advice about that worry was, “You can read, can’t you?” The most fun of her gift books, aside from the ones from our own ethnic background, was The I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken—full of funny essays on food as well as great recipes. Thanks for reminding me 🙂

  4. I love the photo of Len at Zabar’s. I’ve been hearing that name for a long time, as they are supporters of NPR’s selected shorts. Now, I have a face to put with the name. Fun article. I have frequented Boston much more than New York, so I will admit that I am rather ‘green’ when it comes to the City. Hope to get there, soon, though!

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