Pictures From the Hidden Side of New York’s Food World

Slate's Culture Blog
July 12 2012 10:43 AM

Pictures From the Hidden Side of New York Food

Food Launcher

How do people living in cities feed their hunger? For most, it’s a question of buying food. For some, it’s a matter of growing, collecting, fermenting, or hunting it.

I got my first glimpse of urban food production in New York when I was 17 and living on a drug-plagued block in the East Village, where many buildings had burned to the ground, leaving vacant lots. One day I noticed a dozen people shoveling and sweeping the lot next to my apartment building, intending to plant a garden there.

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Soon, I found myself waking up to the creaky call of a rooster who strutted around the garden, eating neighbors’ kitchen scraps—until one day he fell silent, having been sacrificed for a pot of chicken soup. In a short period of time, the far east of Fourth Street had gone from buildings to prairie to a small working farm.

Years later, the East Village had gentrified, and the roosters on my old block were gone—but elsewhere in the city, others were beginning to keep chickens as backyard pets. It looked as though one way of urban food production was disappearing and another was being invented. But there were more kinds of food production in New York than I had ever realized.    

For my book Eat the City, I spent six years taking the subway deep into the boroughs to meet people who grow vegetables, fruits, and mushrooms, who fish and forage, who go clamming and trapping, who collect honey, who produce cheese and yogurt, who make beer, wine, liquor, and liqueurs, who keep goats for milk, and quails, ducks, and chickens for eggs, and who butcher city-grown rabbits, turkeys, roosters, and pigs. I paged through old letters, journals, drawings, photos, and books related to brewing, meatpacking, and the sugar trade.

While I was reporting, I took as many photographs as I could of the food producers I met and their goods. Above you'll find some of my pictures showing just a few of the surprisingly diverse ways New York feeds itself.

Robin Shulman is a freelance writer who has frequently reported from the Middle East and New York City. She is currently at work on a book about urban food production.

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