New York City: A Food Biography

My father’s stories of 1970’s New York aren’t about food. According to him, you couldn’t find anywhere near the kind of restaurants you have now. Back then you had Italian places, Chinese, delis, diners, some fancy ones like Le Cirque, hole-in-the-wall cafes, but none of the exotic stuff that New Yorkers are used to. Watch any movie about pre-90’s NY and you’ll see what I mean. Read Box Office Poison, and it’s the same thing; they eat in diners or Italian restaurants. Ethnic foods like Indian, Arab, or Japanese cooking were a rarity. So what was the food like here 200 years ago?

The trendiest restaurants like to advertise “fresh ingredients” that obviously come from out of the city. But in the early days, the fresh ingredients could be found only a few miles away. Street carts served clams and oysters from New York’s waterways, and the roasted chestnuts were picked from native trees that grew all over the east coast. If you ate rabbit, pheasant, or venison, it was killed locally. Then pollution killed the local clams, and a fungus killed all the native chestnut trees in the late 1800’s.

If you look at photos of old New York, you’ll see that the menu signs are very basic. The average café served steak, potatoes, eggs and bacon, toast and coffee, ham sandwiches, chops, sausages, etc. 1950’s New Yorkers weren’t exotic eaters, but according to this book, as lot if it has to do with economics. Since 1990, younger New Yorkers have been more keen to try exotic foods, leading to the popularity of Indian, Thai, Arab, and Korean restaurants. When the economy went sour after 2008, entrepreneurs flooded the market, and food trucks proliferated.

The book could use some photos or illustrations to go with the text. I would also have liked to see more first person accounts of the city’s eating habits, and there are plenty of longtime residents who’d be happy to tell their stories. There is also an archive of old restaurant menus at SUNY’s New Paltz campus, which were collected by Oscar Tchirky, the maitre’d at the old Waldorf hotel. I would love to see what those pre-1920 menus had to offer, given the tastes of the time.

Soho had a growth in gourmet food stores in the early 1980’s,which are heavily discussed in Relish by Lucy Knisley. Some information on early restaurants, like Sloppy Louie’s would be welcome too.

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