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

Anticipating another history of the city’s eating habits, I was pleasantly surprised to find the chefs doing the talking, not the critics. Food & the City gives the chefs, vendors, waiters, and restauranteurs a chance to tell their stories of New York City. Ina Yolof does for the food service professionals what Chorus Line did for dancers, just without the music.

The first story in this book is about Dominic Ansel, who began his baking career as a teenage dishwasher. He invented something called the “cronut” by accident, while food-and-the-cityexperimenting with pastry, and after giving one to a writer for Grub Street, it went viral. Now I have to wonder if this story is really about how blogs and social media have replaced newspapers. The baker casually gives someone a sample, then it gets reviewed with a short blurb on a blog, then by the next morning everyone who reads the blog is coming to get one. Does this mean that food blog readers will eat whatever the writer suggests? If only she could do the same in getting kids to eat spinach.

Noel Baltazar, a tortilla maker, grew up doing just that – making tortillas! He got a job in a Brooklyn tortilla factory, then it closed, and he struck out on his own. He leased an old factory in Flushing, bought second hand equipment, and there you go. He says that tortillas are basically corn flour and water, not much else, so the ingredients are few. The way Chinese eat rice, the Mexicans eat tortillas, and wherever they go, they can’t eat without them.

Sam Solasz, the Hunts Point butcher, has a less pleasant story. He came here as a Holocaust survivor at age 16 in 1945, but he was already a skilled butcher, which he’d learned from his father back home. He tells how he worked 18 hour days, impressed everyone with his skills, spent decades in the Meatpacking District, then moved to Hunts Point when the rents went up. His children later joined him in the business, including a former physician who got fed up and wanted a career change. At the age of 80, Sam is still chopping meat.

There’s a common theme throughout the book; everyone here learned their skills on the job, and had someone, usually a relative or family friend, willing to give them a chance. It’s difficult for a lot of young people, especially minorities, to get a start on food service, and unless you know someone in there, you’re not getting in. Sammy Anastasiou, who came here for the higher wages, easily got a job in a Greek-owned diner. He admits that it’s easy to get work in the USA, if people from your own ethnic group are already in the business. As for Americans, he says they’re too well educated and they’ll quit after one day. Even the children of Greek restauranteurs, they don’t want to go into the business, and why would they? Why would they want 12 hour days and no time off? Almost all the people profiled in this book are immigrants, and they’re not distracted because they’re not aware of “what else could I have been?” Perhaps college education isn’t what today’s young Americans need.

All of the food service professionals in this book started from scratch. None of them went to cooling school, none of them had trust funds, rich parents, or rich benefactors. Noel Baltazar, originally from Puebla, sums it up by saying “when I got here, someone like me, with nothing, could go into a hospital and they’d take care of you, then after that they’d ask how much you can pay, but in Mexico you have to pay first, and if you can’t pay you go outside, they don’t care if you live or die.”

Everyone Loves New York by Leslie Jonath

everyone-loves-nyFirst off, I have to disagree, everyone does not love New York. Everyone does not love a cramped city with a high living cost, no matter how much culture and style we have. But in this book from teNeues publishers, eighty five artists celebrate New York life with an illustration. The first, by Laura Amiss, is more on the technical side, with the city skyline clearly defined, yet there’s nothing memorable about it. Similarly, the R. Nichols illustration is just blocks of color, with no background, but it has an edge; a skinny woman yells at the moving man as he deftly carries her furniture into her apartment. The only thing missing is a tiny dog!

   I’ve come to judge illustration of New York City not by the quality or imagery, but by the subject matter. Brenna Thummler shows New York City as a street full of cabs, with a woman trying to hail one. While the quality is good, there’s nothing unique or ironic about it. The illustration isn’t even a realistic one; in real life, she’d be in a war to get the cab away from other potential fares. There are lessons to be learned from this book with regard to quality, like the Stephen Wiltshire drawing of the Guggenheim. While the perspective is fine, it doesn’t have anything original about it, and it isn’t well drawn. Topher MacDonald, on the other hand, draws the Strand Bookstore with less technical proficiency, yet he does a better job. Why? Because the Strand Bookstore is anything but perfect. It’s an old building on a dirty corner, and the red awning and banner stick out like a sore thumb. MacDonald’s drawing captures the imperfect essence perfectly.

When it comes to the food, most of the artwork doesn’t capture anything distinctly iconic about New York. Kendyll Hillegas’ bagels and Bella Pilar’s coffee cup are just that; a bagel and a coffee cup, nothing more. It’s the same thing with Rebecca Clarke’s table, just food and nothing more. And despite the stereotype, oysters are NOT a New York City staple, most New Yorkers can’t afford them. Emma Block’s hot dog wagon works better, with more attention to detail, but could benefit from a background.

New York City is not a boring place to be – on the contrary it’s vibrant, colorful, dirty, grimy, hostile, and friendly at the same time, and maybe that’s why we like it so much. everyone-loves-ny-pealr-paintShari Blaukopf’s watercolor of Pearl Paint, now closed, captures the color of the old façade, but not the mood. The old store on Canal Street may have been painted red and white, but it was also faded and rusty, and the street was dirty, crowded, and noisy. Her painting of the store, however, reminds me of a deserted Edward Hopper cityscape. Her work is beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but it’s in a watercolor style that I see all the time. For all I know, the Pearl Paint in her illustration could be on Main Street in Mayberry.

There are some illustrations here that do in fact capture the city’s essence, like Anne Higgie’s great piece on Chinatown. She makes a tiny street look rain-drenched and grimy, and the facades are crowded with signs. Though the signs are colorful, the street still looks gray. It is both beautiful and hideous at the same time.

I think there’s a certain quality that’s expected when you illustrate New York City. It doesn’t have to be technically perfect or slick, nor does it have to be attractive, but it does have to capture the mood. I recently reviewed Paris, Paris! Which was illustrated by Ronald Searle, and the illustrations were perfect because they capture the nook & cranny aspect of an old city. Now in the case of Everyone Loves New York, I expected to experience the city’s towering office blocks, crowded streets, empty side streets, the earth tones of the West Village, the majestic buildings of Harlem, and the colors of the people, just like we got with the photo essay Humans of New York.

Everyone Loves New York could have been an update of M. Sasek’s This Is New York, one in which the old neighborhoods are gentrified, the men aren’t wearing neckties and raincoats, and there are more children around. Perhaps that’s why I find the illustrations lacking in this book, because they don’t do enough to show the city’s people. The famous New Yorker covers, for instance, do a lot more for the city’s subject matter, with their fashion-obsessed women, tiny dogs, the fedora craze, the in-shape Citybike commuter watching the more affluent (and heavy) gym-goers on their exercise bikes. They give us an ironic and comic view of the city without sacrificing quality. New Yorker covers are an example of the type of illustration we could be getting from Everyone Loves New York.

I’m not sure if the title of this book is appropriate. The guy sitting next to me said “that’s a lie, when I do conferences the folks from the south can’t wait to leave.” Pointing to Mark Ulriksen’s illustration, he said “now that’s the quintessential New York,” referring to the woman bringing the huge dog in the elevator. I agree. Tiny dogs on long leashes are a pain on the street, and big dogs are a pain indoors. It makes me want to leave the city and never return!

The Lams of Ludlow Street By Thomas Holton

lamsI remember this photo series from the New York Times way back in 2003. A Chinese immigrant family lives in a tiny, cramped, Chinatown apartment, and you can tell how crammed it is by the coats hanging over the table. The photographer, Thomas Holton, is half-Chinese, and in the book’s preface he writes how he felt like a stranger to his Chinese relatives. Maybe this project was a way of “reconnecting?”

The photos aren’t interesting at all; the kids ignore the camera (typical American kids who’d say “whatever”) and the parents are always preoccupied. Nobody seems happy at all, the mother looks worn out and the father looks depressed. In the text we learn that the father went through periods where he lost his job and had to move away for work. I wonder if being out of work damaged his standing in a traditional household? With succeeding entries, the kids get older, the parents separate, the father visits when he can, the kids become teenagers, the older ones go off to upstate colleges. Hopefully the apartment gets roomier. Lack of privacy must have pissed off their daughter.

There is one photo that got me thinking about what the Lams lack. In it, Mrs. Lam cares for an elderly Chinese woman, while the kids sit by themselves doing their homework. I wondered if lack of extended family was part of the problem, seeing as there’s no mention of the Lams having any relatives in New York. I see lots of immigrant families where the older relatives care for the kids while the parents work, but why is that not the case here? Were the Lams here with no other family? I also wonder why they stayed in that tiny apartment in the Lower East Side, when there must have been better options. They could’ve had a bigger place in Queens for the same price, and the husband left to work in New Jersey, so they could’ve lived there. The Jews who lived in their building 90 years earlier had no desire to stay, in fact they left as soon as they could, leaving the neighborhood half-empty by the 1930’s. The Lams look less like a family and more like a depressed group of people trapped in a box.

I would like to have read what the kids had to say about their lives. How did they like being crammed in there? What’s the secret to them getting along so well? What kind of schools did the kids attend, and did they ever visit kids who lived outside of the neighborhood? If so, did they notice the contrast?

I will give this book high marks, but I think the author still has work ahead of him. His own life story, of being an outsider to his mother’s ethnic group, would make a great premise for a book. As for the Lams, it would be interesting to see what happens to them as the children leave the nest. It remains to be seen if things will improve, or whether the kids flee the city.

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South Street: Photographs by Barbara Mensch

south-street1979, an artist/photographer walks into a bar at the fish market at 4am, and a big man walks up to her, with an icy stare, and orders her out The neighborhood was the Fulton fish market area, a men-only zone, and hostile. She did gain the trust of some locals, but others remained suspicious. After looking at the author’s photos, and reading her account of the area, I can see why.

Barbara Mensch was one of three kinds of people who you’d see in the vicinity of South Street and the Fulton fish market. You had the Wall Street financiers, then the artists in the lofts, and finally the men who worked on the docks. For over 100 years the area was a seaport, and even after the seaports moved to New Jersey and Philadelphia, the fish market stayed. Towering glass office buildings hovered over the rotting piers, where men in bloody overalls loaded fish for the wholesalers. The industry was controlled by the mob, and the workers, on top of their backbreaking night shift work, had to deal with mob shakedowns. The place was dirty, smelly, and rough.

Mensch has some photos that she (discreetly) took of the bar’s daytime customers, against the advice of the barkeep and some jewelry-wearing guys. In the grainy photos, a salty-looking old white man in a sailor’s peaked cap sits with two scrawny leather-clad black women, most likely prostitutes. According to her, the guy was English, possibly came as a sailor on one of the boats that used to dock there, and stayed on. He may have lived in one of the filthy tenements of the area, or even above the restaurant Sloppy Louis’, whose location appears in the classic Up In The Old Hotel. I might add that the South Street area was not a tourist attraction in the late 1970’s, but a filthy, rat-infested, dangerous place. It’s mentioned in the French Connection, where in the early 60’s you could find nasty dive bars from there up to Pike Slip.

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The photos aren’t exceptional, they’re mostly the same pictures of rough, dirty white guys, few blacks worked on the docks. Unlike most photos that can’t give you much other than the image, Mensch’s photos give you a five-senses feel, so much that you can almost smell the fish! You also get a sense of how the men ached from the cold, and in the summer they must have been assaulted by the smell. Mensch writes that the dock workers weren’t happy about having to answer to the mob (on top of all their other problems), but at the same time they didn’t like government interference. They had a “where were you all those years” kind of attitude, and viewed the authorities as strangers who’d never been there for them. Almost all of the workers were Irish or Italian, and some of them lived on the Lower East Side, which at the time was also a hellhole.

The place had its own laws, everything was based on trust (not as violent as you’d think) and the rules were simple; if you screwed up you never worked their again. It was a great place for ex-cons and illegal aliens, lots of Englishmen who came here as sailors. However, right after these photos were taken, the fish market was reduced. Thanks to the increase of high-priced real estate in the area, and the fact that the seaport was becoming a tourist spot, the city stepped in and regulated everything. Trucks had to be out of there by 10am so as not to bother the suit-wearing Wall Street guys. There’s a funny photo of a guy in an expensive suit and carrying a briefcase, walking briskly past guys in overalls unloading crates, and he looks like the sort of Italian American who in another decade would’ve worked at the docks. Another shows high-heeled yuppie chicks strutting past the men with crates. Good thing they didn’t need to use the bathrooms, because the walls were covered in nudie pics.

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There are other books about old New York, and I’ll name a few; The City That Became Safe, City of Disorder, Selling the Lower East Side. These books are scholarly, but they lack what this book has, and that is the primary source. Mensch not only includes photos, but also her words. She writes a firsthand account of her experience there, from someone who watched it all unfold up close

Power at Ground Zero: Politics, Money, and the Remaking of Lower Manhattan

power-at-ground-zeroLynne Sagalyn begins her story of the battle over the World Trade Center site with the battle of Mayor Guiliani versus American Express. The nation’s most respected credit card, also a mainstay of downtown Manhattan, was asking for a little too much; a huge NYPD security detail in exchange for staying. Rudy, in typical Rudy style, said no, and said it loudly. He wouldn’t give what he called “private contracts” that would tie the hands of the NYPD. Say what you like about him as the meanest mayor, but he was no bagman for the 1%. The problem was that even without the WTC tragedy, downtown Manhattan was already losing business.

In the 1960’s, when the Chase Manhattan Plaza was going up, firms were moving from the Wall Street area to midtown. The Twin Towers would have more office space than the city could possibly need, and in the decades afterward, half the complex was empty. It was built on the site of Radio Row, where the electronics repair shops were located, and few in the area were happy about losing their stores. Sagalyn’s book portrays the World Trade Center as something built for show, rather than for offices.

In most of the book, the problem seems to be finance. Port Authority ended up with most of the cost, but how could a tiny police agency be expected to handle a construction project, let alone the management? There would be the cost of clearing the site, the design, and the construction, which would take years and millions of dollars. Then there were the politicians in Albany, most of whom didn’t trust Larry Siverstein, and weren’t convinced that Port Authority could steward the project.

With regard to Mayor Rudy, he wasn’t in charge when the WTC went up. He didn’t have to deal with the massive crisis that the city was going through, and his problem was crime, not finance. In this book, the WTC is seen as a financial issue that either a disaster that crippled the city or an experimental medicine to cure the disease. Rudy, unlike earlier mayors, wasn’t swayed by huge business. He wasn’t going to give Amex a free security detail, any more than he would build the Yankees a new stadium. But his predecessors didn’t have a choice.

Sagalyn doesn’t give a positive look on the World Trade Center. It was clearly a megaproject in an era when the city was bankrupt, and it was not a time to be borrowing money. Ironically, the architect who designed the place was the same guy that designed Pruitt-Igoe, another megaproject that never paid off. Maybe that shows us something about the effect of megaprojects on a city? You also have to wonder if the city would’ve been better off without the WTC. There was already a surplus of office space, so nobody needed those huge buildings. As for “revitalization,” there were other areas, like the South Street Seaport, that were ripe for improvement.

Looking back on the WTC, I’m reminded of something Donald Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal. Back in the 1980’s, when he turned the Commodore Hotel into the New York Hyatt, he had to go through acres of red tape to get it started. The New York Central Railroad, which owned the hotel, owed millions in taxes, and the city, famously bankrupt, needed the tax money. But it wasn’t like Mayor Kotch jumped at the opportunity to pay off the debts and revamp the area; on the contrary the Mayor waffled on it. The same thing happened when he tried (and eventually begged) to fix the Wollman skating rink in Central Park. It was probably easier to get the permits to build the World Trade Center than it was to get a permit to fix that skating rink.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s easier in this city to do a megaproject than it is to do a small one.