Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Food as History and Culture

The Big Apple has long been known as a great food destination and for good reason — the amazing variety of viddles reflects the city’s remarkably rich and diverse culture.

This connection between what we eat and who we are is the subject of Gastropolis: Food and New York City (Columbia University Press, 2009), a compilation of 17 essays written by experts who tackle the topic from a variety of perspectives — from archaeological studies seeking clues to the diet of New York’s earliest inhabitants to memoirs of the smells and tastes imbibed at beloved mom-and-pop shops.

The book was co-edited by Brooklyn College professor and Park Slope native Annie Hauck-Lawson and Kingsborough Community College professor Jonathan Deutsch.

“I realized how potently people can communicate through food," says Hauck-Lawson. “How they serve food, how they get food, the roles and meanings of food to them. I realized people were expressing themselves — even when they’re not speaking, they’re expressing something,” she says.

Hauck-Lawson, who teaches food and nutrition, developed this concept of a “food voice” while writing her dissertation on the roles and meanings of food in Polish American families in New York — a topic that grew out of her own upbringing.

Hauck-Lawson recalls the Brooklyn of her childhood in one of the book’s essays, “My Little Town: A Brooklyn Girl’s Food Voice.” Growing up in the Park Slope of the 1960s, she and her family were “locavores” long before the term came into use. The “postage stamp” backyard of her family’s Third Street brownstone was a small, functioning farm, and at times even accommodated the family “pets” — roosters and piglets — who later ended up on the dining room table. The family also foraged for food in the greater city: Tufts of chives were plucked from Prospect Park, dandelions were brought home and cooked with garlic and olive oil, fruit that fell from privately owned trees onto a city sidewalk was “fair game.”

Other essays in Gastropolis include “The Evolution of New York City’s Jewish Food Icons” by Jennifer Berg, “Three Centuries of Chinese Cuisine in New York City” by Harley Spiller and "Cooking Up Heritage in Harlem” by Damian M. Mosley.

Each chapter ends with a lengthy list of references, so the book is a great resource if this is a topic you'd really like to know more about.

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