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Cosa Mangia Oggi!

Gastropolis

Edited by Annie Hauck-Lawson and Jonathan Deutsch
Columbia University Press, 2008

My foodie friends and I don’t just limit our activities to eating.

Every Tuesday night, we wait with excited anticipation for the clock to strike eight — the time The New York Times‘ dining critic Frank Bruni’s weekly restaurant reviews are posted to the Times‘ website. We devour recipe books and salivate over tidbits of gossip about New York chefs like Momofuku’s David Change and wd~50’s Wylie Dufresne. A menu from Per Se adorns my wall, and Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl’s book Garlic and Sapphires is proudly displayed on my highest shelf. Eater.com is my homepage.

And next to my bed sits a huge stack of food books: worn-down paperbacks, each with dog-eared pages and the occasional torn cover: right now I’m reading Heat, the story of amateur chef’s Bill Buford’s forays into the Tuscany food world. There are cookbooks covered in flour and sticky sugar residue (500 Cupcakes); library books with “NYU-Bobst” and the names of the dozens of foodies who’ve read before me stamped on the inside covers (former Times critic Mimi Sheraton’s Eating My Words); perfect, neat, clean hardcovers (Christmas presents like a Chanterelle recipe book) from family and friends who know there is nothing I’d love better.

Gastropolis is one of those books sitting in the stack. But, despite its playfully illustrated cover, it is not to be confused with a lighthearted, fun-for-foodies book. This collection of essays is not unlike a textbook: well-researched, well-sourced discussions on often fascinating topics. But like many textbooks, Gastropolis is dry and boring in places. Details are occasionally too extensive, and that can be overwhelming for a casual reader. Gastropolis succeeds at times; some stories are captivating and personal. Clearly, the book has an identity issue. There are essays I would photocopy and deliver to all my friends — that’s how much I love some chapters — but I would never give a friend this entire book. The clumsy conglomeration of stories is maddening, and the book needs more focus.

Editors Annie Hauck-Lawson and Jonathan Deutsch have collected essays from more than 15 New Yorkers, all of them experts on some aspect of New York’s food community. The writers are people like Jennifer Berg, a food studies professor at NYU, and Mark Russ Federman, a third-generation owner of his family’s iconic “appetizer store” Russ & Daughters. Each essay takes the reader on a different New York food journey.

And while there are great stops along the way, the first essay in Gastropolis (with the ominously academic title “The Lenapes: In Search of Pre-European Foodways in the Greater New York Region”) is forgettable. In it, Anne Mendelson “meticulously follow[s] the development of the region’s water, animal and land resources.” Mendelson tells the story of the Lenape Indians and uses her research to try to determine their diets. The topic is interesting — as is the fact that research can be done about the type of food people were eating in 900 A.D. One long section of this chapter details, in bulleted points, an “informal taxonomy of the major food-plant types in the New York region.” Some of the information contained within is neat: like how the Lenapes would eat cattail shoots and milkweed, foods that to my knowledge have not yet appeared on a menu at Jean Georges. But then Mendelson goes on to give a history of the Hudson River. And though she does discuss the food the Hudson provided, but by the time I finish reading about river formations I am too bored to care about the sturgeon people might fish out of the waters. The writing moves slowly, and ultimately I ended up having to break every few minutes (and check New York Magazine’s food blog) as I trudged through the essay. “The Lenapes…” can easily be classified with the textbook chapters of Gastropolis, and is a curious introduction to the book.

The next essay, Andrew F. Smith’s “The Food and Drink of New York from 1624 to 1898,” is at first difficult to follow and, similar to Mendelson’s story, very textbook-like. The writing is overly technical and what’s delivered is a history lesson more than a discussion or commentary on food. This essay is not for Top Chef foodies, and there’s a genuine danger that the major demographic for Gastropolis will give up the book in frustration. But though the material is a little dry at first (one topic is the history of water in New York), the piece is ultimately thrilling. It’s exciting to read about the menu immigrant John McSorley served at his McSorley’s Ale House, which still stands on East 7th Street. A reader can imagine himself having a beer and sandwich there — and then go have a beer and sandwich there (perhaps today he would be allowed to bring a woman; as Gastropolis points out, women weren’t allowed in the bar until the 1970’s). It’s a part of history readers can feel and trace (unlike stories of discovering the Lanape’s diet by looking at archaeological remains). Smith writes of how, at Fourth of July celebrations in the early 1800s, foods stands and booths lined Broadway; each stand was selling delicious goods like oysters, pies and pineapples. But what truly marked the celebration were the roastings of pigs – every booth had a pig. New York foodies today might think of the East Village’s restaurant Il Buco, where an annual pig roast occurs each September. Today, it’s probably the only occassion in New York that pigs are roasted outdoors and sold.

Federman’s aforementioned essay is one of my favorites. New York foodies (and I would argue most New Yorkers, for that matter) know Russ & Daughters is the best place in the city for “smoked whitefish, sturgeon, and salmon; salt-cured lox and herring; pickled cucumbers and tomatoes; and halvah, rugelach, and chocolate jelly rings.”

Federman discusses the memorable smell all of these flavors create, and writes about “the immediate sense of joy experienced by those who enter our store and are taken back by the aroma.” His point about nostalgia and, later, bottling the smell, is important. But what is more important is what the story of aroma represents. Federman and his family care about their customers.

The customer-service person relationship is a fascinating one. I cannot count the number of nights I have spent with friends who work at the restaurant where I used to hostess, complaining about annoying regulars demanding a certain table or the ludicrous things customers would say to us. But now, the names I remember from the restaurant are not those of the women refusing to sit at table 71, but names like Eddie, the Broadway conductor who knew every waiter’s name. I loved reading Federman’s story because it is clear that he too, has stories like this about his customers. It’s a comforting idea to know that in a city so large, there are so many people who care about service and kindness. The mom-and-pop store still thrives in New York, moreso than most places around the country.

A later chapter by Nan Rothschild, documenting how one describes a culture’s diet by going on an archaeological digs, is difficult to finish, but it’s followed by a phenomenal piece from Gastropolis‘ editor Hauck-Lawson. Her story, “My Little Town: A Brooklyn Girl’s Food Voice,” sparkles with life as she describes growing up in Brooklyn, constantly surrounded by food. Today, she still lives and eats in Brooklyn, and teaches foods and nutrition at Brooklyn College.

Hauck-Lawson writes in a funny, lighthearted style that is absolutely captivating and shows off her love of food. Her essay begins on a funny, and shocking, note:

That first day, I sent eyeballs to my kid’s school in an insulated Russ & Daughters caviar bag — not that the bag had ever seen caviar; it’s the kid’s school lunch bag. A year earlier, while I was visiting the sixth grade’s science class, the teacher described optics, culminating in the dissection of a sheep’s eye … The eyes were dried, like raisins, and smelled like formaldehyde. Did [the teacher] know about the sheep’s heads with bright eyes for sale in halal butcher shops all around Brooklyn? No. Could I send in a sample set? Sure. I headed for the Pakistani and Bangladeshi grocery stores on Coney Island Avenue, picked a nice sheep’s head from a butcher case, and, at home, pried out and packed up the eyes.

In this charming way, Hauck-Lawson weaves her personal story (we hear about her pets and fishing trips) into the New York history. In so doing, she makes the events of her life more interesting without being at all self-serving. Her childhood and her life are undeniably congruous with food; the two cannot be separately recounted in her eyes. Hauck-Lawson writes of how she walked down the streets in front of stores selling hot cross buns and blackout cake, and of her relationship from an early age with her butcher, Noel. The reader can picture her as a little girl with an appetite and palate most adults don’t have, eating “everything [her] parents put in front of [her], even when it was the head, the feet, the tail, and lots in between.”

An essay on Queens and its gastronomical wonder-world follows. The story will excite New Yorkers who can relate when the author describes the different aromas off filling the 7-line train stops. “The number 7 train is sometimes called…the ‘International Express,’” writes the author of this essay, Martin F. Manalansan IV.

Will you smell the same odor in Flushing as you would in Long Island City? The two are only a few stops apart, but any Queens-resident will tell you that you certainly won’t. Manalansan writes of talking to Shilpa, a student he met once who had created a map of Queens based on the city’s food aromas:

For example, at the Sixty-first Street-Woodside stop is a mixture of garlic, tomato and vinegar aromas, with peppers and turmeric permeating the Jackson Heights stop, and the faint smell of kimchi and scallions at Flushing — the final stop.

Manalansan’s discussion is not as intriguing as the student’s incredible idea (really, an aroma map!) but the story is still absolutely fascinating. And it’s something anyone can hop on a train and explore for himself, making the map even more exciting.

Perhaps my favorite story in Gastropolis is one that capitalizes on my own personal jealousy. “Cosa Mangia Oggi,” by Annie Rachelle Lanzillotto is the story of Lanzillotto’s grandmother Rosa. She is the woman from Italy who would not let her “AmeriCAHN” granddaughter’s hands anywhere near her pasta dough, the 4’10” woman who, every day, would demand of her family, “Cosa mangia oggi!” or, what did you eat today? I love Lanzillotto’s stories of this ritual with her grandmother, and love imagining the tiny woman demanding, in a thick Italian accent, to know her granddaughter’s daily diet.

… “Cosa mangia oggi!” Boom. Never in English. Foods we confessed in Italian. It was a sacred discussion.

“Scarol’agli’olio!” (escarole with garlic and oil).

“Brrava!” she’d had to say, “brrrava. Smarta gherl.”

Escarole aced her test every time.

Lanzillotto writes of her childhood of food — of not appreciating fully her grandmother’s touch until she died (at 101), leaving behind difficult recipes that required not just the ingredients but a special touch. Lanzillotto got to grow up in the type of food family I always dreamed of (my mother was much more interested in microwaveable mac and cheese than creating her own raviolis), and for that reason her story is an especially moving one.

Gastropolis claims to be about “New York food. And New York food voices.” And it really is, although the collection of voices is extremely varied. At first Gastropolis can seem comprehensive, but by the end of the book the reader has realized it is not at all so. The stories each briefly touch on one aspect of the New York food scene — whereas most every story merits a book in itself.

The book has been written by a group of people who otherwise might never have come in contact with one another. For what reason would Federman (of the Russ & Daughters family) need to talk to Mendelson (of the Lenape study)? That’s interesting for my friends and me to consider: there are entire aspects of the New York food community we completely ignore. We’re so focused on the current blog-worthy scuttlebutt (did you hear DiFara’s is closed for a while because the chef took ill? Have you been to that new restaurant on the Bowery yet? Did you read Adam Platt’s last review?) that we rarely discuss food history.

But I’m okay with that, and I wish Gastropolis were too. I am sure there is a textbook somewhere those drier historical essays could belong in. If they were removed, and perhaps replaced with a few more essays like Lanzillotto’s and Hauck-Lawson’s, the book as a whole would be fluid and consistent; more importantly, it would be enjoyable and fun.

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Mary Jane Weedman is a foodie and freelance food writer living in, where else, New York City.

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