By the time I was old enough to understand the relationship between food and culture, it was already too late for me. It seemed like food and culture and the relationship between the two all but died where I came from. I lived in Detroit up until the riots of '68 and then afterwards my family moved to a rural landscape. In a very short time farmland became a busy bustling series of suburbs. It was one massive series of highways, subdivisions and strip malls. If there was any local food identity or culture it was all but eaten up in chain establishments.
Chains took over where mom and pop food businesses reined, long standing food venues where shuttered closed. My father, who was a waiter, worked in one of the finest restaurants in the city of Detroit. In the 1970s the once solidly established restaurant scene tried to hold on during tornado like changes, my father was relegated to wearing a long white apron and plain white shirt with the sleeves rolled up (no more tux and bowtie) and serving lousy pizza to patrons, who sat at tables covered in red and white checkered tablecloths. The once revered Caucus Club stood out like a sore thumb with new blinky lights beckoning customers to come in.
It wasn’t till I moved to New York that I discovered a deeply rich tradition of food culture, both formal and informal. From my favorite local French restaurant Moutard to the summer time street fairs in the Italian neighborhoods, the culture of food thrives in New York City. Food is so alive in this city that everything seems to be centered around the table, be it at a beloved restaurant or at a friend’s house for a gathering or a picnic lunch with family in Prospect Park. Food is the glue that melds all the different cultures in New York City. Everyone has a food history, and it isn’t Ruby Tuesday’s or Dunkin Donuts. Sure there are chain eateries around but the independents are thriving too. God love them both. And in those independents are the seeds of many new food traditions and cultures.
In Gastropolis: Food and New York City, editors Annie Hauck-Lawson and Jonathan Deutsch have compiled a list of essays about food in New York City. The book examines food in places, food and people, food and trade and food and symbols. Some essays examine New York City food history, like Harley Spiller’s essay "Chow Fun City: Three Centuries of Chinese Cuisine in New York City," while Annie Hauck-Lawson’s essay "My Little Town: A Brooklyn Girl's Food Voice" examines food culture by way of an intimate portrayal of her family growing up in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Gastropolis is both enjoyable and informative, an excellent partner to bring when you are dining alone at your favorite restaurant.
On Monday April 13 at the Mid-Manhattan Library, at 6:30, please join us as editors Annie Hauck-Lawson and Jonathan Deutsch discuss food culture in New York City.