Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Urban Appetites: Food & Culture in Nineteenth Century New York

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Urban Appetites: Food & Culture in Nineteenth Century New York

Article excerpt

Urban Appetites: Food & Culture in Nineteenth Century New York By Cindy R. Lobel. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. Pp. 288. Cloth, $35.00.)

Reviewed by Marjorie Shaffer

As any New Yorker contemplating a solitary evening cooking dinner in her small apartment knows only too well, restaurants offer not only gustatory delights but also a means of socializing with friends and acquaintances. Depending on her pocketbook, she could eat out every night of the week given the extraordinary number and variety of restaurants. As Cindy R. Lobel of Lehman College ably demonstrates in her fascinating book Urban Appetites: Food & Culture in Nineteenth Century New York, the roots of New York's vibrant food culture stretch back hundreds of years.

Lobel traces the evolution of New York City's food distribution networks in a thoroughly researched book that transports the reader from the early national and antebellum periods, when food was from local farms and waters, into the Gilded Age when New York became the nation's, if not the world's, leader in food processing and the pacesetter in restaurant dining. She has a sharp eye for detail and the telling anecdote as she explores the rise of New York as the "The Empire of Gastronomy." It is a compelling story.

One of the most fascinating aspects of New York's ascendency is the transformation of its public markets, which today draw throngs of people to local farm stands offering a cornucopia of fresh vegetables, cheeses, and fish, according to the season. During the nineteenth century, New York's rapidly growing population and its burgeoning commercial and industrial sectors created a need to expand the existing food distribution network based on the Fulton, Washington, and Catherine Markets, names still familiar today. By mid-century, however, a wealthy New Yorker could also buy her food from an assortment of private retail shops, from butchers, bakers, greengrocers, and the like in her own neighborhood, and increasingly purchase imported exotic food from the Caribbean and elsewhere. The antiquated public markets were filthy and deteriorating. One observer called Washington Market "a disgrace to a civilized community," while reform groups were concerned with the same market's "impure atmosphere" and leaky roofs (94).

Lobel's description of the city's food scandals, when Tammany Hall officials lined their pockets with money from municipal coffers, reveals their far-reaching impact on the food supply. She devotes considerable attention to the scandal of tainted milk, which was linked to an extraordinarily high infant mortality rate in the city. The swill milk, as it was called, came from the city's distilleries, where filthy and sick cows were fed grain waste. …

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