ROBIN SHULMAN is a writer and reporter whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, the Guardian, and many other publications. She lives in New York City. Eat the City is her first book.
Shortly after I first got the idea for my book Eat the City, back in 2006, I decided to do an experiment. The book would be about people producing basic foods like meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, cheese, wine, beer, honey, and sugar in New York City. If I was going to write about food production in the city’s five boroughs, I would surely have to taste the food. Why not set out to taste the city’s productive capacity at the same time?
I formulated a weeklong diet plan in which all the food I ate would come from the five boroughs of New York City. It would be a way for me to seek out new food producers—hunger would motivate my reporting. I would gain experiential understanding of what the city could produce. And I would use another of the city’s resources—its master chefs—to create recipes for the food I ate, to better gauge the city’s productive capacities. For a week, I would literally eat the city.
My project was carefully timed for the harvest season in September, but still, some things were unavailable. No potatoes or yams at the three farms providing the bulk of my vegetables, and no wheat fields anywhere in the five boroughs to make bread—I wouldn’t have much in the way of carbohydrates. After briefly considering the potential for making my own sunflower oil and Atlantic Ocean salt, I decided to cheat and allow non-NYC oil, salt and pepper, so the food had a chance of tasting good.
A month of planning yielded many sources. For basic vegetables, I relied on urban farms in East New York and in Queens, and on Added Value, the Red Hook farm built on top of an asphalt ball field. I planned to go fishing for striped bass at 5 a.m. with a man who sold his fish at a farmers’ market in East New York. I went foraging in Central Park. I took two buses and the train to go to Red Hook to collect eggs, to Harlem to gather apples from a tree and also to pick up grape, peach and pear preserves from Classie Parker, who canned them earlier in the season. I got homemade mozzarella and ricotta from an elderly Italian woman in Williamsburg, and handmade Greek yogurt from a mother and daughter in Astoria. I traveled to the South Bronx to pick up honey. I had sources for handgrown ginger and lemongrass, a sugary plant called stevia, and the dark green Caribbean leaf callaloo.
I sent out lists of available ingredients to some of the city’s best chefs, six of whom were interested and kind enough to humor me by providing recipes: Marcus Samuelsson, then of of Aquavit, Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar & Grill, Anita Lo of Anissa, Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, and Floyd Cardoz of Tabla. Perfect—I had recipes for dinner almost every night of the week, and I could invite friends to eat with me.
One meal that week was among the best of my life. It was based on a recipe from Floyd Cardoz—but there were problems. Even though I had just sent my ingredients list, I didn’t have on hand quite what I’d expected. After days of early-morning calls to discuss the bad weather, I got a final cancellation from the fisherman I had hoped would catch me some striped bass. Instead, I went to Brooklyn College and met Martin Schreibman, a professor who has innovated aquaculture techniques for farming tilapia at low cost in urban areas. He hoped his systems for raising fish would someday impact world hunger. Meantime, he showed me his basement fish tanks and supplied me with six clean, white tilapia filets, which I could substitute for the bass in Floyd Cardoz’s recipe. The recipe called for mustard greens—but I didn’t have quite enough. Instead, I had an abundance of leafy callaloo, from Marlene Wilks, who is from Jamaica and runs an incredibly productive farm in the shadow of the elevated train in East New York. I had no banana leaves or lime juice (Floyd had slipped in those irresistible non-NYC exotics), but I did have a dash of homemade vinegar, dregs from making wine, which I could use as an acid. I halved the recipe for six to use for three.
By the time I got home to cook, after spending the entire day on the subway gathering ingredients, I was starving. Starving, I didn’t bother to read ahead in the recipe, but followed each step as I went, with my friends hovering over me in the kitchen. I found myself dismayed at each new direction that did not result in a finished plate of fish.
Finally, after what seemed like ages, I served up sizzling fish, baked in a mixture of herbs and greens, to my friends Rania and Brian. There was a cucumber and tomato salad, and iced tea made from mint and honey. The fish was light, with zing, and incredibly fresh and flavorful—amazing that it had come from a frenzied day of criss-crossing the boroughs. I had picked almost everything for the meal myself, that day, and certainly knew where everything came from. It was midway through a long week of sustaining myself on the fat of the city landscape. This was the meal that showed me how much is possible to produce today in cities, even a city as densely packed, artificial, and unyielding as New York, the most urbanized city in North America. Few things have ever tasted so good.
Recipe for Pan-roasted Wild Striped Bass with Mustard Greens from Floyd Cardoz of Tabla
(Or, as adapted by Robin Shulman, Pan-Roasted Tilapia with Callaloo)
1 bunch mustard greens (about 13 ounces), tough coarse leaves discarded
2 tablespoons lime juice*
1 ½ tablespoons thinly sliced peeled fresh ginger
3 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced (about 2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons minced mild to moderately hot fresh red or green chile (4 to 6 inches in length)
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup cilantro picked and washed
1 tablespoon wild mustard seeds
3 banana leaves (from a 1-pound package; see headnote), thawed if frozen, or parchment paper*
6 (6-ounce) pieces skinless bass fillet
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Have ready a bowl of ice water. Bring a pot of water to a boil and blanch the mustard greens 30 seconds. Drain them and put immediately in the ice water to set the color.
2. Squeeze the excess water from the greens with your hands and roughly chop. (You should have about 1 3/4 cups, lightly packed.)
3. Purée the mustard greens with the cilantro, lime juice, ginger, garlic, chile, ¼ cup water, and 2 tablespoons canola oil in a blender until smooth. (You should have about 2 cups purée. Resist the urge to add more water; the purée will be too loose.) The purée can be made 1 day ahead and chilled, its surface covered with plastic wrap to prevent discoloration.
4. Toast the wild mustard seeds in a dry, small, heavy skillet over moderately low heat, shaking skillet, until they bloom and are fragrant, about 3 minutes. Finely grind the toasted spices and stir into the purée. Season the purée with the salt.
5. Preheat oven to 400°F and pat bass dry. Season bass with salt and pepper to taste.
6. Divide purée into 6 servings (about 1/3 cup per serving). Put it under and over the fish.
7. Heat 1/4 cup oil in an ovenproof 12-inch skillet over moderately high heat until shimmering. Put half of the fish packages in the skillet, flap sides down, and cook 2 minutes. Turn the packages over and finish cooking in the middle of the oven, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer the packages to a platter and loosely cover with foil to keep warm. Heat the remaining 1/4 cup oil and cook the remaining fish packages in the same way.
*Not likely available in the city!