Food City is look at New York City’s history as a food producer, from the arrival of the first Dutch colonists to the current artisanal foodie movement. Scrupulously researched, at times humorous, often moving, Food City is above all bittersweet, for author Joy Santlofer died unexpectedly in 2013, leaving an unfinished manuscript. Santlofer’s daughter Doria raised the necessary funds to complete the book.
Subtitled “Four Centuries of Food-Making on New York”, Food City begins with the earliest days of colonization, taking readers through bread making, beer brewing, the search for safe milk, and a nascent candy industry. While never less than entertaining, Food City doesn’t gloss over the many painful ethical issues plaguing the early food industry, including child labor, appalling working conditions, and horrific indifference to animal suffering. Nor does the book ignore the raw realities of slavery or the colonization of native lands.
Food City begins with the Dutch. Safely arrived on the shores of “New Amsterdam”, they were homesick for Dutch food, especially fine white bread and dairy products. Scorning the abundant produce of their new home, refusing to farm, many of the earliest settlers starved. Wiser souls began growing wheat, which they refined into flour. Others became skilled brewers, selling beer and spirits to a population lacking potable water.
By the time of the Civil War, bakers were providing Union soldiers with supplies of newly popular crackers and “hardbread”, or hardtack, a rock-hard product whose long-keeping powers were useful during ship voyages. Actually consuming the stuff was another matter; Santlofer writes the first minister of New Amsterdam, one Domine Jonas Michaelius, “found them a trial to his teeth.”
From sugar to butchery to candy making, early food manufacture was crude, dangerous, and dirty. Early sugar making involved quicklime, woolen blankets as strainers, and a purification step calling for “ox or bullock blood”. The resulting product was then baked. Blood spoiled quickly in summer heat, with a stench so overpowering even workmen passed out.
Bread baking was no better. In 1894, a New York Press exposé described 19-hour workdays, seven days a week. What sleep men got was taken on filthy cots. Lacking access to sanitation, bakers fell ill from inhaling flour. Most workers had body lice and a skin condition called “Baker’s Itch”. Inspectors told of rats running free and vermin falling into dough.
Women and children were not spared. Women worked on candy and cracker lines, often standing for over 12 hours daily. Anna Saitta, who worked for Uneeda Cracker, wrote in a 1928 diary entry, “The heat is terrible. The foreman was every five minutes hollering at us today, because we couldn’t work fast. Our fingers were bleeding from the hot crackers that stick to the pans, and nearly every one of us had to go for a plaster to the nurse. One girl fainted in Building A.”
As chocolate had to be kept cool, many candy factories kept their workrooms at 45 degrees Fahrenheit. An inspector watched as old, worm-infested candy was used to make up for a shortfall of fresh chocolates. Workers brushed off the bugs, packing the spoiled candy with the fresh. One woman licked her finger to separate paper candy cups before placing a chocolate inside each one. Asked why she wore no gloves, she explained they slowed the pace, which angered the foreman.
On 21 December 1877, an explosion at E. Greenfield And Son’s, a gumdrop maker, killed 13 employees. Amongst the dead were German immigrants George and Albert Krumery, aged 16 and 13, respectively, and August Droxler, aged 13 years.
Santlofer documents increasing calls not only for better working conditions, but for stronger sanitation regulations. An 1850 city ordinance banned daylight cattle herding below 42nd Street. Meanwhile, the noise and stench of animal slaughter took its toll on even the most avid carnivores. In 1884, one Matilde Wendt, sick of being unable to open her windows or stroll her Beekman Place lawns for the sickening smells, formed the Ladies Protective Association of New York. The group demanded the City’s meat processing establishments install cement flooring with proper drainage systems.
The slaughterhouses did not take a group of ladies in furs seriously. They should have. While not entirely successful, the Ladies Protective Association got the Butchers Hide and Melting Association to comply. Similar battles were fought—and eventually won—for clean milk, bread, and candy.
The history of alcohol manufacture in New York City could fill multiple volumes. Santlofer does it justice here, covering the rise of breweries and hard liquor, the unexpected popularity of Kosher wines drinking in the African-American community, and the crafty methods New Yorkers employed to evade prohibition laws.
Every foodstuff was, of course, made by immigrants or their children. When Ignatz Margareten, of Horowitz Brothers and Margareten, a matzoh baking factory, died in 1923, his wife Regina became treasurer. She fed the hungry during the Depression, gave bi-lingual Passover radio broadcasts in the ‘40s (Yiddish and English), and was working two weeks before her death at age 96 in 1959.
Other successful immigrants included Italian native Joseph Kresivich who, with his wife, Angela, founded the Stella D’Oro factory, baking breadsticks and cookies. Santlofer notes their baked goodies were popular with Jewish customers because “they were made without milk or butter and thus were kosher.”
Indeed, my kosher-keeping grandparents ate Stella D’Oro cookies as a nightly snack before bed.
There’s far more—the development of diet soda, saccharine, and margarine, the advent of Trident Chewing Gum, the arrival of Dannon Yogurt, food through the World Wars.
Sadly, Food City reaches the current moment, with its artisanal food producers, only to conclude abruptly, poignantly reminding readers of Santlofer’s untimely death. This is the literary equivalent of sampling a marvelous dish only to have the plate rudely yanked away, a morsel tasted just this once.
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