'Food City' Will Challenge Your Appetite

From sugar to butchery to candy making, early food manufacture was crude, dangerous, and dirty.

Food City

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Length: 416 pages
Author: Joy Santlofer
Price: $28.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-11

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.