Food City, by the late Joy Santlofer, shows us the amazing history of manufacturing, in this case food manufacturing, in New York City. Nowadays we don’t associate New York with manufacturing, but as recently as 1950, it was one of the largest manufacturing centers in the country. Reading about this lost past is a fascinating exercise, even if there is much less manufacturing in the city today.
Santlofer begins with a brief overview of the food history of the city, under the Dutch and then the English. This introduction culminates in what sets the framework of the book: a parade celebrating the ratification of the Constitution, held in 1788, in which various food trades marched in groups. These included brewers, chocolate makers, butchers, bakers, and many more. Santlofer does an outstanding job, here and elsewhere in the book, evoking the atmosphere of the time she’s discussing, whether the 18th Century or the 20th. The reader practically feels like he’s there, watching the parade.
The rest of the book is divided into four major sections, each covering one type of food: bread, sugar, drink, and meat. In each section, Santlofer weaves together descriptions of the food making processes, from raw materials to marketing and sale, and descriptions of the city at various times, including its physical atmosphere and the ins-and-outs of politics, especially as food affected its physical atmosphere and politics affected food. Naturally, the predominance of ethnic groups in eating patterns, manufacturing, and politics features frequently. Plus, there are enough descriptions of manufacturing equipment to satisfy a die-hard fan of the TV show How It’s Made, without the descriptions becoming overly technical or tedious. For example, I now know why sugar was sold in cones in blue paper—the refined sugar was a thick liquid that was poured into cone-shaped molds and dried, and the blue paper made the sugar look more white. And there is more, much more, where that came from.
So the book is full of fascinating anecdotes. In fact, the book is basically a series of anecdotes. That’s not a criticism; the anecdotes are well-chosen, illustrative and hang together in service of the common themes of the book. It’s amazing to know, for example, sticking with sugar as my example, that sugar manufacturing was a huge business in New York for centuries. Sugar was of course intimately connected with the slave trade, since the raw materials for making refined sugar were produced by slaves in the Caribbean under conditions far worse than the terrible conditions of the American South. Cotton was not the only American industry that relied on slaves, just the one that did so most obviously. Naturally, the sugar barons of New York opposed the Civil War, fearing disruption of their economic interests, both from the disruption of trade and from slavery potentially ending. The Roosevelt family made its fortune on sugar, beginning prior to the Revolutionary War and going through the Civil War, which they opposed, of course—something that is ignored today, since they are liberal heroes. But it is good to remember that Franklin Roosevelt’s jaunty mien had foundations of slave bones.
Santlofer also covers the common problem of maltreatment of workers by owners. Of course, when owners maltreated workers, it was in order to get money, and what money would buy, including social acceptance. That doesn’t mean that owners were necessarily, or even often, rich. In many instances, they were barely surviving themselves—one thing that comes through very clearly in Santlofer’s book is how intensely competitive all aspects of food manufacturing have always been in New York. An owner might have to work grueling hours himself, living in squalor himself, while his employees did the same, just to stay in business. But, of course, there were those businessmen who, especially as factories got bigger (some Manhattan factories occupied entire city blocks), divorced themselves from manual labor and from the actual operation of their businesses, and lived in luxury, yet still demanded that the workers compete among themselves, and against lower-priced labor if it could be found, to accept the lowest possible wages.
The book ends with the decline and fall of food manufacturing in New York, as the high costs of real estate and taxes, along with snooty locals no longer desiring manufacturing in their proximity, combined to drive manufacturing farther and farther out, eventually away from the city and the area entirely. Santlofer concludes on a positive note, focusing on the rebirth of artisanal food manufacturing, from bread to pickles—although, of course, those foods are sold to the same wealthy people who drove out old-style manufacturing, which provided jobs and decent lives to hundreds of thousands of people who did not and do not eat artisanal bread. A little research does show that after decades of steep decline, manufacturing is on the uptick in New York City, with several thousand jobs having been added in recent years—all in small manufacturing businesses of various types. But in 2016, only 79,000 people worked in manufacturing in the entire NYC metro area. One can never tell, though—perhaps there will be a wholesale renaissance of manufacturing in America, and perhaps it will once again be led by New York.