Joy Santlofer's Food City: Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York

Reviewed by Cindy R. Lobel

Food City: Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York   By Joy Santlofer W.W. Norton, 2016

Food City: Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York
By Joy Santlofer
W.W. Norton, 2016

In 2014, 16,000 New Yorkers held jobs in food manufacturing, according to the Economic Development Corporation. This figure represents a 16% increase from just five years earlier. Most of these employees are involved in small-batch production at companies like Mast Brothers Chocolate, McClure’s Pickles, and Brooklyn Soda Works. These businesses are part of the artisanal food revival associated mainly with Brooklyn but with outposts in all five of New York City’s boroughs. The resurgence of food industry in New York City is a recent phenomenon, related to the economic revival of the city since the 1980s. But the tradition of food manufacturing stretches back more than 400 years. In Food City: Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York, Joy Santlofer examines this tradition, tracing the history of food industry in New York City from the Dutch founding to the present.

This book is a true labor of love. Santlofer spent years digging up tidbits about Sweet ‘n Low, Dannon Yogurt, and Adams Chewing Gum in the archives of the New York Public Library and New-York Historical Society and poring over two centuries’ worth of newspapers, magazines, and other primary sources. When she died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2013, her daughter Doria and husband Jonathan took up her unfinished manuscript and worked to bring the book out posthumously. Through a Kickstarter campaign they raised money to hire editor Jack Beatty, who shaped Santlofer’s notes and drafts into a completed book. And we are the better for all of these efforts. Food City is chock full of interesting tales about the still-famous and long-forgotten industrial food products that solidified Gotham’s position as the nation’s epicurean center.

Food City is divided into five sections. The first, “Appetite,” surveys food in pre-industrial New York, from the Dutch arrival through the American Revolution. Subsequent sections are organized around specific commodities produced in industrial-era New York—bread, sugar, drink, and meat. A conclusion looks at the recent resurgence of Gotham’s food industry. Sidebars throughout highlight interesting anecdotes and food-related tidbits such as the evolution of cracker storage from the cracker barrel where one scooped out crackers (often stale from sitting in the open air) to the creation of “dainty tin boxes” stamped with the manufacturer’s name. Sidebars also address the invention of Thomas’ English muffins—originally marketed as “toaster crumpets” with “nooks and crannies,” Prohibition-era moonshiners, the invention of diet soda, the introduction of instant coffee, the rise of the Kosher wine industry, and the noise pollution caused by squealing pigs and lowing cows in the slaughterhouses that squeezed into Manhattan’s East Side at the turn of the 20th century.

The narrative of Food City parallels the story of New York itself. From the beginning, an industrial food supply was necessary both to provision the European traders who sought their fortunes in the Dutch trading post and to serve the mercantile aims of the colonies. Dutch millers processed wheat on New Amsterdam’s Mill Street, which they sent to Curacao and other Dutch holdings abroad and three local brewers served the immediate needs of New Amsterdam’s small population (1600 residents at its height). Under British rule, which began in 1664, a nascent industrial scene emerged, particularly in sugar refining which would be a crucial area of New York food manufacturing through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, making fortunes for scions such as Henry Havemeyer, and Alexander and Robert Stuart.

By the nineteenth century, food manufacturing was becoming a central driver of the burgeoning metropolis’ economy. While the garment industry was the most well-known of Gotham’s diverse industries, food processing made up a healthy percentage of the city’s industrial economy. Furthermore, New York canned, preserved, and processed more food than any other city in the industrial United States. Gotham was home to major food processers including Domino’s Sugar, Nabisco, the American Chicle Company, and Pepsi-Cola. The city’s food manufacturers launched iconic American products such as Uneeda biscuits, Chock Full O’Nuts Coffee, Sweet n Low artificial sweetener, Chunky candy bars, Stella D’Oro Cookies, and Drake’s Cakes. Ethnic food companies like Horowitz & Margareten Matzoh, La Rosa Macaroni Company, and more recently Tortilleria Chinantla emerged as a niche of New York’s larger food processing landscape. In time, these products made their way onto tables throughout the city and the United States at large.

After World War II, New York’s large food manufacturers followed the lead of other industries and left the city for local and distant suburbs, seeking more space and cheaper manufacturing costs. Nabisco closed its Chelsea plant in 1956, Topps’ Chewing gum moved to Pennsylvania in 1966, the Henry Heide Candy Factory—one of the largest in the country—moved to New Jersey in 1961, Queens-based Hebrew National, which produced half the kosher processed meats in the United States in the mid-twentieth century, changed its name to National Foods and moved to Indiana in 1986, and by the 1980s, all but one sugar refinery had left New York.

While New York’s great industrial food era is in the past, recent decades have seen a resurgence of food processing in the five boroughs. Roots of this revival could be seen as early as the 1980s. Even as large companies were leaving, entrepreneurs created brands like SoHo Natural Soda and Tom Cat Bakery that manufactured food in small batches or catered to local customers. In the last two decades, New York City has become “New Food City,” as Santlofer calls it: home to a slew of food manufacturers from Brooklyn Brewery to Terra Chips and small-batch artisanal food businesses that make and pack pickles, hand-dip chocolates, roast coffee, churn butter, bake pretzels, pop popcorn, and manufacture countless other delicacies bound for the shops and tables of New York City and beyond.

It is this narrative—the rise, fall and re-rise of New York and the parallel trajectory of its food manufacturing sector—that Food City illuminates. Along the way, we see how food relates to larger themes and developments in the city’s history, including immigration, reform, labor unrest and activism, deindustrialization, and suburbanization, among others. Progressive-era reform, for example, is highlighted in public demands to crack down on unsanitary conditions in the city’s commercial bakeries and food factories. Reformers also demanded regulation of the dairy industry, which had been mired in controversy since the early nineteenth century, accused of selling contaminated milk from diseased cows and adulterated with such additives as chalk and plaster of Paris in the hopes of giving it a purer, whiter appearance. Some of these reform movements bore fruit in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. While passed in response to exposés of Chicago’s meatpacking factories, the law led to sanitary regulationof a variety of New York food manufacturers.

Likewise, Food City shows the history of industrial immigrant labor in New York. Large food companies such as Nabisco and the Maillard Chocolate Company employed young immigrant women who, like their counterparts in the garment industry, toiled for long hours and low wages in grueling conditions. The pace of work on the lines was unsustainable and the female workers were especially subject to harassment and abuse from male foremen. In addition, the environmental conditions in the plants led to illnesses. Not surprisingly then, food laborers engaged in frequent work stoppages and strikes. Santlofer discusses many of these labor actions, including a 1901 strike against the city’s sausage makers, a 1934 Nabisco strike, and a 1946 strike at American Sugar Refining.

While most of the businesses that Food City covers have long closed or moved away (aside from those mentioned in the conclusion), they have left their mark on the landscape of New York. Residents of and visitors to New York neighborhoods like Red Hook, and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Queens’ Long Island City, and Manhattan’s meat-packing district walk along the same cobble-stoned streets that brewery and bakery wagons traveled upon. The old food factories house businesses related to the new economy in New York City. In some cases, these businesses are food-related themselves. The old Nabisco factory is now the home of Chelsea Market and the production studios of the Food Network and of course, the neighborhood that surrounds it was a major meat-packing center well into the twentieth century. These physical reminders of Santlofer’s Food City allow the book to serve not only as a tour of old New York but also of the contemporary city.

Despite its breadth, Food City is not comprehensive. Given its thematic focus around the four specific commodities, it does not include information on other food-related industry in New York. The fishing industry, spice milling, and pickling, for example, are largely missing from Food City. Also, since it focuses particularly on food industry, Food City does not include much discussion of public dining, food marketing, eating habits or other social and cultural aspects of New York’s foodways. A reader also might seek some contextual analysis to the book’s history of food industry in general histories of New York City.

But as a survey of New York’s golden age of food manufacturing, Food City delivers, giving the reader an entertaining taste of New York’s history through products like Trident chewing gum, Pepsi-Cola, Cella’s cherries, Oreo Cookies, and Schaefer Beer. The book is a testament to Joy Santlofer’s dedication and passion for New York’s food history and her gift to the readers who share that passion.

Cindy R. Lobel is an Associate Professor of History and New York Studies at Lehman College and The Graduate Center, CUNY, and the author of Urban Appetites: Food & Culture in Nineteenth Century New York (University of Chicago Press, 2014).