Vintage cat cookie jar. Photo by Glynis Boardman
Last week, we looked at why it is that New York City has a food culture so rich and vibrant. And today, let’s talk about the food. I mean, you know, you’re from New York. You’re going to have food, and we’ll talk about it.
The term “food” encompasses a number of different categories, and some are very different from others. The first, and most obvious, is that most of us, as consumers, have a very different relationship with food than do the people who grow it or the people who make it. We think of ourselves as consumers, buying and then enjoying. The idea of being “producers” doesn’t even come into our minds. To the growers, it’s a job, to the makers, it’s art, and for the rest of us, it’s food. And so, it’s only right to think about it in those terms.
For a while, I thought that we would take a look at how New York City food producers were changing the face of the city. But I’ve been thinking a lot about that phrase lately, and the whole concept of change. The New York City food scene has changed in a number of ways over the last 30 years, especially since 2000. But there is no question that, in one very important way, it has stayed the same. It has remained a constant and unchanging point of reference for the city’s identity. It is that identity that I want to explore.
One thing that New York City has never really had was a sense of place. That is not to say that there wasn’t always a particular area of the city associated with a certain type of food. I could think, for example, of Brooklyn Heights, for its Italian-American food and Brooklyn Bridge Café and Café Habana, for its Cuban food. But the city itself was always more of an idea than an actual place. You lived there and you knew about the different ethnic neighborhoods, but you couldn’t always name them. It was a place without a name.
It took the invention of the Food Network to really bring the city into the food consciousness. And it was one of those “we’re too big to fail” sort of moments when a major network realized that their biggest asset was not being the home of Survivor but instead being the home of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. There are plenty of things I love about the Food Network and Food Network programming. But one of the biggest benefits of the Food Network was that it connected the city’s various ethnic food markets to an ever-wider audience.
It was no surprise to me that the greatest beneficiary of the network’s success was Italian food. This is a city that had long been home to great Italian and Jewish food. And while it’s been argued in some circles that the food that was on the Food Network was never really that Italian or Jewish, the fact that those particular flavors became synonymous with the Food Network shows that there is something to that argument. The idea that New York had a “food identity” really became a reality after the network made a connection between the city’s ethnic communities and its residents.
The next big wave in New York City’s food landscape came during the economic boom of the late 1990s. New York was on its way to being the most valuable city in the world, and money was flooding in to the city. The influx of that money coincided with a huge increase in the number of food-related businesses opening up in New York City, most of them “ethnic food”-related. When people say “ethnic food” they usually mean Chinese, Indian, and Mexican. There are plenty of other ethnic cuisines in the city, but those were the ones that were being touted as the next big thing, or, as the New York Times called them, “the next wave of the city’s restaurant boom.” I mean, it didn’t matter if the food wasn’t from a particular ethnic background, as long as it had a “flavor,” the food could claim to have a “New York identity.”
The ethnic food craze was not all that new. For many decades, and especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, restaurants like Tony’s restaurant, that specialized in Chinese and Italian food, were very common. The difference was that there were very few of them, and they were almost all run by Italians or Chinese.
But that all changed. During the 1990s, a handful of new restaurants began to open, specializing in food from all over the world. These were the first New York City restaurants to truly claim to have a “New York food” identity. And, as New York has often been the capital of the world, so it was in the 1990s. From 1993 through 1998, according to a 2007 report in the New York Times, more than 1,500 restaurants opened in the city, and that number increased to over 3,000 in the years following. I say that New York City has been the capital of the world in large part because the number of restaurants in the city is still almost double that of Paris, the next largest city for restaurants, in 2006.
The great benefit of the New York City ethnic food explosion is that it is a lot of fun. It’s really not just about eating the food, it’s about celebrating all the different cuisines and cultures that make up the city. The foods are so great that it’s hard to go anywhere and not find something you can try. This is a very good thing, because New York City is not just about eating. There is so much more to it than that.
But if New York City is a city that has never had a sense of place, the last 30 years have at least provided us with a lot