By Ruth Abusch-Magder
On the surface, the shandy, the signature drink at Betony in New York City, is a simple drink, a uniform dark liquid poured over crushed ice. But take a sip and you open up a world of taste: hoppy beer, sweet honey, sour vinegar, and smoky overtones of tobacco inspired by Eamon Rockey’s memories of childhood summers spent with his grandparents in Colorado.
Ina Yalof’s “Food in the City” is similarly deceptive. The premise is simple: She has collected the stories of those involved in a variety of food industries across New York, from the woman charged with feeding the thousands of inmates of the city’s prison to line cooks and high-end caterers.
But dip into any one of these well-chosen personal narratives and you will discover not only a deeper understanding of food and life in New York, but also life lessons and the many shades of the American dream.
In picking among the many purveyors of food in New York, Yalof has wisely chosen to share stories of those who pursue and achieve excellence at whatever level they work. America is a place where being the best is valued and recognized.
There are, of course, five-star restaurants and celebrity chefs, but Yalof shows that even a lowly job like shucking oysters can be done well and earn recognition. At 28, Lois Iglesias, a Mexican immigrant with an aversion to raw oysters, has won national competitions for his extraordinary ability to open and clean these prized sea creatures.
And if you get good enough, the traditional boundaries fall by the wayside. Burt Leventhal, the best kosher caterer, for example, can cross over and cater meals at the American Irish Society.
The flip side of excellence is ambition. Not surprisingly, the stories of food in New York include many immigrant stories. The food industries offer newcomers the opportunity to make a better life for themselves, a desire that fuels many dreams and hard work.
As a young woman, Carmen Melendez made the dangerous journey by bus and foot from Nicaragua to New York, motivated by the desire to give her daughter a good life. Coming to work at Tom Cat Bakery, she knew nothing about making bread but was willing to learn and work hard. Today, her daughter is a dentist, and Melendez owns her own home. But she still comes in at 3 a.m., though now she overseas much of the bakery floor operation.
Others, such as David Fox of Fox’s U-bet egg creams, work hard to keep the dreams of their immigrant ancestors alive. While still others are migrants rather than immigrants, making their way to New York to fulfill dreams and often working long hours for low pay and just the opportunity to participate in one of the world’s most vibrant culinary cultures.
Some involved in the food industry knew from a young age that cooking and serving were a passion. Burt Leventhal fell in love with the idea of catering the first time he went to a wedding. Wilson Tang grew up in his family’s dim sum parlor, Nom Wah Tea Parlor, and, despite family pressure to stay away, was not happy until he made it a focus of his life.
Others, including Sylvia Weinstock, a purveyor of high-end wedding cakes, and Connie McDonald of Levain Bakery fell into it by accident. Weinstock worked as a teacher, and McDonald worked in finance, but both found a calling mixing, baking and selling products known to be exceptional.
Whether you are interested in food, Americana or just good storytelling, Yalof’s collection of well-told personal stories will draw you in and reflect a vision that is both unexpected and familiar.