You know that old economics adage, as goes General Motors, so goes the nation? The thinking was that when the market was up, people bought cars, so GM’s stock tracked the economy. A symbol of American industrial might a half-century ago when it became the first US company to make $1 billion in a year, GM lost more than $1 billion in the first quarter of this year alone.
I believe a happier national compass can be found in Brooklyn’s relationship to food. Call our citizenry’s diet a gastronomic barometer, a gustatory crystal ball. People might think of us as throwbacks. I see us as ahead of the curve.
Consider our first peoples. Native Americans here filled their bellies with abundant foot-long oysters and the occasional beached whale, and grew corn, beans and squash in sisterly companion planting. Among the first Indians displaced by European explorers, the Lenape were eventually relocated to Oklahoma, where their descendants still live today. In this landlocked state without oysters or whales they have learned to adopt fried bread.
Farmers in Brooklyn’s backyard planted orchards full of apple trees in the 1700s, before the real-life Johnny Appleseed set foot on the frontier. In the 19th century, Brooklyn led the nation in agricultural production, as our farmers grew food not for their own families, but for the burgeoning urban population across the river. Early in the 20th century we covered those same farms with buildings, and today Brooklyn is virtually farmless. A study published this summer predicts that America’s most productive farmland today, California’s central valley, will also be farmless by the end of this century.
Brooklyn was long home to the biggest sugar cane plant in the country; we were the birthplace and remain the headquarters of Sweet‘N Low, the artificial sweetener stirred round the world.
But don’t despair; my proposed adage is a happy one, for Brooklyn’s diet today is as delicious, healthful and culturally rich as they come. Restaurants like applewood and Flatbush Farm serve local ingredients cooked from the heart. Our backyard wineries and Hudson Valley orchards have turned their backs on industry blandness in favor of extraordinary flavors and responsive relationships with their customers. Small entrepreneurs with big ideas handcraft their ice cream dreams. Arabs and Jews keep their cultures vibrantly alive, side by side. A few Italians still make backyard wine the way they used to. Kids keep endangered species of vegetables alive. And one bride’s father builds a celebratory meal from the foods of his family’s community.
Does Brooklyn’s diet forecast our country’s? America, you should be so lucky.
Peter Anastasiu grilling a lamb for the Inwood wedding, Ditmas Park.