Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York
by William Grimes
North Point Press, September 2010
Paperback 384 pp., ISBN: 978-0374532499
I want to eat fresh New York Harbor oysters from an 1830s street vendor, attend a meal in 1873 so lavish I’m dining on horseback or seated at a table built around a thirty-foot artificial lake, then take an after dinner stroll through a rooftop garden during the summer of 1882. Reading William Grimes’ Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York, I want to experience multiple time periods of New York cuisine. All at once.
Grimes' gastronomical record begins in the early nineteenth century—an era Grimes refers to as a “culinary desert”—when dining out was limited to boarding houses and the occasional tavern. It ends in the present day with popular cooking show celebrities like Joe Bastianich, Mario Batali, and Eric Ripert. And although such a thorough history could easily become dry, Appetite City is a riveting tale with the New York City culinary world as its hero. I cheered the city on at its low points—in 1930 when the Great Depression devastated the dining world, wiping out over thirty percent of Manhattan’s restaurants—and I celebrated each time it reinvented itself, like in the 1960s when a young Alice Waters “translated French values into American terms” by introducing California cuisine.
Grimes explains how social changes such as prohibition and war rationing determined what New Yorkers ate. After the Volstead Act outlawed the sale of alcohol, New Yorkers discovered that “it is possible—just—to enjoy a French dinner without wine, but it is impossible to make one.” The book also highlights the individuals that brought each new culinary wave to New York: the financiers who funded a new style of restaurant, the maître d’hôtel who seated the social elite according to rank, and the immigrants who “did not simply change New York’s taste in dining” but “set the stage, and the tone, for the grand, ongoing spectacle known as Bohem.” The Germans introduced their family-friendly beer gardens, the Italians the revolutionary spaghetti, and in Chinatown, “beyond chop suey, strange marvels awaited.”
Appetite City also tells the true story of a New York that has inspired many fictitious New Yorks. The dinners for the Four Hundred at Delmonico’s were the real-life versions of the social snobbery Edith Wharton’s characters encountered: Mrs. William Astor’s ballroom held four hundred guests, and it was said “if you go outside that number you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease.” Grimes’ segment on the 1920s clears up how by patronizing speakeasies, Bertram Wooster was able to drink so much alcohol when he and Jeeves made their odyssey through prohibition America. The book also describes the automats—waiterless restaurants that used the latest in technology to dispense food and drink via vending machines—made famous in Marilyn Monroe’s song about “a girl’s best friend.”
Though Grimes tells his history chronologically, the book divines its strength from his capacity to illuminate each era of food as its own amazing adventure, each with its own lively anecdotes about colorful characters and cutting edge cuisine. No matter where I was in the book, I found myself longing to eat my way across New York City. Now if there were only a way to choose which moment in time to visit.November 22, 2010