The Great Escape: How to Use Food to Stay Sane in New York

By Cara Cannella

Photo © Shutterstock

Photo © Shutterstock

Depending on the day, big city life can feel like a musical, full of synchronicities propelled by a storyline that snaps into place. It can also be rife with disturbance and disruption, full of struggle to connect disintegrated people and parts. Given such high highs and low lows, we need a grounding force to balance the stimulation of skyline and subway. So what do we do? We feed ourselves, of course, and we let ourselves be fed.

In her new book, Food and the City: New York’s Professional Chefs, Restaurateurs, Line Cooks, Street Vendors, and Purveyors Talk About What They Do and Why They Do It, journalist and author Ina Yalof creates a culinary cartography and feast for the senses to guide us on that quest. In stories of people behind many of the city’s favorite foods, she directs readers toward pleasure, depth of flavor, and intimate connection through the social context of sustenance.

By focusing mostly on lesser-known personalities, she transcends the celebrity chef-obsessed veneer of “foodie” culture. Through profiles and oral history, she goes deep into the foundation of New York’s culinary world by capturing food-related scents, sights, textures, sounds, and tastes across the five boroughs. With this navigational guide, Yalof helps readers tune out the noise of what can be too much food culture fed by countless lists of “Best Places to Eat” and “Foods to Eat Before You Die.” Her own journey through the food world, while both serendipitous and strategic, is often sense-driven.

“One weekday in midtown, for example, I followed the irresistible scent of grilled onions, which led me directly to the food cart of an Egyptian-American guy – Mohamed Abouelenein – who was producing plates of halal lamb at warp speed for a block-long line of hungry people working in the area,” she writes of the Halal Guys, also a popular destination for taxi drivers.

Through networking, she is able to get an introduction to Bobby Weiss, a fourth-generation fish wholesaler at the New Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx. In the wee hours of the morning, his Blue Ribbon Fish Company processes “fifty to a hundred thousand pounds of seafood a day, between shellfish and frozen product” in a cavernous forty-degree, climate-controlled space about the length of the “Empire State Building laid on its side.”

In vignettes organized by theme – including family-owned businesses, immigrant entrepreneurship, and institutional food (with a focus on New York City’s main jail) – she covers a wide range of subjects. Standout characters include Ghaya Oliveira, a Tunisian former stockbroker who moved from dishwasher to executive pastry chef at Daniel, and Dominique Ansel, creator of the beloved Cronut, who greets customers waiting in line an hour or two before his bakery opens by offering “freshly made little madeleines to keep them warm and thank them for coming.”

In orienting and connecting readers through the world of food, Yalof’s eclectic culinary map serves the same function as great literature, which parses a range of possibilities and emotion to elicit meaning and mutual feeling. By highlighting pleasurable sensory experiences, she helps locals and savvy tourists alike make sense of daily life in the city.

As urban dwellers, we tune out stimulation in order to survive, seeking solace from crowds in our headphones, darkened movie theaters, and the final sweet bites of an ice cream cone. To thrive in the city, we need to find focus amid pulsing twenty-four-hour lights, unwanted interaction, honking horns, and stinky exhaust fumes. The only sensory input we can control, it seems, is related to taste, which makes Yalof’s guidance so welcome. Through her selective focus, we discover a feast of pleasures to comfort and carry us through another day.