In the last three weeks or so, the publishing world has bestowed upon us no less than three books dedicated exclusively or in large part to the cultural history of food and dining in New York. William Grimes’s Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York, David Sax’s Save the Deli, and Andrew Coe’s Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States offer a three-course feast of sorts to anybody armed with an appetite and an interest in things like the 1835 fire that demolished Delmonico’s or the origin story of Katz’s.
Grimes’s book, which traces the city’s dining habits all the way back to 18th-century ice houses, hit shelves yesterday, and provides fascinating context for how we came to eat what we’re eating today. For example, in 1913, a generous lifetime before the likes of Peter Hoffman and Dan Barber were proclaiming the virtues of local eating, Gustave Stickley, the proprietor of the experimental Craftsman Restaurant on 39th Street, wrote, “My theory about a restaurant is that to be the right sort of an eating place it must be closely related to its source of supplies.”
Appetite City touches upon an adventurous group of 19th-century artists and eaters called the Bohemians, who make their way into the pages of Chop Suey as well. As Coe said in a recent interview with the New Yorker, the Bohemians were some of the first non-Chinese New Yorkers to get a taste of what Chinatown had to offer. Though Coe’s book is concerned with Chinese food throughout the U.S., New York figures prominently in his story, particularly in the evolution of the book’s namesake dish, which caught the attention of non-Chinese diners as far back as the 1880s and was a very different dish than the one that appears on most menus today. In the interview, incidentally, Coe gave some love to South Flushing’s Golden Palace, which was also the recent object of Our Man Sietsema’s unequivocal affections.
Finally, Sax, who Fork in the Road interviewed last week, likewise takes a nationwide (and beyond) view of his subject, but New York is at, if not the heart, then the kishkes of his book. Histories of delis from the Carnegie and Stage to Katz’s and the Second Avenue Deli are relayed in loving detail, and it’s almost impossible to come away from the book without wanting to run out for a pastrami sandwich from any one of these places. While Sax and his cohorts cover markedly different territory, they do lead the reader to at least one common conclusion: There’s never, in the past couple of centuries at least, not been a good time to eat in New York.