When I was a student reading Baudrillard – when I was a prick – I was obsessed with cities. Not specific ones, but cities in general, as an idea. I was mainly thinking about the 20th century – the modern city of mirrors, deindividuation among the skyscrapers; Have you seen ‘Fight Club’? It’ll blow your mind – but I read around a bit, too. Everyone seemed to be in agreement, across practically a millennium’s worth of thought on the subject: the metropolis was where we were at our worst; everything decent and pure and good came from the country, and came to ruin in the city.
Maybe this is the reason why cities are still excluded from the conversation when we talk about food, landscape and terroir. When we think about where food comes from we think not of urban skylines, but of fields of crops, rows of vines, orchards bursting with heritage varietals. There is implied virtue in getting back to nature; we are told to expect untold health benefits if we free ourselves from the conveniences of modern life and the toxins of the Big Food industrial complex; we are happy to pay a premium to signal that we have seen the light – the good stuff, not the kind thrown out by a halogen bulb.
Or maybe it’s because the alternative looks too much like hard work. Cities make questions of terroir complicated: they are built on soil but also out of concrete and glass; they run on water but also leech into, contaminate, and process it. To eat in a city is to eat a lie, under a hovering false impression of autonomy: restaurants and supermarkets exist in them in far higher numbers than in the countryside, but few could survive without frequent deliveries from without their walls. Unlike the self-sustaining agrarian hippy idyll of your Blue Hill at Stone Barns fantasy, cities are inherently acquisitive, repackaging output – somebody else’s soil and toil, somebody else’s landscape – as their own.
But try finding somewhere good to eat seven nights a week in the country. Try finding food that is modern, ever-evolving, thrilling, ambitious. It’s why we live in cities, however guiltily. René Redzepi is lying to you: he might preach the benefit of losing yourself on a Yucatecan milpa, but the time and place in Nordic cuisine he’s selling you is Copenhagen, now. The fact remains that cities are, by a long shot, the best places to eat on earth – and the bigger, the richer, the more appallingly consumerist, the better. To eat oysters in New Orleans or black pepper crab in Singapore or bistecca in Florence is to be a locavore par excellence, without having to worry about getting your shoes muddy from time in the weeds.
It’s nonsense that you can only “get” terroir if you’re handmilling heirloom grains in a drafty farmhouse. The old ways are not necessarily the best; the old ways are old. Embracing modernity and urbanity means embracing ambiguity, but also potential. It means acknowledging that sometimes there is indeed something literally in the air – the microbes and microclimate that make San Francisco sourdough possible, that differentiate ham from Parma from ham from Bayonne or Jinhua. But it also means being open to the idea that there’s something special about the instincts of the people who breathe that air in; an urgent, hungry impulse to eat and call something their own, whatever its true heritage, like people grabbing a simple arrangement of dough topped with tomato and cheese, and calling their pizza Roman, Neopolitan, the New York slice, Detroit-style, Chicago deep dish.
Urban terroir is people. In cities, the things people bring with them and have imposed on them – trade, custom, tradition, prejudice – all exert their pressure and contribute to the end product. It’s why, when in Rome, you see menus replete with offal in Testaccio (historical district of the butchers, who had to survive off the fabled quinto quarto left over after the social rungs above them got their fill); and ten minutes across town, now in the old Ghetto, you’ll be inundated with artichokes, the lowly thistle so overlooked even Jews could afford it (as with their trash fish in London, the frying was necessary to make it taste better). You’ll even find pajata (the intestines of a calf that has only been fed on its mother's colostrum) in both districts (a rare historical shortcut around the meat-and-milk prohibition, apparently): it is exactly this sort of cross-pollination that makes cities special, because it cannot occur anywhere else.
The evolution of the urban landscape is accretive; in cities, cooks, too, can grow in layers: surrounded not just by great produce but also by other cooks, they have the conditions they need to build, borrow, steal, develop, improve. The end result is a distillation of their education; like a great wine from a great year, a city’s food is the perfect embodiment of specificity: this place, at this time. The beautiful small plates that Tim Spedding served during his Lil Wayne mid-2000s mixtape run at P Franco represented urban terroir at its most thrilling: a cherry-picking of influences both near (his stint as sous at The Clove Club) and far (a flirtation with Japanese seasoning), a melding of foreign technique (impeccable pasta) and local produce (that same pasta filled with Westcombe ricotta; topped with Wellesley, not Parmesan) that ended up tasting purely of a little corner of East London during the weird, disquieting months as 2016 bled out into the New Year.
But the very capitalist machinery that makes cities special has the power to reshape them, too. No sooner does a funky popular new concept spring up than it’s eyed up for a PE-backed rollout; no sooner does a new trend emerge than its originators are copycatted, diluted, bastardised. At the high end, Star-crazy chefs can look to their more successful peers not for inspiration but for a template to copy. Add into the mix the technology-enabled homogenisation of our social spaces – tens of millions of Airbnbs and third-wave coffee shops that all look the same – and worrying rise of demagogues intent on curbing immigration (the infusion of fresh blood that keeps cities vital) and maybe I can make my case in a single sentence.
The best reason for thinking more deeply about cities as food landscapes is because it helps us realise how much we stand to lose.
This piece is published in issue 15 of Noble Rot, out now. Buy a copy here! Better yet, buy two!