Honey and Hurricanes: The Lost Bees of New York

honey2Honey from all around New York City.

This article is one of a series I’m writing as a Visiting Artist at BLDG92 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Last fall, a few weeks after Hurricane Sandy, I attended a honey tasting in Brooklyn.  Signs of the hurricane were still everywhere, and it felt nice to be doing something normal.  If attending a honey tasting can be considered normal.

The tasting was hosted by Tim and Shelly, a beekeeping couple; like the honey they produce, their love is strong and sweet. They got married this month, with homemade mead in the wilds of Ohio.

When I arrived at their Brooklyn apartment, there were more beekeepers in the living room than I had met in my entire life. And the honey spread was unmatched by anything on earth.  Six continents were represented in honey samples (all except Antarctica), dozens of countries, and a jar of honey from almost every state in the union. But most incredible was the entire lazy susan devoted to honey exclusively from the five boroughs: Manhattan, The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island.

A change in legislature made beekeeping legal in the city a few years back, although many New Yorkers kept hives illegally for many years before. They dot the roofs of the city, nestle in the back yard,s and in some places, large apiaries have been established, like at The Brooklyn Navy Yard.

“Since I started keeping bees, I feel more connected to my neighborhood,” Shelly told me. “Bees fly up to three miles from their hive searching for food. Now every sidewalk flower I see, I know it’s a part of my honey.”

“But bees are also really lazy,” she added.

Take the infamous Red Hook Red.  In Red Hook, Brooklyn, a mostly industrial (but rapidly changing) neighborhood, there’s a maraschino cherry factory.  It’s cobbled together from a couple mismatched structures like many small factories in the city: as the factory it expanded, it bought several unattached buildings on the same block. As batches of cherries were moved from one space to another, sometimes some of that candy apple-red sugary liquor was spilled and little puddles of cherry syrup were common.

honey3Red Hook Red, made from the blood of maraschino cherries.

A nearby beekeeper pulled out his honeycomb one day to discover hundreds of hexagonal pockets of deep red honey. He was horrified, and puzzled, until the mystery was solved: instead of seeking the nectar of flower blossoms, the bees had discovered a nearby and readily available source of sugar, the maraschino cherry factory.

I always thought Red Hook Red was urban legend.  But there it was, at the tasting, in all its rust-colored glory.  The flavor was not as bad as you would expect, but not like something you’d want to eat again.

“I’ve found pockets of blue, green, orange…” Shelly said about her honeycombs. “They just go to the trash can and sip Gatorade.” The hazards of urban beekeeping.

There were also three jars of honey that were truly special, because they could never be tasted again. They came from Red Hook, the Rockaways, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard: from three hives that were swept into the ocean by Hurricane Sandy.

honey4Honey produced at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, shortly before the hive was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

When I sipped these honeys, I thought about how these bees had been connected to my city. This relatively small loss had the power to suddenly make me feel connected to all the much greater losses my city had suffered. And when I think of these sweet little honeys now, I wonder what this hurricane season will bring to the five boroughs.

The Air is Sweet: An Inside Peek at Sweet ‘n Low


This article is one of a series I’m writing as a Visiting Artist at BLDG92 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

More than 70 years ago, on an unassuming street corner in Brooklyn, a cafeteria operated on the bottom floor of a red brick tenement.  Its location across from the Navy Yard made the diner a great success during the hustle and bustle of World War II, but business started waning as the Yard’s workers were laid off in post-war peace.  The owners, Ben and Betty Eisenstadt were losing money fast; until, as the story goes, Mrs. Eisenstadt got the idea of using a machine designed to fill bags of tea to fill packets of sugar.  No more messy, open bowls on the table; sugar could be sold in individual packets.


Betty was also a chronic dieter, and the combination of her brains and her waist begat Sweet ‘n Low, the first artificial sweetener marketed as a fat-reducing aid to the general public.  Much more about the fascinating history of Brooklyn’s own Sweet ‘n Low can be found in the book by the same name.  The company, now known as Cumberland Packing, still packs Sweet N’ Low into the bright pink packets on the same corner tenement in Brooklyn; but they’ve also expanded their operations into a massive warehouse on Navy Yard premises. When the Navy Yard was closed as a military base in the 1960s, the area was turned over to industrial development, and Cumberland packing is one of their oldest tenants. I was lucky enough to get a tour of the entire operation.

The very first thing I noticed when I entered the Sweet N’ Low packing facilities was that the AIR TASTED SWEET. You can eat the sweet taste right out of the air; you can lick it from your skin; and eventually, I imagine, you can rub it from your eyes and cough it up from your lungs. It is everywhere–and so is PINK, so much pink! Sweet pinkness everywhere you look.


The Sweet N’ Low packing plant was on an intimate scale, shorts hallways and narrow stairs winding between converted rooms in the old building; each space has less than a dozen machines each manned by an operator.  We saw a machine that had been working since the 1940s, a twisted mass of steam-punk pipes, levers, cranks and dials that was now used for custom jobs (the packets in the machine on that day were for a 50th wedding anniversary).


Across the way, inside the Navy Yard, Cumberland owns two more buildings were it processes its other products, including the Sugar in the Raw brand. The turbinado sugar is shipped in from all over the world: on the day I was there, enormous bags arrived from Maui and Columbia.  The sugars aren’t blended when they are packaged; every packet of Sugar in the Raw is “single origin sugar.” Each packet is a taste of Maui, or Columbia, or etc. 


I also saw immense machines that package their newest low calorie sweeteners, Stevia in the Raw and Monk Fruit in the Raw. Over 3,000 packets whizzed by, the enormous robots manned by a handful of individuals. I asked what the advantage the smaller, human powered machines had over the goliath automated packers–was it more economical for a smaller job?  The answer was no; these employees had been working for Cumberland for 30 or 40 years, and Cumberland refused to downsize their jobs.  They could replace most of their workforce with machines, but don’t out of a sense of responsibility to the community.

While anyone can appreciate Cumberland’s loyalty to its workers, it also made me feel a little funny.  I thought of the twisted mechanics of the 1940s packing machine I had seen, an antique in a factory where super robots process over 3,000 bags a minute. The people here were also antiques: held on to out of devotion and nostalgia rather than efficiency. What does it feel like to work a job where you know you’re not needed?

It made we wonder if there wasn’t a different solution: not to keep these out of date manufacturing jobs in place, but to use that same money to provide the people of the neighborhood with training and education that allows them access to jobs that better use their bodies, minds, and spirits.

But those are just my thoughts as an outside observer.  A huge part of Navy Yard’s goals for the future is to continue to provide employment for the people who live in the neighborhood now, in the face of a rapidly changing city.


Yelling for an Egg: Filipino Food in Brooklyn


The Manila Restaurant on 47 Sands St, Brooklyn, NY, 1938. This photo used to be available for licensing through NYC.gov, but I can no longer locate it. So here it is in all its watermarked glory.

This article is one of a series I’m writing as a Visiting Artist at BLDG92 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

I’ve always found that immigrated cuisines are best eaten at hole-in-the-wall type restaurants, for the most authentic experience.  But in my attempts to try authentic Filipino food, the hole-in-the-wall my husband and I found ourselves standing in front of was closed–permanently.  So a quick Google search for other restaurants in the area led us to not another Filipino restaurant, but a Filipino Gastropub.

It was fancier than I had wanted, but when my husband and I cozied up to the bar, I noticed that the menu included a dish that four people had insisted I try: balut.

“What is it?” I asked the bartender. After he explained it, I ashamedly admitted “I don’t have the strength.”

But that wasn’t true of the gentleman sitting next to me.  A Filipino immigrant, sitting with his wife and grown son, he ordered his balut and the staff let out a loud whoop! of celebration.

“All this yelling for an egg??” his wife asked in laughing disbelief.  Balut is a fertilized duck egg: you crack the egg to find a half-developed bird fetus, swimming in briny broth.

“It’s a special dish,” the bartender replied, smiling.  Then, to the husband: “Do you remember it from the Philippines?”

“Yes, I miss it!” he replied, in a way that nearly pained him, pressing his hand over his heart.  “I ate it all the time.  I sip the broth first, then eat the meat–such delicate bird meat!”

Food gives comfort when we long for home.  It’s all the good parts of where we come from and none of the reasons why we left.  This is as true today as it was in the 1930s, when a thriving Filipino population found their home just outside of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The Phillipines fell under American occupation shortly after the Spanish-American war.  The result was an increased American military population on the islands, but also an increase in Filipino immigration to the United States.  Many young Filipino men joined the Navy, for economic opportunity as well as adventure, particularly as the nation geared up for World War II. Many of these recruits ended up at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; by the 1940s, The Navy Yard had over 70,000 employees, and was a key military base and constructed such infamous ships as the USS Missouri.


Washington Street & Sands Street, 1930. Source.

With so many employees in the yard, the population of the Brooklyn neighborhoods surrounding the Yard exploded.  At the end of a workday, or over a weekend of leave, A Filipino sailor could stroll out the Sands St. exit; he’d bypass the American lunchrooms and bars and head for the intersection of Sands and Washington Streets, where he could find Brooklyn’s Filipino community and a taste of home.

In 1939, WPA writers produced a guide book to every nook and cranny of New York City’s five boroughs; one intrepid writer recorded the area around the Navy Yard and its Filipino community:

Around Sands and Washington Streets is a colony of Filipinos; native food, extremely rare in the eastern part of the United States, is served in a Filipino restaurant at 47 Sands Street. Among the favorite dishes are adabong gaboy (pork fried in soy sauce and garlic); sinigang isda and sinigang visaya (fish soups); mixta (beans and rice), and such tropical fruits as mangoes and pomelos, the latter a kind of orange as large as a grapefruit.

A photo from 1938 lets us peak inside and glimpse a night filled with familiar food, music and friends. The Manila restaurant was probablly the first Filipino eatery in the city, having been established since at least 1927. It looks like a good place, the customers are relaxed, and you can just barely make out a menu hanging on the back wall.  An ad for the restaurant, uncovered by Purple Yam and Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, Assistant Professor of the History Dept at the San Francisco State University, says the restaurant serves “Philippine, American, Chinese, and Spanish dishes.”  A sign of creeping Americanization, or of the diversity of Filipino culture?

No mention of balut, though. I bet those in the know could ask for it.

Today, immigrants from the Philippines account for 4% of the foreign-born population in the United States; only Mexico, China, and India send more of their sons and daughters to make a new life in this country.  There are easily a dozen Filipino restaurant in the city now, and probably many more, tucked away in the right neighborhoods, offering a little bit of comfort to those far from home.

WNYC: Blazing Maize – Mrs. Gannon’s Tamale Pie, 1947


One more little gem from around the web: I wrote this post for WNYC (New York Public Radio) about Frances Foley Gannon, a LaGuardia era public figure who held sway over the city’s public markets and the five-borough’s dinner tables.

“Good morning, Housewives!”

Every morning at 8:25 AM, long after mothers had ushered their children off to school and begun the laborious task of housework, “Mrs. Gannon” chirped her greeting over the radio. Cheerful but firm, the Deputy Commissioner of Markets gave menu-planning advice to “the biggest collection of hungry people ever gathered in one small spot —New York City.”

You can read the full article, as well as get her recipe for Tamale pie, here.

pie3Tamale pie: a crowd pleaser.

Hudson Made: Salt of the Earth

salt3Home-made salt, crystallized in a baking pan.

Have you ever wondered where salt comes from?  There it is, cheap as dirt, on our grocery store shelf–but how is it produced?  And where? Was it as easy to nab in Colonial America?  I’ve been pondering over these questions recently, so I decided to find out; as well as make my own salt from a local New York waters near Coney Island.

And then—I kid you not—I had salt. Big, beautiful crystals along the bottom and sides of the pan. Although I knew it was science, it seemed like magic. A half-liter of liquid yielded approximately two tablespoons of salt. Will I be using it to top my salted caramel sundae or to encrust my grass-fed steak? Absolutely not—do you have any idea what they dump in the waters around New York City?

Read the full article here, on Hudson Made, a new online retailer focused on products produced in the Hudson River Valley.

Events: From Pushcarts to Pizza Knishes

image courtesy joseph a

Saturday, April 13, 10am-11:30am$28 – includes 4 tastings (2 vegetarian, 2 meat)- buy tickets here!

Hearty knishes, delicate fishes, and piles of meat: these are the feature foods of some of the city’s oldest businesses that dot Houston street. We’ll spend 90 minutes exploring the neighborhood once known as Little Romania, a sub-culture of the Jewish Lower East Side, and learn the history of regional Jewish cuisine. We’ll taste our way through classic LES dishes, as well as some of the innovative new products that have kept these traditional food purveyors alive.This tour meets at 10 am in front of Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes, 137 E. Houston Street. From there, we’ll proceed to Russ & Daughters and Katz’s Delicatessen. Each stop features a tasting which is included in the price of the tour. Please dress appropriately for the weather! 

Etsy Kitchen Histories: The Bimuelo Pan

familyAt the Lower East Side Tenement Museum with a photo of the historic character I portray (far right). Photo by Will Heath.

Happy Passover, everyone!  Tonight, millions of Jews are sitting down to a sumptuous meal of religious significance–and then a week of yeast-free food.

Even if you’re not Jewish, you’ll enjoy my most recent Etsy article about Bimuelos, a Pesach-friendly dessert made by Sephardic Jews, who are descended from Jews of Spain.  You’ll also get a behind the scenes look at my life as an educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum playing a Sephardic Jewish character. Read all about it here.

And if you are Jewish, you’re probably going to be sick of matzo by Thursday or Friday.  So allow me to recommend Manishevitts’ 1944 cookbook,
Ba’ṭam’ṭe Yidishe maykholim (Tempting Kosher Dishes).  Don’t worry, it’s in Yiddish AND English.  Need to liven up your matzo meal regime this week?  Try Pumpkin PancakesMatzo Meal Polenta, or Boston Pie.

Taste History Today: Ray’s Candy Store Egg Creams

eggcreamsLemon-lime, mango, coffee, and strawberry egg creams.

I went on an egg cream tasting rampage with some friends from the Brooklyn Farmacy. Egg Creams are  a classic New York drink, invented somewhere on the Lower East Side  (although it’s debatable where).  The drink is made from seltzer, milk, and Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate, Vanilla or Strawberry Syrup (made in Brooklyn).  It’s best crafted at a soda fountain because the pressurized seltzer gives the drink a creamy, foamy head.  It’s sweet and refreshing and great when it’s hot (or chilly and rainy, like the day we had them).

Purists say there’s only one way to make an egg cream, but I’ve got a problem with purists.  I believe recipes are meant to change and evolve; so while an egg cream made with Fox’s Syrup is traditional, Ray’s Candy Store in the East Village changed up the old recipe by offering mango, tamarind,  lemon-lime, coffee, and strawberry egg creams, to name a few.  I liked the strawberry the best, because it reminded me of Frankenberry cereal.  I’m classy.

I’ve also made egg creams with the addition of rum or vodka, which was great.  And if you keep a careful eye on the Farmacy’s menu, you may one day see nouveau flavored egg creams pop up there, too.

UPDATE: I’ve heard many stories about where the egg cream came from, and how it got its name–what have you heard? What are you memories?  Please share in the comment below.

Events: A Culinary History of New Amsterdam


Before New York Was New York: A Culinary History of New Amsterdam 
Tuesday, February 19th, 7:30 PM
@ The Farm on Adderley, 1108 Cortelyou Rd, Brooklyn
$60 (+ beverages, tax & gratuity)
To sign-up, send an e-mail to [email protected].

The Farm on Adderley is thrilled to welcome ‘historic gastronomist’ Sarah Lohman to host a meal inspired by what people were eating in New York in the 1600s and the lasting influence of Dutch tastes. The meal will be inspired by a cookbook compiled by the Lefferts family, who had a stronghold on land in the Flatbush (“Vlacke Bos”) area of Brooklyn.


House Made Breads/Butter/Cheese
rye + beer + walnut preserves

Smoked Eel
roasted apples, baby turnips
Kale & Bread Soup “Sop”
yellow eye beans, hominy

Salted Beef
pumpkin, parsnips
Corn “Panne­koeken”
“Koolsla” – cabbage, butter, vinegar
Crullers – cinnamon, apple, raisin
Caraway “koeckjes” w/ quince preserves

To sign-up, send an e-mail to [email protected].

Distilling in Brooklyn, 1850 vs. 2012

This post represents a collaboration between myself and my Very Good Friends, the Brooklyn Brainery.  They took my research about distilling in Brooklyn in the middle of the 19th century, and compared it to the growing population of distilleries in the area today.  Take a look at their post below, and be sure to check out all their fascinating and fact-filled posts on their blog here.


A couple weeks back, Sarah Lohman, author of Four Pounds Flour and Very Good Friend of the Brainery tweeted the awesome little map below, Distilleries in Brooklyn in 1851. Sarah’s map focuses on Central Brooklyn, and I love how you can see how concentrated they were in this relatively small area.

Open Distilleries in Brooklyn 1851 in a new window (FPF Note: Click through to the full screen map for more information on each of the distilleries.)

I wanted to see how the past compared to the recent explosion in distilleries as a result of New York State introducing affordable distiller’s licenses for small producers. I spent a little time digging around on the State Liquor Authority’s website and put together the map below; it includes anyone in Brooklyn with an active distillery license. You can click on each point to get a little info about the distillery itself.

Open Distilling in Brooklyn – 2012 in a new window

There’s a book or two to be written about all this, so I’ll just mention a couple things that seemed interesting.

You’ll see there aren’t any distilleries in DUMBO these days, whereas there used to be a ton. Of course, in DUMBO today, many of the warehouses large enough to accomodate industrial activities have been rezoned as residential buildings, and the neighborhood has transitioned far away from its industrial roots, leaving today’s distilliers to locate in cheaper, still-industrial areas like Sunset Park and Red Hook.

There’s also a huge difference in the scale of alcohol produced between now and then. Blair, Bates & Co., a distillery located at the corner of Flatbush and Pacific in the 1851 map, produced 751,000 gallons of whiskey each year, while the boutique licenses most contemporary Brooklyn distilleries have today allow them to produce only 35,000 gallons each year. It’s still a lot of booze, but just 5% of what a large urban distilliery in 1851 was cranking out.

A couple more notes. You’ll notice, on the 2012 map, a license issued to a business right on the corner of 1st Avenue and 41st Street. Turns out it’s the home of Kings Wines, which produces all sorts of Chinese rice wines and spirits, and their site says they’re the only Chinese-owned distillery in the country.

There’s also a license issued to Brooklyn Spirits, the folks that produce Brooklyn Republic Vodka. While they have a distillery license to operate a rectifying plant, it appears they only blend and purify the final product in Brooklyn and don’t do any of the actual distilling here.

Finally, if you like messing around with maps and liquor licenses, you will have a ball with the New York State Liquor Authority’s mapping project. And for a peek into what distilleries were like in the 19th century (hint: fiery + explosive), check out this post from the Brooklyn Public Library.