Book Review: The Urban Cookbook

by

King Adz, The Urban Cookbook: Creative Recipes for the Graffiti Generation (Thames & Hudson, 2008). ISBN 978-0-500-51430-6

Given an earlier post on foodways and street culture, and an interest in reviewing cookbooks, the subject of this post should come as little surprise. At the onset of this blog, I mentioned how coverage of street culture – especially how it was handled through the lens of streetwear – often avoided certain components of culture. King Adz’s The Urban Cookbook challenges this thought, if only in the fact that it exists as published volume.

The concept is simple enough. Adz visits five major cities (New York, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, and London), interviews local “street culture” legends (25 of them), runs down the scene, and designates a recipes indicative of the place (50 of these). In the abstract, the idea is a strong one. In reality, the subjectivity of choice hampers the potential.

Let’s begin by outlining one of the chapters, for the sake of ease chapter 1 “New York.”  The chapter begins with an outline of hip-hop history and falls into a brief description of two neighborhoods – the Lower East Side and Coney Island. These are “real” places, agreed, but snippets of New York. Arthur Avenue, in the Bronx, for example retains a “real” sense of identity unhindered by gentrification. Yet, it is left out in favor of more street trendy tourist destinations. The choice of interviewees does generate a good cross section of those that contribute to New York’s urban culture. There’s Boogie, the Serbian-born photographer, Rodney Smith of Shut skateboards, and Marc and Sarah of Wooster Collective. Add a toy designer (Tristan Eaton) and graphic designer (Jon Setzen) and a set of strong voices emerge. Adz also contributes a quick guide to shops and cafes, which includes many of the usual suspects (aNYthing, Frank’s Chop Shop, Shake Shack, etc).

The scene is well set, and the interest in a specific vision of the city built. On to the food, and things get slightly muddled. A steak recipe (included because Yanks love steak) comes from a South African uncle. Two pasta based recipes are more gangster oriented than indicative of creative food finds. Chili con Carne, while American, doesn’t scream New York. If chapter 1 is a snap shot of the book (it is), then you’ll understand where subjectivity comes into play. There’s both a severe limitation to the travel guide element of the book and a laissez faire attitude to finding truly unique born and bred in NY recipes.

On food, Adz composes a rather strict definition of street food.

“Street food is anything that is cooked on BBQs, grills or braais, in cafes, diners, snack bars, chippies, takeaway, boots, cabins and food vans, and it has to be good, ethnically diverse and fresh, not ‘fast’ or ‘junk.’”

In short, not haute cuisine. And, the definition works. It speaks to vernacular cooking, styles and flavors built from the intermingling of culture allowed to blossom in the urban environment. Adz himself knows food. He trained, for a short period, as a chef, and this promotes some credibility. However, as noted above, his passion for food does not seem to extend to diving too deeply into a given places food history. As a foodways story, The Urban Cook Book fails.

As an indicator of the variety and depth of urban culture though it succeeds. The book really is comprised of three parts – the introduction to each city, the interviews, and the recipes. Reading the interviews (the strongest portion) one does get a more nuanced view of urban culture. The introductions expose a simplistic (or, more fairly, narrow) view of each city. And finally, the recipes express an interest in street food without an interest in true adventure within food.

The strength of Adz book, and what makes it worthwhile, is that he does succeed in bringing food into the “street culture” conversation. Unfortunately, for those of us with a strong interest in the subject, developing a true understanding of the workings of multi-ethnic urban space through the food is stifled.

Adz presents a view. It’s firm. And, it’s concise. The effort deserves some applauding. But, it also generates questions as to why certain things have been omitted and why a man so obviously talented and intrigued would happily perpetuate limited notions of urban life which are primarily driven by hip-hop eyes and cool guy aspirations.


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