Food Fit for Kings County: The Culinary History of Brooklyn

Central Library, Brooklyn Collection

Exploring foodways in Brooklyn, historic and contemporary, offers up a unique cross-section of considerations around why we eat what we eat, where it comes from, and what that means. What Brooklyn consumes is defined by its plurality and variety. The borough’s access to waterfront shipping ports and proximity to upstate farmlands adds an additional layer to the near-endless number of restaurants, bodegas, grocery stores, delivery options, food trucks, farm stands, and home-cooked meals we enjoy today. Looking back over Brooklyn's peak industrial period in the 19th and 20th centuries, we can also see how businesses such as sugar refineries, breweries, and poultry farms shaped the social and cultural landscape--and indeed, the landscape itself--of Kings County.

So much intersects with food. Beyond nourishment, it offers us insights into history, politics, the environment, production and industry, labor practices, agriculture, community. The list goes on. Likewise, this exhibition aims to open a window onto the food industry–from production to consumption–and sheds light on business practices around food across the late 19th and 20th centuries. Letterhead from the India Wharf Brewing Company on Hamilton Avenue in Red Hook tells us something about the bottling and distribution of ales in 1896, and menus from iconic restaurants and celebratory meals reveal what people were eating, drinking, and how they spent their leisure time.

This exhibit examines Brooklyn’s social and cultural history through the aperture of food and drink, using ephemera, menus, images, books, and historic objects. Highlights include a look at a moment in Brooklyn Civil Rights history through images of picket lines at Ebinger’s Bakery, items and images from Brooklyn’s famous breweries, and more. It explores the ways immigrants have defined food in Brooklyn, from Nathan’s Hot Dogs and the Defrancisci & Son Macaroni Machines Company, to a menu that advertises “Sheesh Kabab” alongside spaghetti and meatballs. The materials in this exhibit represent a range of periods, cultures, cuisines, and item types. Together, they form a narrative that illustrates the breadth and diversity of Brooklyn’s food history and cultural bounty.

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