In the early settlement of New York, during the colonial era, the working class was comprised of small landowners and people who worked for the households of upper class, large landowners along the Hudson. These people were subject to the seemingly feudal system of upper class landowners who competed over land in the region. Indeed, their way of life was entirely dependent on the upper class either through direct employment or because of the dependence on land holdings, which they depended upon for sustenance. In addition to dominating the economic sphere with their large plantations, the upper class was primarily in charge of political decisions during this period, and had an oligarchical-like influence. This meant that workers depended on their agricultural earnings and often ate more vegetables and local foods than landowners, who could afford meats and imports.

A Shifting Food Landscape

By the late eighteenth century, there was a rising merchant class and a lot of trade occurring in the region. The merchant class was not as powerful as older money landowners, but there was now greater opportunity for social mobility. This meant that working class people were more able to seize economic opportunities and employ themselves as tradesmen and take jobs where they might be more socially autonomous from aristocratic clans. Thus, they were able to be more economically powerful than they had been previously. Additionally, their greater autonomy spawned a more individualistic, modern culture. This was because the working class was able to exert more political and social influence as they questioned the city’s class hierarchy. These factors also changed their eating habits.

The Emergence of the Modern Diet

The rise of industry in the nineteenth century led to increased awareness about class consciousness. The working class began to organize into unions, and eventually created populist political machines, such as Tammany Hall (these machines were often criminally subverted).

Big industrialists often owned ornate spaces and created public projects where they showed off their wealth. Unions gathered in less formal settings, although they eventually began to construct functional places for the betterment of the working class. An example of of of these functional places was Cooper Union, where the working class could educate themselves. 

While the working class only renting their homes, the upper class owned the majority of New York city real estate. Working class people often relied on staple foods, while the upper class could wine and dine as they pleased. During the Civil War, there was greater class disorder and public corruption, which meant that many upper class-driven public projects failed as progressives took became reformers and tried to fix the ills of society. Though the upper class had been very politically organized during the time of the Civil War to unify against the south, during the Reconstruction era they had became increasingly divided in its aftermath. The working class, on the other hand, had more of a political voice, and a more substantial economic role as well. They began to eat more packaged, convenient food. This food was often unhealthy, and was produced by many conglomerates that took over the food industry. Meanwhile, starlets and people in the upper class began alternating between fad diets and fancy restaurants. A slew of diets have pervaded pop culture in the last hundred years. Examples of these diets included the Atkins diet, Paleo diet (which was based on “ancient” eating habits of greens, eggs, fruits, meat and no processed food) and the Mediterranean diet (consisting of lean meats, produce, whole grains and olive oil).

The Contemporary Diet

Today, New Yorkers are often devoted to fitness. Runners and cyclists zip through Central Park, and many people embrace a mix of different dieting traditions. Lately, keto and low carb diets have been popular. Health gurus suggest starting easy, but staying consistent. For people assuming keto and low-carb diets, it is suggested that they incorporate carbs now and again, perhaps after a workout or on special occasions.


Photo: Paradise Valley Folklife Project collection, 1978-1982 (AFC 1991/021), American Folklife Center, Library of Congress