New York is a city that has been overmapped and over-recorded; few corners remain that have not been passed over by some historian’s gaze. Within the collectively known city, however, a personal city slumbers: the individual worlds we construct that fit into the broader sense of a place: the individual cartographies we draw that trace our physical and social movements through the urban space. So even though New York City has been digitally archived and preserved, it remains possible to walk outside the margins of the mapped world.
Canal Street dips low into the underbelly of Chinatown. Past the Manhattan Bridge and its triumphal arch, Canal leaves behind the touristed Chinatown alleys. By the corner of Eldridge Street, exposed brick shines through chipping paint; a luncheonette sign swings on its hinges, lazy in the late afternoon sun. For it is still afternoon at 6’oclock on Friday, when working men start heading for dinner. At 27 Eldridge, Sheng Wang swallows up a few lonely workers; they stop in for Fujian noodles, either hand-pulled or peeled off a block of dough. Cysts form in Chinatown around which the rest of the city blithely expands. Sheng Wang occupies one such pocket, suspended in a field of dense fluid: it bathes in its own special soup, a broth that tastes more like animal than any one particular animal species. It is a battered, happy place that has been left behind.
The thwacking call of noodles slapping counter tops punctuate a slurping silence. Rolling dumplings between her hands, a woman sits at a table next to the cash register. Each movement is precisely measured. She kneads the yellow dough, tears a piece off the mass, flattens it with her fingers, scoops an oily meat pulp into the center, folds the package, and effortlessly conjures a perfect sphere. There are hundreds of balls lined up in rows on trays; she has been rolling dumplings for some time.
One order of hand pulled noodles with house special soup comes in a metal bowl. A bone rises from the steaming liquid, bits of flesh and cartilage still resolutely clinging to the surface. Along with a tangle of noodles—still chewy, of course—stomach and intestine sop up the soup. Plastic spoons are the cutlery of choice. This is not Hung Ry, where publicists nibble artisanal products served with style. In Sheng Wang, there is no style, only atmosphere—a literal humidity that coats the plastic tables and promotes vigorous spiritual inventory. It is humbling to eat this soup. To make hand pulled noodles, one piece of dough expands into many strands, stretched thinner and thinner with each looping swing. And here, one sip overlaps with many other lives—the countless grocers and porters and cooks who have passed through Sheng Wang on their way to fulfillment have tasted this broth, too. Among the many, I have become another—a member of an unknown community.
Sheng Wang now straddles the margins of my personal map. This summer, I intend to expand the edges of my cartographies, to make known what was before, to me, invisible. If novels, as Raymond Williams claims, are essentially knowable communities, then the diachronous records of our lives are knowable communities as well. I will enter, invade, infiltrate, and explore New York’s unknowable food communities—and in doing so, I will become, if only marginally, a part of them.