An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families
in One New York Tenement
by Jane Ziegelman
HarperCollins, June 2010
Hardcover 272 pp., ISBN: 978-0061288500
My grandmother worked in a millinery in New York City. Her father, a butcher, made her lunches, sandwiches overflowing with Italian meats and cheeses on crusty bread. The other women had small sandwiches. Grandma complained of embarrassment, so her father halved the sandwich. Still too big. One-fourth made Grandma an American.
When my grandmother came to the United States, Italian food wasn't popular. According to Jane Ziegelman, director of the culinary program at New York City's Tenement Museum in New York and author of 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, the prevailing thought in America was that early Italian immigrants had low character and weren't as physically adept because they subsisted on "stale bread, macaroni with oil, and . . . a handful of common garden weeds." Now, the Italian hero is on the menu of every sandwich shop.
I love stories about the colorful New York neighborhoods and traditions inspired by 19th- and 20th-century immigration, especially because my family was part of it. Spanning from 1863 to 1935, 97 Orchard follows five real families who lived at the address that is the present-day Tenement Museum. Although each chapter is titled with the last name of a family and gives a short bio, the focus is on the food history and traditions that each family would have encountered while living at 97 Orchard. The reader has to infer the kinds of meals each family made from what was popular at the time, which works as a creative way to tell the culinary story of immigrants.
The first family is the Glockners, who built 97 Orchard in 1863 in the largely German neighborhood. During this period, a krauthobler used a tool to shave a head of cabbage for a penny. Mrs. Glockner most likely had the krauthobler shave cabbage to make sauerkraut for dinner, a German food staple. Yes, the Irish Moore family ate potatoes, most likely "kitchened" with "any fatty or highly seasoned morsel . . . to give the meal savor," including an ingredient like pepper or bacon.
Ziegelman describes the Jewish relationship with food as food-joy, a "highly developed zest for eating." For centuries, German Jews made gefilte fish, a steamed carp dinner, a meal that’s probably what the German-Jewish Gumpertz family ate in the 1870s. Later, Jewish immigrants from Poland, Russia and Lithuania, rolled a chopped fish mixture into balls and served it cold with horseradish. Jews in America struggled with dietary restrictions, some incorporating foods from their new homeland, like oysters, into their diet. Others remained traditional, not using lard or butter but, instead, goose fat for cooking. Goose farms were big business in the Lower East Side—involving organized crime and inviting visits from the sanitation department. This fat, called schmaltz, later came from chickens once chicken breeding modernized.
In the 1880s, Russian Jews began moving to the Lower East Side. The Lithuanian Rogarshevsky family probably snacked on pickles from barrels and knishes at knish parlors. A friend of mine, now in her 80s, told me fondly that when she was a child, her uncle would take her to the movies and for knishes at Yonah Schimmel's, opened in 1910 and the only knishery still in business.
Perhaps my grandmother's embarrassment by her culture's food came from propaganda aimed at immigrants. The New York Board of Health issued a recipe book and "taught" immigrant women how to cook. As the Americans thought the Italians ate only bread and macaroni, the Jews were criticized by dietician Bertha Wood who thought that pickled foods destroyed the sense of taste and actually made assimilating to American culture more difficult. Thank goodness these women didn't listen too hard to the false claims about nutrition and the pressure to assimilate. Who doesn't eat a pickle with a huge hoagie?
Ziegelman does an excellent job of educating her readers about the prevailing views on immigrants, nutrition and cooking, showing that the inhabitants of 97 Orchard left an everlasting legacy on the food history of the Lower East Side, the city of New York and the United States.
October 24, 2010