Welcome back to the second week of December’s Reader’s Den. For many Americans, New Yorkers included, the first images of the Lower East Side are that of the Late Nineteenth to Early Twentieth Century. Many of these images of poverty, clotheslines, and pushcarts come from movies, television, literature, or family histories. In her book 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman, the author creates for the reader a story where one can almost imagine themselves in that time period with the bustle of crowded streets, the smells of the pushcarts and shops, and what was happening in the buildings. She does this by focusing on the cuisine of five cultures that inhabited the titular building.
The first family we meet is the Glockners, German Christians, who moved in when the building was first built. Through them we learn about the area in the 1860s, German immigration, and some of the cuisine they brought with them such as the delicatessen, pastry, heavy dark breads, frankfurters and beer.
The next family we meet is the Moores, refugees from the great potato famine in Ireland. We learn of the potatoes importance to Ireland, and that the first waves of Irish immigration were comprised mostly of teenagers and single people. We also learn about how the Irish were viewed in society during this time. One interesting note: the word "kitchen" was a verb, meaning to season food, especially potatoes that might be kitchened with buttermilk, salt and pepper.
The first of two Jewish families we meet is the Gumpertz from Germany in 1873. From this first wave of Jewish immigrants we learn of the history of Jews in Europe and Germany, and their traditional foods, including lox and gefilte fish (then a stuffed fish rather than the fish cakes we know today). They also practiced urban geese farming, and showed a willingness to turn away from ancient law to eat contemporary foods. The second Jewish family we meet is the Rogarshevsky family of Eastern Europe in 1901. Discussed is Ellis Island and the living conditions of immigrants detained there, pushcart culture, and the pastrami and dairy restaurants they frequent. Through the eyes of the Rogarshevsky’s, we see the settlement houses, Americanization of immigrants, educational alliances, and the negative impact of pickles on children.
In the 1920s come the Baldazzis of Italy, and a history of Italian immigration and how they were viewed during that time period. The reader also learns of the importance of food in Italian immigrant culture and how Italian cuisine became part of the larger American Culture. Imagine a time when Italian food was considered exotic and alien? Thus is the world presented in 97 Orchard.
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