Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: 97 ORCHARD By Jane Ziegelman [Vol. 3, #43]

“A Rich Heritage of Food”

A review of
97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families
in One New York Tenement

By Jane Ziegelman
.

Reviewed by Douglas Connelly.

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families
in One New York Tenement

Jane Ziegelman
.
Hardback: Smithsonian, 2010.

Buy now: [ Amazon ]

97 ORCHARD - Jane ZiegelmanThis edible history tells the story of immigration to America through the foods the immigrants brought with them.  Jane Ziegelman, director of the Tenement Museum’s culinary center in New York, focuses on the families who inhabited one tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  We learn about the different groups who inhabited the area, where they bought and sold the foods they loved, and how their food changed the eating habits of all Americans.

These early immigrants did not leave much of a personal record behind so the author has to rely on knowledge scholars have gleaned from the larger ethnic groups.  She then applies that understanding to the individual families – along with a healthy dose of supposition and imagination.  The few facts known about each family and the broader knowledge of their ethnic foods become the springboard for the contribution each group made to the American passion for food.

The account begins in the 1860s with the Glockner family, recently arrived from Germany.  The Germans introduced dark breads, frankfurters, delicatessens, and, of course, beer.  Spicy German potato salad and even hamburger patties emerged from the German enclave on the lower East Side.  The apartments in the tenement buildings were small and incredibly cramped but the new arrivals found comfort in the food they grew up on in their mother’s German kitchen.

As the Germans grew in wealth and status, they moved out of the tenement area to modest homes further uptown and the refugees from the Irish potato famine were ready to move in.  The Moores, an Irish family, brought little cooking tradition with them.  The potato had already replaced the widely varied menu of the Irish in their homeland.  What the Irish brought was a willingness to do the jobs no one else wanted and to work hard.  They soon moved out and up – and new immigrant families were waiting to take their place in the low-rent tenements.

Two Jewish families came to the Orchard Street building next – the Gumpertzes from Prussia occupied an apartment in 1873 and the Rogarshevsky family from Lithuania landed at Ellis Island in 1901.  The Jews brought traditional foods – lox and gefilte fish (a stuffed fish, not the gelatinous fish cakes seen in stores today).  Because Jews found it difficult to eat kosher in a regular restaurant or diner, they opened their own cafes and taverns.  For the Jews eating took on a sacramental quality.

Even for the poorest Jew, Sabbath dinner was a meal set aside for
enjoying, quite literally, the sacred fruits of creation.

Skimping was out of the question.
At the Sabbath table, Jews recast the earthly
pleasure of eating as a show of gratitude to the heavenly creator.
Pleasure, in fact, was mandatory.  After all, God’s first commandment
to Adam and Eve was to savor the bounty of Eden. [119]

Because of its proximity to Ellis Island, lower Manhattan became the perfect melting pot.  The food of the old world met the ingredients and bounty of the new world and produced many of the foods we think of simply as part of the American cuisine.

The final family in the book is the Italian Baldizzi family that arrived in the 1920s.  By that time, the neighborhood around 97 Orchard was beginning to crumble.  The Italians were regarded with suspicion and even disgust by the now well-established former immigrants, but it wasn’t long until Americans were enjoying minestrone, meatballs, and, oddly enough, spaghetti.  Most Americans couldn’t imagine a more frustrating dining experience than trying to corral long, slippery strands of pasta.

This was a fascinating book to read on several levels.  The story of how immigrants arrived and were assimilated into American culture is one strand of the story.  How those immigrants raised or bought or imported the foods they loved is another strand.  Those of us who can walk into mega-sized grocery stores can’t really fathom how difficult it was just to find and buy the ingredients needed for the simplest meal in the late 1800s.  The recipes in the book are another interesting strand in the story.  Some of the recipes you probably won’t want to try – especially the ones involving goose grease or fish you have to chop by hand and then reinsert into the fish skin – but some of the recipes sound like even I could follow them.

In 97 Orchard, Jane Ziegelman gives us a new appreciation for the Italian restaurant or the Jewish deli in our communities – and a deeper grasp of how our nation came to have such a rich heritage of food.

—————

Douglas Connelly is a pastor, writer and (occasionally) a chef.

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


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