I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Published January 23rd 2011
Those captivated by New York City's immigrant experience will be interested in the vast and detailed history that can be gleaned by tracing its culinary roots. A wonderful book on that subject, and one that is peppered throughout with authentic Old World recipes, is 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families by Jane Ziegelman. The 2010 book is also the foundation for a discussion about food and family at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
Learn about the intimate history and hardships shared by the German, Irish, Jewish, Italian, and Lithuanian families who lived at 97 Orchard Street from 1863 to 1935, largely a time when tenements lacked indoor plumbing. Women hauled heavy buckets of water up many flights of stairs for cooking, bathing, and washing clothes. Fire escapes and windowsills were used for cold storage, and coal- and wood-burning stoves heated tenements.
To preserve their heritage, immigrant families held fast to their ethnic backgrounds, most notably through their favorite foods. The Irish, often the poorest, made bread pudding with stale loafs; the Jews were chastised for their love of pickled foods, especially Jewish children, who made for the sour dills as if they were candy. German immigrants were responsible for providing Americans with what we today refer to as coffee cake; an entire array of sweet breads were made by German hands beginning in the 1850s. The Italians—known as the salad eaters—combed vacant city lots for dandelion greens. Most of all, nothing was wasted.
The February 1 discussion, which will also include a tour of the museum at 97 Orchard Street, will feature samples of food and beer provided by Edible Manhattan and Brooklyn Brewery, beer being a German staple that was quickly embraced by all Americans. German beer gardens, which proliferated the area now known as the East Village, were lively establishments that served people of all ages (including children). The beer gardens dished out simple yet hearty food—some of which will be served with beer during the talk—such as brown breads, Swiss cheese, cold ham, and salted pretzels. Join Ziegelman and her cohorts for a one-of-kind evening that will have you thinking about the past in a whole new way.