The (Food) Melting Pot

Article excerpt

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

By Jane Ziegelman Smithsonian/Harper Collins 2010, $25.99, pp. 272

Reading about immigrant families who lived and sometimes even prospered in unthinkable surroundings arouses in me a strange longing, for I, too, was the daughter of immigrants. I lived in a tenement on the edge of the Lower East Side until I was six years old. The streets were alive with music: Vendors sang out their wares (fruits, vegetables, fish) from clattering horse-drawn wagons. Knife grinders and junk men added to the cacophony. Street musicians sang a capella; violinists played for pennies wrapped in paper and tossed from windows. Church bells rang often on Sundays, gently breaking the Christian Sabbath quiet with carillons.

Desperate to assimilate, I nagged my mother to shop at the A&P which, even as a child, I understood was the mark of a true American. But she refused, sticking to her old country ways and dragging me from grocer, to baker, to the fruit or fish or butcher shops. Occasionally, she bought fruit and vegetables from wagon peddlers.

Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, 97 Orchard brings this world vividly to life as it describes how America transformed the waves of late 19th-century immigrants and how they changed America. Based upon absorbing descriptions of the daily lives of the five families who successively lived at that address, Ziegelman weaves a rich, frequently astonishing social tapestry of the period--ranging from discussions of real estate and theater to include dozens of popular recipes: veal stew, dumplings, zucchini frittata and cranberry strudel, to name a few.

The story begins with the German Glockners, who built and owned the building and were its first tenants. It then chronicles the Irish Moores, the German-Jewish Gumpertz family, the Russian-Jewish Rogashevkys and finally, the Sicilian Baldizzis.

At 97 Orchard, tiny 300 square-foot apartments held a kitchen, parlor and windowless room for sleeping. The tenement lacked running water and interior bathrooms, and several of the families not only worked in their apartments but somehow managed at night to shoehorn six or seven children into the tiny room that by day served as workplace, sitting and dining room.

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Every immigrant family had a unique history, but most were poor, subsisting on potatoes or flour made into noodles or bread. The Irish arrived with a limited culinary7 tradition; theirs had been decimated by the British landlord system. They "kitchened" potatoes by adding a bit of fat or spice. At home, the Irish had used seaweed as a condiment; here the poorest might add minuscule bits of salt fish or bacon. Germans brought a rich culinary tradition: stews, dumplings, spices, sausages, sauerkraut and, of course, their beer and baked goods. German Jews, who took many of their food habits from Germans, made their own versions of these dishes. They savored black bread and used peas and beans favored in northern Germany as a basis for filling soups. Even challah had been adopted from the special Sunday loaf of German gentiles and gefilte fish derived from a medieval recipe created by a court chef to serve his master. …