How cuisine and culture collaborated to cook up an American identity.
What constitutes an American meal? In the age of “Fast Food Nation” and “Supersize Me,” it’s difficult to remember that the US has a culinary tradition that preceded McDonald’s. Tracing the development of food culture may seem almost passé, given the popularity of such exposés, along with “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan’s treatise on the history of American dietary habits. But for readers looking for relief from this bleak picture of our eating habits’ impact on land, labor, and bodies, 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement will come as a welcome change of pace.Skip to next paragraph
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Jane Ziegelman’s approach – in keeping with New York’s Tenement Museum, whose culinary center she will direct – looks to food as a measure of ethnic groups’ assimilation to, or alienation from, the greater American melting pot (or, more appropriately, “salad bowl”). Food here works as a way to maintain tradition, adapt to a new country, offer comfort, and build community.
In this case, Ziegelman focuses on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, populated by immigrants who dwelled in the tenements, five- or six-story buildings, which photojournalist Jacob Riis would make infamous in the 1890s in “How the Other Half Lives.”
Ziegelman’s book covers about a century, from 1850 through the Depression. We begin with the man who built “97,” Lucas Glockner – a tailor, Union soldier, landlord, and finally, a “gentleman,” whose family inhabited “97” for 30 years – and then moves on to four other families who were tenants in the building. But the families are not the focus here so much as the point of departure for a discussion of cuisines – German, Irish, German-Jewish, Russian-Jewish, and Italian – and how each influenced, and in turn was influenced by, the greater American culture. (I’ll confess here that my own German-Jewish, Irish, and Russian-Jewish roots fueled my interest in these sections.)
For these families, the kitchen was more than a kitchen: It “was also ... a ... workspace ... sweatshop ... laundry room ... place to wash one’s body ... nursery for the babies, and ... bedroom for boarders,” where, Ziegelman notes, “immigrant cooks brought their formidable ingenuity to the daily challenge of feeding their families.”