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.
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.”
Their creativity took other forms, too. German-Jews, accustomed to assimilation, found oysters irresistible, and thus they were claimed by one rabbi to be “technically kosher, their shells equivalent to the scales of fish, protecting [them] from ‘poisonous gases in the water,’” while another argued they were actually an “underwater plant.” The first wave of German gentiles who arrived in the mid-19th-century “saw eating as a public activity,” influencing the evolution of restaurants across the city, such as Pfaff’s, the bohemian haunt Walt Whitman lauds in his poetry. Italians opened small groceries to supply the ingredients they lacked, another form of entrepreneurialism that changed the urban landscape.
On the darker side, we learn what a rich and varied diet the Irish had before Cromwell’s 17th-century imposition of the monocultural system – the practice of growing the same crop each year – which led to the potato-famine and the “skeletal ... culinary tradition” the Irish brought to the states. The Italians, by contrast, clung to their gastronomic traditions, in the face of widespread xenophobia that led Americans to view spaghetti and salads with suspicion.
Ziegelman’s exploration of the practicalities of food lead to wider political and cultural currents such as the “servant question” and “slumming,” as well as the formation of laws on pushcarts, poultry, and pigs. All these speak to native-born attitudes towards immigrants – ambivalent at best and racist at worst – that bear revisiting in our own times (Arizona, anyone?). Pushcarts, considered unsanitary, were actually found by a government investigation to have some of the freshest food in the city.
Though the cast of characters shifts with each wave of immigrants whose representative family lived at “97,” the unifying narrative is the development of Manhattan. New Yorkers, those notorious foodies, will be especially taken with “97 Orchard,” for the evolution of American cuisine runs in tandem with the evolution of their city.
Ziegelman also adds to our knowledge of the lives of everyday women, to whom the work of buying and cooking primarily fell. The book is interpolated with their recipes, often the only record of these lives.
Perhaps the most moving story is of Ellis Island, where arrivals dined well after Roosevelt’s 1903 reform. When it was discovered that Jews were practically starving for lack of kosher food, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society installed a cook and kitchen. The abundance culminated on Thanksgiving when, after a banquet, immigrants were serenaded by a 100-member German-American choir. They closed with The Star-Spangled Banner, unfamiliar to the new arrivals, who caught on quickly enough to rise and bow their heads together.
Elizabeth Toohey teaches women’s studies and postwar American literature at Principia College in Elsah, Ill.