Thursday, August 23, 2012

Something New - a Book Review

I've belonged to a book club since 2007. Other than the fun, often lively discussions we have over books and life in general, what’s nice about it is that we’ve read all sorts of things I might never have picked had it not been on our reading list. Although the following book I might have picked up on my own, eventually.

Our most recent read was “97 Orchard – An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement” by Jane Ziegelman, released June 2010. It centers around the lives of five European immigrant families at 97 Orchard Street, a Lower East Side tenement building constructed in the 1860’s by a German immigrant, Lucas Glockner. Glockner was a tailor, who prospered enough to acquire a series of tenement properties, 97 Orchard Street being among them. There he was both landlord and tenant. Through the book’s 5 chapters we learn about some of America’s early immigrants and the foods that made up their lives. First the Glockners (German), then the Moores (Irish), the Gumpertzes (German Jews), the Rogarshevskys (Lithuanian-Russian Jews) and finally, the Baldizzis (Southern Italian).

The book covers the years of 1863-1935 and we learn a tremendous amount about not only the culinary traditions that early American immigrants brought with them, but also about tenement life, city politics, American attitudes towards immigrants, and what Ellis Island was like.

Each family shows us the influence that not only America had on their food traditions, but how their cuisine impacted American tastes. For instance, I was surprised to learn that Italian food was hated at first. Americans could not understand the Italian love affair with “macaroni” and their dreaded olive oil. Americans eventually came to love Italian food, thank God. Also surprising was that corned beef and cabbage wasn’t a traditional Irish meal until they landed in America, and the same for Jewish challah.

Pushcarts on a New York street
We learn about the shipboard diet typical for a 19th Century immigrant, the dining hall menus at Ellis Island, the important role pushcarts served to the immigrant cook (there were 2,500 of them of the Lower East Side in 1905), the grocery shopping experience of the typical tenement housewife, and where people hung out to enjoy their favorite foods, once ethnic restaurants started springing up. The book is filled with recipes typical of those the families would have made or did make. Most importantly we see how their traditional foods provided comfort to them during a time when they were some of the poorest people in America, struggling to survive.

I found the amount of research the author had done astounding. Through interviews, poring over city documents, and reading of old letters and cookbooks from that time period, she gathered a wealth of information and put it into a format that I found easily readable. Sometimes the stories were funny, sometimes sad, often touching, as when neighbors at 97 Orchard Street helped one another by sharing food and taking care of one another’s children when needed.

Today, 97 Orchard Street serves as a museum, offering tours inside the building where these five families lived. The above is a photograph of the tenement. Present day, naturally, as evidenced by the Land Rover parked in front.

I would recommend the book to you if you enjoy culinary history. It gives a fantastic glimpse into the lives of American immigrants, and what they ate when they got here. Being the daughter of German immigrants, I especially liked reading about the Germans that came to this country and what imprint they left on the American culinary landscape.

For book reviews, you can read those from the New York Times or Amazon.

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