Immigrant stories: edible history at the Tenement Museum

Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street, New York (photo by Sheila Scarborough)One of my favorite places in Manhattan is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (see more in The American story is alive at this New York Museum.)

I tell visitors to Gotham that they really can skip the Statue of Liberty – other than admiring it from the free Staten Island Ferry – and instead spend time at Ellis Island and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.  That’s where you can truly feel the impact of the “huddled masses” and what they’ve meant to the city and the nation.

The museum makes a tremendous effort at online outreach; they have a blog, they’re on Facebook and Flickr (now they’re on Instagram) and you can follow museum activities on Twitter.

My Mom (as much of an info and history junkie as I am) alerted me to a new book out about cooking and food amongst the wide variety of immigrants living in this special building: Jane Ziegelman’s “97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement.”

From the book’s description:

“Along the East River, German immigrants founded breweries, dispensing their beloved lager in the dozens of beer gardens that opened along the Bowery. Russian Jews opened tea parlors serving blintzes and strudel next door to Romanian nightclubs that specialized in goose pastrami. On the streets, Italian peddlers hawked the cheese-and-tomato pies known aspizzarelli, while Jews sold knishes and squares of halvah. Gradually, as Americans began to explore the immigrant ghetto, they uncovered the array of comestible enticements of their foreign-born neighbors. 97 Orchard charts this exciting process of discovery as it lays bare the roots of our collective culinary heritage.”

There’s a post about the book on the museum’s blog, and an interview with the author on NPR’s All Things Considered, “An ‘Edible History’ of Immigrant Families,” that is worth a listen for how it evokes the challenges and unique of cooking in that multistory apartment building.

“[Interviewer] RAZ: One of the jobs that you describe in this area was somebody who was called a cabbage cutter. Describe what that person did.

[Author] Ms. ZIEGELMAN: Sure. He was called, in German, the krauthobler. His job was to go door to door in the tenements with a special cutting device. It resembled a French mandolin, which is a slicing instrument, and for the German homemakers who were making their own sauerkraut, he was sort of the human Cuisinart machine. He would shave their cabbage into the thin shreds that are ideal for sauerkraut-making.

The fact that this individual could exist tells us something about the quantities of sauerkraut that were consumed on the Lower East Side.”

In a world of easy access to every imaginable kind of food in our supermarkets, it’s humbling to see what my US ancestors had to deal with just to make a simple meal.

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