The Tenement Museum in New York currently occupies 97 Orchard Street. Prior to that, in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, there were five families who lived at 97 Orchard Street. The book, 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, by Jane Ziegelman, is a book that tells of those families and the trials they faced once leaving Ellis Island, and the foods that they brought with them from their homelands.
From Germany, Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe, the daily lives of the families are detailed in depth, as far as the hardships they faced in finding food and feeding their families. Five families, five different time periods, five very unique perspectives on the hearth and home, the kitchen and preparation of food.
The families mentioned (although there wasn’t much personal information concerning the individuals, themselves) not only brought their foods and recipes with them, but also incorporated current American recipes and food tips, of their time period, within their daily cooking. The foraging for food, finding suitable fare to prepare, took a stroke of genius as far as the housewife is concerned. She was often up before dawn in order to get first-hand pickings, and many days her culinary search lasted until the afternoon.
She often spent hours peeling bruises and rot off of food, in order to get some juicy tidbit for dinner. Shopping was not done by the week, but normally a day at a time, for that particular day’s meals. The housewife also bought spoiled food, or food on the brink of spoilage and dissected it in order to make a meal for her family. She often used her finds to resell to others, in order to make money to pay rent, buy clothes, etc. She had to be a conniver, a bargainer, spot on sharp, and quick to grab what she could before someone else managed to get it before her.
The foods of the day were often basic, such as dandelions in all of their forms, snails, and root vegetables, but they were prepared with flair and eventually made mention in local newspapers, magazines and even were served in restaurants. The working man who could not come home for lunch ate at specific restaurants geared towards their food tastes. Food carts and stalls sold specific foods. Eventually upscale restaurants were serving what was known as basic fare, embellished with more sauce, spices or side dishes.
What surprised me was the fact that the immigrants were often told by the Americans how they should prepare their food. They were given classes on cooking, and homemaking. As if the immigrant didn’t know how to cook, Americans tried to force their own values upon them. Didn’t they remember their own ancestors and the struggles they faced trying to assimilate? Apparently not.
Ziegelman did her research, and she was magnificent in detailing the food of the varied cultures. Each family’s homeland was mentioned, and recipes, cooking hints, kitchen habits, family dynamics revolving around food, and cultural food preparations and serving, were minutely depicted. No food mentioned was left in limbo, and recipes from one culture eventually found their way into another, with a moderation or two to suit the family needs.
In fact, there are some culinary surprises within the pages. What you might think was a traditional German dish, or a uniquely Jewish dish, for instance, might have actually originated from the Italian cooks, and vice versa. It was quite interesting to read about some foodstuffs, in that aspect. I think my jaw dropped a couple of times.
I will admit that I was a bit disappointed in how the book ended. It seemed to me to be too abrupt. I was also a bit disappointed in the families that were included in the book. Their lives were not portrayed with much detail. I am not sure why that is, maybe there wasn’t much information on those specific individuals, but it still disappointed me. I was not disappointed, though, in Ziegelman’s vivid accounts of day-to-day struggles of the varied immigrant cultures, and how their lives, as a whole, were represented within the scheme of things in the American experience. Her depiction of the Italians and the Jews especially impressed me. My Italian grandmother was an immigrant, my Jewish father and grandparents were immigrants, and I do know a lot about their experiences. In that respect, I was pleased.
Otherwise, 97 Orchard is an extremely fascinating read, in my opinion, and is quite the historically relevant book regarding the immigrant experience, the forays into food, the daily lifestyle and survival, and the hardships the housewife encountered within the constraints of the time period. She had to be strong physically, mentally and emotionally, had to be a survivor, and had to be tough-minded.
Bravo! Aprons off to HER!
Jane Ziegelman’s 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement is an exceptional book, and one that is filled with documentation, newspaper clips, recipes of the time periods, and other pertinent historical information that fills the senses with cultural flavor. I highly recommend it for its historical value on cultural kitchens and the daily strivings in the life of the housewife.
I personally own and have read this book
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June 7, 2012 – 17 Sivan, 5772