The story of the immigrant has always fascinated me. Perhaps because I have lived in so many places, I appreciate the importance of preserving one’s culture in foreign lands. In “97 Orchard,” the author focuses on the food, culture and history of 5 immigrant families — German, Irish, Italian, and Eastern European Jews — all of which lived in the same tenement building at 97 Orchard Street in the Lower East Side of New York City from the mid 1800‘s to mid 1900‘s. These stories show that the food we cook and eat is one of the most powerful components of our cultural identity.
The stories, of course, are personal and follow specific families, from their homeland to New York. But where this book stands out is in the historical research. The author paints a detailed and accurate picture of what life really was like for the immigrant. For example, from the moment they landed on Ellis Island, immigrants were presented with menus that included Kosher food. Once established in the city, many set up street food stands, that although frowned upon at first, turned out to be as popular as the beer halls. Others became dependent on the local delis for their daily meals. The families that eventually moved to the upper class uptown neighborhoods often returned to the Lower East Side if only for the nostalgia of the street food — a practice known as “slumming.”
The author also includes several recipes from the era, and I was amazed at the level of complexity and detail in some of the dishes that were prepared over 100 years ago. From pancakes, to desserts, spaghetti and meatballs, soups, breads, stews, and vegetarian dishes, these recipes eventually became the foundation for the food of an entire nation. If you are interested in learning how America’s food culture got started, this book will give you some fascinating insight.
I had the pleasure of meeting the author during a book reading at Omnivore Books in San Francisco, and during a trip to New York last year, I got to visit the Tenement Museum, where I took a tour of the tenement at 97 Orchard and caught a glimpse of the harsh living conditions these families endured. What is really inspirational in their stories is that not only did they survive, but they were able to preserve their culture through cooking and sharing food with others. Is there anything more beautiful than that?