Saturday, December 17, 2011

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman


97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement

by Jane Ziegelman
Harper-Collins, 2010 
272 pages 
source: purchased 

Summary (from Publishers Weekly):

Ziegelman puts a historical spin to the notion that you are what you eat by looking at five immigrant families from what she calls the "elemental perspective of the foods they ate." They are German, Italian, Irish, and Jewish (both Orthodox and Reform) from Russia and Germany--they are new Americans, and each family, sometime between 1863 and 1935, lived on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Each represents the predicaments faced in adapting the food traditions it knew to the country it adopted. From census data, newspaper accounts, sociological studies, and cookbooks of the time, Ziegelman vividly renders a proud, diverse community learning to be American. She describes the funk of fermenting sauerkraut, the bounty of a pushcart market, the culinary versatility of a potato, as well as such treats as hamburger, spaghetti, and lager beer. Beyond the foodstuffs and recipes of the time, however, are the mores, histories, and identities that food evokes. Through food, the author records the immigrants' struggle to reinterpret themselves in an American context and their reciprocal impact on American culture at large.

My thoughts:

More a culinary history of New York's Lower East Side than actual immigrant stories, 97 Orchard looks at five distinct ethnic groups through their native food customs, and then explores how their traditions were adapted to life in the United States. It begins with German immigrants in the 1860's, progresses through waves of Irish immigrants in the 1880's, to German and Russian Jews toward the end of the 19th century, and finally ends with the Italians of the early 20th century. A single building, located at 97 Orchard Street, is the common thread that binds the narrative. Five families, each a representative of one ethnic group, called it home. Today that structure is at the heart of New York City's Tenement Museum.

I was expecting specific immigrant stories told from a gastronomic perspective. Instead, the families themselves are only incidentally mentioned. Census records provided names of families living at the address, along with specific dates for births, deaths, etc. Beyond that, any mention of the families was limited to what "may" have happened, where they "might" have eaten or shopped, how they "would have" prepared a meal, etc.

The book covers immigrant food life from the dining halls at Ellis Island to German beirgartens and Jewish delis on the Lower East Side. It discusses the push-cart markets that flourished from the 1880's through the late 1930's. It covers life in the boarding houses along with the purpose and function of the Settlement House. Photographs, recipes, and newspaper articles provide an added dimension to the narrative.

Tenement life was difficult, especially for women. A lack of indoor plumbing and cramped conditions with minimal privacy added to the burden. Water had to be hauled up the central staircase. Without refrigeration or storage space, food was purchased immediately prior to preparation. Much of a typical day revolved around procuring and preparing meals. Ziegelman brings the sights, sounds, and smells of tenement living to life for the 21st century reader.

Book Club reaction:
Eight of us met to discuss the book last month. Six had read the book, one was still in progress, and one got the wrong book from the library (similar title, but written for a YA audience). Overall reaction was positive, but several expressed disappointment at the lack of specific information on each family. The sections on Ellis Island and the push-cart markets sparked lively discussion and there were also raves about the Tenement Museum itself. It's number one the itinerary for my next trip to NYC.

My rating:


Bottom line:
An interesting and enjoyable book, but a somewhat deceiving title lead to false expectations of specific immigrant stories


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26 comments:

  1. Sounds interesting. Never thought of looking at the history of different dishes. I do love history.

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  2. When I saw the words 'Edible History' I was interested! The title does make it seem as though there will be some personal history as well, I too would feel a bit let-down if there wasn't.

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  3. Sounds interesting. I love reading books like this!
    Here's My Weekend Cooking

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  4. I also thought she assumed her readers would be familiar with the part of New York City that she is writing about, but more context would have been helpful for non-New Yorkers. But overall I really enjoyed this book.

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  5. I'm a bit disappointed that it wasn't more about specific families but now that I've been warned, I would go into the book knowing what to expect. This sounds like something I'd love. I've always tried to imagine what it'd be like to be on the third or higher floor of a walk-up tenement with no plumbing. What a hard, hard life for those women.

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  6. Yes, I can see how one might expect something different from this book than it actually delivered given the use of the "families" in the title. I would probably still read this, because the food history is, in and of itself, still interesting to me.

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  7. I think I'd have the same reaction as you. Too bad the title is a bit misleading.

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  8. This sounds like an interesting book, but I feel like I learned all I needed to from reading your review...

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  9. I had wanted to read this one, and like you, surprised that it's not more of a story of the people in addition to the history of the foods. I'll still read it because the food history interests me.

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  10. I am a New Yorker, so this has real appeal to me and I remember shopping with my mom on Orchard Street as a kid. This sounds like a very interesting book. I will have to see if my library has a copy.

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  11. You want to see me happy, turn me loose in one of the neighborhoods where I can eat anything authentic! From anywhere! This book really appeals to me, but I think I would like a few personal stories as well.

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  12. I would be disappointed by the lack of personal details too. I wentbto the Tenement Museum a few weeks ago and took a tour - I was surprised by how affected I was by it. I felt literally oppressed by the conditions in the tenement. It's very well done.

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  13. The title of the book would definitely cause me to pick it up. Bummer it wasn't what you expected.

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  14. Peggy - This may be the first 'food history' book I've read, but I doubt it will be the last.

    Sam - If you know not to expect personal stories, this book shouldn't be a disappointment.

    Vicki - It really is.

    Lisa May - That's a good point. As I was reading, I was glad to have a general idea of that area. Can't remember if a map was included... my mother has my copy or I'd take a look.

    BethF - You'd love this book!

    TheBookGirl - If you enjoy food history, this is a book you'd really like.

    Mary - Yes, I think it's a misleading title.

    Amy - LOL!

    Carol - As long as you know it isn't specific family stories, you won't be disappointed.

    Alex - If you've spent time on Orchard Street, this should be even more fun. There are lots of old photos included!

    Sandy - I think a more personal touch would have added a lot, but I'm sure that information is very difficult to gather.

    Booksnyc - I can't wait to visit the Tenment Museum, but may have to wait until spring :-(

    Lisa - This really was a good book. Guess I was just expecting more detail about the families.

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  15. The Tenement Museum is on my must-see list for NYC visits as well.

    After reading your review (and the reaction of your book group), I agree that the title is misleading. Will keep this in mind if/when 97 ORCHARD moves higher on my wish list (It does sound like the type of book that should appeal to me).

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  16. You wrote such an excellent review, telling the good and not-so-good aspects of the book. I expect I would agree.
    Your banner picture is amazing. Wow. And I like the new design. Maybe it isn't that new but I've not been here for a while.

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  17. Dawn - It looks like there are several choices of tours, many formatted around a specific family... just like this book. I can't wait to visit!

    Nan - Thanks. I just took the photo this morning. We have had VERY little snow this year ( I'm not complaining) and this is the first day with both sun and a little snow in the trees.

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  18. I think the food aspect sounds truly interesting. I love history so the personal stories would've been an added bonus.

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  19. I regret not visiting the Tenement Museum on my last visit to NYC. I love that type of history! And the book does sound interesting...maybe someday?

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  20. I love reading this kind of history...I'm adding this one to my WishList right now!

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  21. Staci - I was disappointed by the lack of more 'personal history'. But if you know not to expect it, that won't be a problem.

    Softdrink - Guess you'll have to make plans for another visit, right? Then you'll want to read the book, too ;-)

    Peppermint Ph.D. - There is so much interesting food/social history in this book. Still laughing over the fact that 'they' though the Jewish Delis would be the downfall of society.

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  22. This sounds like an interesting book partly for me because of the NYC lower east side setting which I love. But it disappoints me that the book doesn't focus on the families. Had I gone into reading the book thinking it was about the families and the food they eat, I would have been pretty ticked off, honestly, when it became apparent the families are incidental to the gastronomic info.! I might have closed the book at that point!

    I also think, for me, anyway, this book would be more interesting if the families were discussed as well. But the book still sounds interesting.

    I've never been to the Tenement Museum lol and have to get there come spring when the weather is better.

    Great review, JoAnn, thank you!
    Love your new header picture - it'sa beautful!

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  23. Oh, too bad -- I love the way food can provide a springboard for telling a family's story, so that's disappointing that it isn't about the families more. I've been dying to go to the Tenement Museum -- thanks for the reminder! :)

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  24. Amy - Even without the specific family stories, it's still a good book. Could've been even better for me with a little more personal history though. Hope you get to visit the museum in the spring. Glad you like the header photo :-)

    Audra - This was really much more of a food history, but still very interesting. The section on Ellis Island was fascinating - surprised to learn they changed menus to include foods immigrants were familiar with. Made them feel more 'at home'!

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  25. I've had this book on my to-read-food-books list all year and still I haven't read it. Your review was a nice push. I like the idea of including food history into my food reading. I'll keep in mind the cautions you mentioned.

    I like the new picture in the header. It makes me feel chilly. That's a good thing.

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  26. Margot - As long as you realize before you begin that it is NOT family histories, but food history, I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

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