by Jane Ziegelman
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.
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.
An interesting and enjoyable book, but a somewhat deceiving title lead to false expectations of specific immigrant stories
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