Book Review Week – 97 Orchard

97 Orchard An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement
Jane Ziegelman
HarperCollins, 2010, 254 pages

97 Orchard Street is known today as the New York City Tenement Museum. Built in 1863 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, over the course of 70 years, it was home to over 7000 people. Initially lacking in gas, electricity and running water, and some rooms having no windows, it was the lowest, cheapest, dirtiest housing available to new immigrants.

Lack of amenities, and often lack of access to ingredients they were familiar with meant that immigrant families living in the tenements of the Lower East Side had to adapt. Ziegelman traces the stories of five immigrant families (Irish, Italian, German and Eastern European Jews) and looks at the influence these cultures had on the foodways of New York City. From German-owned breweries, Russian tea rooms, Jewish delis and Italian restaurants, each successive wave of immigrants altered the local food culture.

I particularly enjoyed Ziegelman’s research into the food served at Ellis Island, often the first place new immigrants would eat once they landed in America. She relates how newcomers were astounded at the amount of food available to them – for free – but also traces how the menus changed over the course of the decade from 1905 – 1914, moving from sturdy, hearty “American” fare (roast beef, hamburger steak, lima beans) to reflect foods that might be familiar to new immigrants. By 1914, menus includes Hungarian goulash, pickled herring, dill pickles and sauerkraut.

Ziegelman looks extensively at the pushcarts that were part of life in the tenement slums, offering small food items for cheap to people whose finances meant they often lived day to day (in Toronto, Kensington Market would be a similar situation with bricks and mortar storefronts but wares always set up on rickety benches out front). In the early part of the 20th century, a campaign was started to get rid of the pushcarts, based on issues of sanitation, but they were actually found to offer a huge array of quality food items, from local produce to pickles and fish, and for immigrant families with no place to store food, buying 1 egg or half a turnip allowed them to cook with little food wasted.

From bagels and knishes to spaghetti and meatballs, immigrants were the catalyst for much of what we consider to be iconic New York foods and 97 Orchard provides extensive research and details on how each item started out as the food of poor immigrants and became accepted into mainstream society.

Ziegelman salutes the creativity and ingenuity of the immigrant families who resided at 97 Orchard. In some cases, little is known about the actual people she references beyond names and dates of residence, so some extrapolation and creative license is called for; not a lot is known of the Moore family, who lived in the house for only a few years, but Ziegelman paints a picture of life in America for the Irish immigrant in the years following the potato famine by sourcing other documents and bits of history to build a common list of foods, jobs and general activities that eventually create a picture of life in the tiny tenement apartments.

While 97 Orchard can be a little dry in places, it is worth a read for anyone interested in the stories of immigrants, particularly relating to their foodways and their contributions to food in North America.

The New York City Tenement Museum is open to the public and offers a variety of tours of the Lower East Side neighbourhood, including a food tour.