Tonight, I had Italian wedding soup as a dinner course. Italian wedding soup is a broth with kale and meatballs and onion. As I slurped, I reflected on the last chapter of Jane Ziegelman’s 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement. Each of the five chapters discusses a different ethnic group: Germans, the Irish, German Jews, Russian Jews, and Italians. The Italians, Ziegelman writes, were often criticized for their food, particularly their habit of eating “weeds.” Those weeds, in this case kale, were in my bowl tonight. And they were delicious. Italian food, of all kinds, is one of America’s most beloved imported cuisines. Tonight, I got to taste a bit of immigrant life with my wedding soup and my gnocchi. It was the perfect finish for reading 97 Orchard.
97 Orchard, New York, is now the home of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Weirdly enough, the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast recently interviewed the museum’s curator (part 1, part 2). From those episodes, I know that 97 Orchard is one of the best preserved tenement buildings. It was essentially boarded up after the last families left. What I didn’t know was that there was so much extant information about the Glockners, the Moores, the Gumpertzes, the Rogarshevskys, and the Baldizzis—including photographs that are reproduced in 97 Orchard. What Ziegelman knows about the five families supplements the wealth of research she did about immigrant world of food. (To be honest, the families only make brief appearances in the chapters named after them.)
The families provide a starting point and a lens for discussing various aspects of immigrant food. In some chapters, especially the chapters about the Jewish Gumpertzes and Rogarshevskys, cover the origins of their cuisines. Ziegelman discusses kashrut and the slow relaxing (among some Jewish) of their complex dietary laws. The chapter the German Glockners looks at the food culture the immigrants brought with them. The Germans brought their beer halls and clubs. Weirdly enough, the Irish only claimed corned beef and cabbage (now closely associated with Irish immigrants and St. Patrick’s Day) once they came to America; no one could afford much of anything back in Ireland.
In the last chapters, about the Russian Rogarshevskys and the Italian Baldizzis, Ziegelman turns to the attempts by American officials to get immigrants to give up their traditional foods—on health grounds, oddly enough. Jewish food was particularly alarming. This sentence about the Jewish, German, and Slavic love of pickles made me laugh:
The taste of the standard Jewish pickle was so aggressive – briny, garlicky, sour – and so foreign to the native palate that Americans like Ms. Wood wondered how anyone, children especially, could eat them by choice. Instead, they saw pickle-eating as a kind of compulsion. The undernourished child was drawn to pickles the same way an adult was drawn to alcohol. More than a food, the pickle was a kind of drug for tenement children, who were still too young for whiskey. (151*)
A few pages later, Ziegelman reports on one woman’s strenuous efforts to re-educate immigrants by teaching cooking courses for the families’ daughters:
Promoting the foods that Kittredge felt were best suited to the East Sider, the lessons were also designed to wean immigrants away from their less desirable culinary habits. For Jews, that meant forsaking their over-spiced pickles and delicatessen meats, while Italians were asked to cut back on their beloved macaroni and olive oil. Returning to their real-life tenement flats, the girls shared what they had learned, teaching their mothers how to poach eggs, or cook vegetables in boiling water rather than goose schmaltz. Teachers also made home visits to reinforce lessons and monitor their students’ progress. As one contemporary described it, the girls served as missionaries to their foreign-born parents, a role that the public schools exploited for all it was worth. (165)
Many of the foods mentioned in these quotes and in other parts of the last two chapters are staples of the mishmash that is American food. (Personally, I adore deli pickles.) Italian food, as I mentioned earlier, is near and dear to most Americans. It’s painfully humorous that so many well-meaning Americans tried to get immigrants to stop eating their wonderful food.
I started to read this book on Sunday during the long stretch of time between lunch and dinner. The first pages of the first chapter sent me to the kitchen for a snack. Since then, I’ve always reached for this book while I have a full stomach. Wrapping up my reading with a bowl of Italian wedding soup and another of gnocchi was the perfect ending.
Before I return this book to the library, I’m going to go scan the entire notes section so that I can look up the vintage cookbooks for later.
* Quotes are from the 2010 hardcover edition by Smithsonian Books.