In “97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement", Jane Ziegelman tells about Old World habits clashing and ultimately melding with new American ones.
The Glockners, the Moores, the Gumpertzes, the Rogarshevskys and the Baldizzis, who all lived at 97 Orchard Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, between 1863 and 1935, were busy families who all wanted many things: assimilation, esteem, easier lives for their children. Most of all, it seems, they wanted full bellies and tastes of home. They were fiercely loyal to the dishes they left behind.
In part, “97 Orchard” is about real estate. Ziegelman traces the history of tenement buildings in Manhattan, noting that they were the “first American residences built expressly for multiple families — in this case, working people.” By the start of the 20th century, she writes, “97 Orchard Street stood on the most densely populated square block of urban America, with 2,223 people, most of them Russian Jews, packed into roughly two acres.”
These days 97 Orchard Street is the site of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. During most of the years Ziegelman writes about, the building’s tiny apartments had no indoor plumbing and no refrigerators except windowsills in winter; the kitchens had wood- or coal-burning stoves. Tenement housewives were “human freight elevators, hauling groceries, coal, firewood and children up and down endless flights of stairs.”
Ziegelman writes about the types of culinary workers, once popular in and around these tenements, whose trades have vanished. These included “the German krauthobblers, or ‘cabbage-shavers,’ itinerant tradesmen who went door to door slicing cabbage for homemade sauerkraut,” she notes. There were also “the Italian dandelion pickers, women who scoured New York’s vacant lots for wild salad greens,” as well as urban goose farmers who raised poultry in basements and hallways.
Ziegelman also writes about Ellis Island and about what she calls “the first all-important point of contact between the United States government and its future citizens.” Hearts and minds needed to be won, and stomachs too. The food at Ellis Island improved with time, she writes, thanks to men like Frederick Wallis, immigration commissioner from 1920 to 1921, who wisely observed: “You can make an immigrant an anarchist overnight at Ellis Island, but with the right kind of treatment you can also start him on the way to glorious citizenship. It is first impressions that matter most.”