Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An edible history of immigration

97 Orchard, Jane Ziegelman

I learned about this book from a post over on Lakeside Musing.  As soon as I read the subtitle, "An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement," I knew I wanted to read it.  It combines two of my favorite historical topics: food and immigration.

97 Orchard Street is the address of the tenement in which Ziegelman's five families lived between 1863 and 1935.  It currently houses the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which if I ever get to New York City again will be on my itinerary.  The families she traces were German, Irish, German Jewish, Russian Jewish, and Italian.

In telling the stories of these families and their food Ziegelman weaves together many different threads.  One is a history of how and why different immigrant groups came to America.  A second is a survey of the work they found (or didn't find), and how the work changed over time.  A third is an overview of shifts in the neighborhood, which were linked to the shifting immigrant population.  A fourth is an examination of what food meant to the immigrants, how it linked them to their homeland and culture even as they were becoming acculturated in other ways; how they managed to recreate the foods of their home, including where they shopped; and how and where they ate.  A fifth is how these "foreign" foods were initially rejected or mocked by the established population, but how they then became entrenched in our present-day American food culture.  Once upon a time, Americans didn't know what a bagel was, or how to eat spaghetti, and they thought lager beers were too bitter compared with the ales they were used to.  This process of course continues today. To take just one example, hummus is becoming almost as ubiquitous as ketchup, at least in this part of Texas.  With Galveston a major immigration port in the 19th century, and Houston in the 20th and 21st, you can see that history in the restaurant and grocery scene around, which resembles the United Nations and always impresses out-of-town visitors.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the fourth family, the Rogarshevskies, who came through Ellis Island in 1901.  Ziegelman uses their story to explore the history of Ellis Island, in part through the food that was served to the immigrants there.  For many, it was the first taste, literally, of America's abundance, more food at one meal perhaps than they were used to in a day.  It was unfamiliar food, though, and it posed problems especially for Jews trying to keep kosher.  My maternal grandmother came through Ellis Island in the 1920s, and I wish now I had asked her to tell me about it.

I've only spent a single day in New York, so I am not at all familiar with the city.  A real New Yorker would have no trouble following Ziegelman as she follows her families through the city, but a map might have been helpful.  The book does have great illustrations, most of them contemporary, giving us a glimpse of people's lives in the way that only historic photographs can do.   In each of the sections, Ziegelman also includes recipes, drawn from contemporary sources whenever possible.  I will probably pass on the herring salad, but I'm tempted to try the Kranzkuchen and the roasted eggplant recipes.

This is a fascinating book, and it brings out the book evangelist in me: "Here, you have to read this!"


  1. I love anything that deals with culinary history - I find it fascinating. You may have found a convert!

  2. I did! and I loved it. I'm with you on the herring salad, but I'm glad you enjoyed the book.

  3. Anbolyn, culinary history is so fascinating, isn't it? It's so much about people's daily lives, but it also touches on aspects outside the kitchen, like trade.

    Audrey, I must have missed the review on your site, I'll have to check. Isn't it interesting how all the different groups ate herring, just cooking it differently? I know what Michael Pollan calls the "oily little fishes" are supposed to be super-healthy eating, but I just can't.

  4. I LOVE culinary and social history! This is exactly the sort of book I like -- and less than 300 pages! Woo hoo!

  5. Not to mention great historic photos - and recipes, lots of recipes!

  6. I'm so glad you liked this! My book club is meeting today to discuss it, so I can add their reaction to my post (hopefully for next week)... quite an interesting book.

  7. I'm so glad you recommended it :) I'm actually hoping to get my book group to read it as well - so I'll look forward to their reactions.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!