97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman

I visited the Tenement Museum a few weeks ago, and was intrigued by the stories I heard of life in New York’s Lower East Side during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Now a vibrant and very trendy district, filled with expensive pre war apartments, boutique shops, art galleries and delicious eateries, from the 1850s until the mid 20th century, this area was jam packed with ramshackle houses and tenement buildings, and housed the majority of New York’s colossal immigrant population. In tiny three room apartments, many with just one window to the outside world, generations of families who had come to America from a myriad of European countries for the chance of a better life in the legendary ‘Land of Opportunity’ lived on top of one another, often desperately poor and struggling to survive in a country that was alien to them.

The Tenement Museum recreates the living environments of these immigrants, using a remarkable surviving Tenement of the 19th century, 97 Orchard Street, as its canvas. Several apartments have been furnished and decorated to represent different time periods and countries of origin of immigrants, and others have been left in the distressed state the building was found in during the 1970s. These untouched rooms are truly remarkable; layers of paint and wallpaper are peeled back, showing how each successive family chose to decorate their rooms; some put up floral paper, others dark, others light, others stripes, others patterned. It was an amazing sight to see. Sagging cupboards, sooty fireplaces, worn floorboards and etched names in woodwork showed exactly how well used these rooms were by successive generations, who moved on from these cramped, dark and inconvenient apartments as soon as they could afford something better. With a ‘dark room’ for sleeping (ie. no window, and no natural light or air from anywhere), a kitchen, again with no window, and a parlour, which possessed the only window out onto the street, the combined total space of which would easily fit into my apartment’s living room, each apartment usually housed at least six people. The dark, damp atmosphere, hot, stale air and cramped quarters were a fact of life for the immigrants who were forced to live here. What shocked me the most was that 97 Orchard Street was actually one of the nicest tenement buildings available at the time it was built, despite there being no indoor plumbing, one window per apartment and a backbreaking walk, several times a day, up three or four flights of stairs for most families as they lugged water up from the back yard to their apartments.

 

The stories of these families were often heartbreaking; work was scarce for many unqualified, linguistically challenged immigrants, forcing many of them to live on practically nothing. Children died frequently from contaminated milk, water and diseases easily contracted from the often knee high dirt and excrement gathered on the sidewalks. For the women, life was a constant struggle to keep the dust and dirt at bay, families fed, and children safely brought into the world, and the average life expectancy for these women in the most deprived districts of the Lower East Side in the 19th century was only around 35. Many husbands left their families, frustrated at not being able to provide for them. The ‘Land of Opportunity’ was, in reality, a land of struggle, poverty, despair and homesickness for many, and the only thing that kept these immigrants going was the kindness of their neighbours and the close ties forged between immigrants from the same countries and regions, who tended to stick together in their own distinct areas.

This link to their home countries was most strongly pronounced through the food the immigrants ate, and it is this facet of life in New York that Jane Ziegelman so vividly and fascinatingly explores in her book. Charting the stories of five families; the Irish Moores, the Glockners from Germany, the German-Jewish Gumpertz’s, the Russian-Jewish Rogarshevksys, and the Italian Baldizzis, Ziegelman explores the changing face of the Lower East Side as new waves of immigrants from varying regions appeared in the city, and brought their culinary traditions with them. In a strange city with often no family or friends to count upon, immigrants longed for a taste of home to comfort and sustain them. Backbreaking labour and cramped living conditions made life miserable for many, and the joy of a good meal like mother used to make could brighten a day and bring a smile to a weary face.

From bagels to spaghetti, pizza to doughnuts, and pretzels to pickles, immigrants changed the way America ate. As wave after wave of Italians, Germans, Russians, Irish and Jews arrived in New York, places to buy and eat their native foods sprung up across the Lower East Side, massively diversifying the cuisine on offer in the city. Used to chops and oysters, New Yorkers were amazed at the variety of the food the immigrants brought with them, spiced with flavours totally unknown and untasted, and completely delicious. It’s hard to imagine now a New York without pizza or bagels, but without the immigrant population, this would never have happened. Being able to procure and produce their culinary favourites was an essential factor in the immigrants’ quality of life, and Ziegelman perfectly and wonderfully describes the joy a Gefilte fish could bring to a Sabbath celebrating Jew, or the sustenance and comfort a fresh baked loaf of bread provided for an Italian labourer. Food was the chief expenditure and a rare source of pleasure in a difficult life for immigrants, and the ingenuity and diversity of the women who cooked within tiny apartments and those who opened restaurants and stalls to sell their wares and improve their prospects astounded me.

As a new immigrant myself, I can definitely understand this correlation between food and comfort. I have only been in America for three months, but already I miss English food. Finding a sandwich in this city, for example, is incredibly difficult. I can easily buy a panini, or a quesidilla, or a burrito, or a pressata, or a wrap, or a bagel, but a nice tuna and mayonnaise sandwich with cucumber and soft white bread that hasn’t had half a bag of sugar added to it? Impossible. A roast dinner, with bisto gravy, yorkshire pudding and my mum’s delicious roast potatoes? Not a chance. Things I took for granted at home have now become indulgent, wonderfully comforting pleasures; the hobnobs and teabags my sister sent me could be caviar and foie gras as far as I’m concerned; I’ve never so enjoyed a sit down and a cup of tea as I did last week when this parcel from heaven arrived! As much as I am loving my time in New York, having that little taste of home available to me gives me a sense of security like no other. I never knew how much food could transport me back to my little corner of England, and comfort me at moments of homesickness. I can well imagine with what joy the families Jane Ziegelman tells the stories of devoured their evening meals lovingly prepared by the women of the house, as each bite would take them back to the land and the people they loved, now so far away.

This book is an intriguing take on the history of New York and its immigrant population, and one I never thought to much look into before. It includes some lovely recipes as well, so that you can recreate the food immigrants would have eaten in your own kitchen. I’m not sure about some of them, but the dollar stretching soups might very well come in handy for me now I am a poor intern! What really brought this book to life for me though was my visit to the Tenement Museum. This is a real hidden gem and a museum you must visit if you are coming to the city. The recreated apartments tell the stories of the families in Ziegelman’s book, though the only annoying thing about the museum is that each apartment is a different tour, and you have to pay $20 for each one (I only saw one apartment, the Moore’s). Not a cheap day out! However, their website is fantastic, and you can experience it all quite well through the excellent information and photographs available online.

 

42 comments

  1. Thank you, Rachel, for a well written and thought provoking look into our collective experience here in America. What you write about and viewed in New York’s tenements can be told many times over in every large city in America, as well as out on the prairie or building the railroads. In many ways, it is still the story of the immigrant experience, though I am not sure that there are the tight knit communities, poor as they were once, in today’s experience for many.

    In spite of the terrible conditions immigrants endured, they came and stayed for the opportunity that often didn’t become reality until their children were educated, money was saved and better times came to the next generation.

    This looks to be a fascinating book I will look to read and I smile a bit at the timeliness with Thanksgiving a few days away. Thanksgiving is the American holiday that we all celebrate here, no matter what countries our forefathers and mothers came from. The meal is planned; turkey and stuffing and potatoes. It is all across the land, with regional adaptations and side dishes that celebrate countries of origin; pasta and pierogis, chestnut stuffing and tortillas, cranberry relish and mincemeat.

    I so appreciate your insights and these wonderfully poignant pictures of the New York tenements in this post. You might also consider visiting Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, Rachel. Thank you.

    1. Hi Penny! Yes, immigrant communities are such a story of America, and it’s wonderful to learn about how these brave people lived. I hope they felt it was worth their difficult and often uncomfortable starts in America to give their ancestors the lives they do today. I was just so shocked at the sheer numbers who upped and left everything they knew to come to America, knowing nothing about the country and with no job or home to come to. It’s amazing.

      I am so excited for Thanksgiving, Penny! I am going to be spending it with a friend’s family in Philadelphia and I am so looking forward to trying all the different foods!

      I have been to Ellis Island and the Statue on previous trips to New York but I will definitely go back at some point this year!

      1. Oh, Rachel, I was just going to email and ask if you had a spot at a table come Thanksgiving day. I love Philadelphia. Full of art and history and food, and am glad you will get to experience our national day of thankfulness. Enjoy.

      2. Bless you Penny! I am so excited to be spending the day with a family and also to get to see Philadelphia! It’s going to be a wonderful few days.πŸ™‚

  2. Wow, that sounds like a fascinating day out. I went to a similar museum here in Sydney once and seeing the conditions people lived in is so eye-opening.

  3. Lovely post Rachel! Sounds like a fascinating (if expensive) museum. I like the way that you have articulated the importance of relationship between food and home. I’m already thinking about the homely dishes my mum will be making when I go back for Christmas!

    1. Thanks Polly! I loved it, and only wish I could afford to go back for the other tours! I’m not going home for Christmas and I am sad to be missing my mum’s dinner – but I will have a go at recreating it for myself!

  4. My grandparents were immigrants, and though they lived a little further up in the East Village, and a little later than these families, their experiences were probably not too much different. I found this book fscinating, for a glimpse into their lives and for the food history it gave us. I haven’t been able to visit the Tenement Museum yet, but would love to.

    (I know it’s probably not very British, but I was happy to find Pret a Manger in New York! I lived on their sandwiches during one business trip to London where my per diem didn’t really allow me to eatπŸ™‚ and I thought their elegant sandwiches were so much better than the ones you get in sandwich shops and delis here…)

    1. Wow Audrey, that’s amazing! Did you ever get to hear about their experiences?
      What I loved about this book was the focus on food – I’d never thought to look at the history of immigration through that lense before and I was so interested by it!

      Oh Pret sandwiches! The trouble is in New York they have made the flavours all ‘Americanised’ and you can’t get a classic tuna and cucumber baguette or a chicken salad – it’s all salmon and cream cheese and pastrami and pickles etc. I just want a plain sandwich!!

  5. Your post got me thinking about my own immigrant roots. I was born and raised in London, but my family came to the United States when I was 11 (a loooooong time ago). For many years, whenever a relative was either coming or going between the two countries, they were charged with bringing to the U.S. any of all of the following: Oxo cubes, Bisto gravy, Hovis bread, McVittie’s Digestive Bicuits, Heinz Salad Cream, Marmite, Bovril, and anything made by Cadbury. I remember my Dad having to declare a loaf of Hovis at the airport once.

    The “global village” has eliminated that sort of yearning for particular types of food (everything seems easy to get–although, in the case of your sandwiches perhaps not,), but when I was first in the States, to have some Oxo-Bisto gravy with Sunday roast or a Marmite sandwich on Hovis bread was just like eating my childhood–in a good way!

    1. You are British, Deb! I never knew. How exciting.πŸ™‚ I’m not surprised you used to get all those things brought over – now there seem to be a lot of these products available in special supermarkets here but a few years ago there certainly wasn’t. New York is full of Brits so they know it makes sense to sell these products!

      Toast and marmite! Mmmm delicious! I would die for some right now!

  6. Very interesting post Rachel. This book is going immediately on my “to read” list. The museum sounds fascinating but way to expensive. The Science center museum in St. Louis has a section that shows a typical American living room and its changes from pioneer days to the present. It is fascinating and free! I am from the mid-west and have always had plenty of space. I can’t imagine the way people had to live on top of one another. I remember feeling put upon because I had to share space with my big sister. When I visit a city, I feel a little claustrophobic and long for my wide open spaces where I can see both the sunrise and the sunset.

    1. Thanks Janet, I’m glad you now want to read it too! I think it’s difficult for people who come from wide open spaces to have to contract their lives down to city size. I can’t imagine what people from rural villages and farms thought of New York when they first arrived all those years ago. I love the countryside but the emptiness of it makes me long for city life after a while. I’m a city girl at heart!

  7. You’ll have to go to Ellis island, Rachel. It’s the prequel to this story you tell here, and fascinating – especially if you have family who migrated to New York. (I discovered members of my mum’s Irish family on the computer there and was able to link to their marriages with other immigrants from farflung corners of Europe. NY really was the the melting pot! Must admit, it helped to have mum’s distinctive name and a small Irish town as a starting point. A colleague who tried to trace her family had much vaguer info to start with and didn’t get very far.)
    But what a price for a museum … I’ve spent this weekend taking visitors around London, everything free except for tea and cakes. (And even then we ate a load of free samples on Borough Market.) Not that we’re cheapskates …

    1. I have been before Mary but I definitely want to take another trip. That’s so interesting about your family! I wish mine had emigrated somewhere interesting but the biggest move mine made was from Norfolk to London – not very interesting! I know, it’s so expensive – all the museums here are. It makes me miss London and all the freebies. It makes a difference!

  8. I continue to enjoy reading your blog and your commentary on books and New York City. As to Hobnobs and tea, I get my Lyon’s Gold Blend from Morton-Williams Associated on Bleecker and LaGuardia. Don’t know if the other branches of the store are similarly stocked, but this is my neighborhood grocery and they have a whole section of imported grocery items.

    1. Thank you Judith! I’m so pleased! Yes I have a Morton Williams near my apartment and they tend to stock English food but at a high price! Imported grocery items are easier to find than I thought though and I know the time will come when I get desperate and shell out!

  9. Wow. That was fascinating. I wish we had known about the museum when we were there last spring (although I’m not sure the 6 of us would’ve been able to take in more than one room — that does sound like “highway robbery!”). I’m going to keep an eye out for the book. Thanks so much for the review — I’m learning so much while you are here!πŸ™‚

    1. I’m so pleased you found it interesting Susan! What a shame you missed it last time, though, yes – for 6 of you, it would have been a very expensive trip! I’m sure you’d enjoy the book and I am glad I am able to pass on New York related information to you! I am learning so much too!πŸ™‚

  10. This museum sounds fascinating! I love history museums that recreate past periods like this one. I always feel like you get a much better feel for the time by visiting them. When was little, I wanted to work at a museum like this one just so I could wear the costumes. If I ever go to New York, I’ll definitely have to check it out.

    And I agree about food. I’ve been moving around a lot over the past few years, and every place I’ve lived in has certain food associations for me. When I get particularly homesick for one, I crave the food I associate with that place. I can’t believe you can’t find a real sandwich in New York City, though; sandwiches are definitely an American staple. Maybe, restaurants are trying to be too fancy; sometimes, simple is better.

    1. It really is such a fascinating place, Virginia! I really enjoyed the fact that I could physically experience the spaces and the environments the immigrants would actually have lived in. As the building had never been modified, there was a real sense of their presence still being there.

      Oh the sandwiches here are just not English, Virginia! They have such fancy fillings, I don’t know where to start! I want a good simple sandwich with tuna and cucumber or chicken salad on sliced bread that’s been cut in half. I can make my own, of course, but I’m so used to being able to buy sandwiches all over in London and I miss it! Pizza slices are fast becoming my new sandwiches – not as healthy, I fear!πŸ˜‰

  11. A fascinating museum! Yes, Rachel, I too can understand the longing for English food as I daydream about having another scone from Patisserie-Valerie the minute I get back to London. And last week I demanded we have jacket potatoes with chili as it reminds me of pubs over there…sniff.

    When I read Angela’s Ashes, I felt terribly for those hungry children. Oh to have lived upstairs and have food aplenty to share!

    Every once in awhile we hear of a family trying to get a goat up in the elevator of a Toronto highrise. They want to have it for a celebratory dinner! Yes, Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more (Wizard of Oz).

    1. It really is, Darlene! Oh scones…clotted cream…tea! I long for it! And jacket potatoes and chilli…divine! America is missing a trick by not adopting the jacket potato!

      Really?! That’s hilarious! I live in a building that mainly houses recent Chinese and Indian immigrants and they are always bringing up bags filled with interesting food in the elevator…and the cooking smells in the corridor are delicious!

  12. Thanks for this. It’s very humbling to learn what ordinary folks will endure in their efforts to establish a better life for themselves and their families. (I must find a copy of that book). My own roots are firmly in the UK but my ancestors moved here in the north east of England from other parts of the country and Wales, in the search for work in the emerging iron and steel industry. Living conditions for those first workers and their often very large families were harsh.

    Some of my relatives moved to the US in the 1960’s and, even now, they always appreciate a taste of home…….blackcurrant liquorice sweets and salt and vinegar crisps are always top of their list!

    1. You are welcome! Glad you enjoyed the post. I can’t imagine how awful it must have been to get off a crowded, dirty boat and then be sent off to a tiny apartment in an overpopulated, sewage filled district and told to just get on with it. Many must have wondered whether they were better off in their home countries. I’m very glad that I have the opportunity to live here but in much more luxurious surroundings!

      A taste of home is always a pleasure – I know I’d still be drinking English tea even if I had lived here forever!

  13. Lovely post, lovely blog. My ancestors stowed away to America – from Ireland via Liverpool, I think about how they would have lived, how hard it would have been. I lived in Switzerland for a few years, so not far away, but you still miss the usual things – ‘proper’ tea, crisps, beans etc. Hope NY is not too cold.

    1. Thank you, Lilac! It’s always lovely to have a new reader.πŸ™‚ I don’t think it matters how far you go – not being at home is not being at home, and you do miss the familiar cultural and social surroundings and things like food and shops and conversation and so on and so forth. NY has suddenly dipped in temperature this week so it’s rather cold just now!

  14. It is so true what you say about food being unbelievable comfort. Especially yesterday, Thanksgiving, I was very forlorn without my regular drunk chicken and rice dressing. But at least now you know you can get Hobnobs and tea in that British food shop in Chelsea!πŸ˜€

    1. Oh Jenny! Drunk chicken! I can’t wait to sample all this Louisiana food! Oh yes, hobnobs and tea…I need to get myself over to the British food shop, pronto!πŸ™‚

  15. I wonder if, after a decade or so in America, you would pare your longings right down to only one or two things? That’s what seems to have happened to us, living all these years in France. We are, of course, nothing like the immigrants you describe so touchingly but we seem to be down to ‘proper’ tea from England and Vegemite (my niece told me off about this choice since it’s not British but we stil prefer it). Oh and the occasional haggis (Scottish husband) now a thing of the past as he’s under doc’s orders.

    I am always so fascinated by American immigrants’ stories and you’ve made me long for New York in a way no one else ever has. The power of your descriptive writing and true first-hand information from your always wide eyes!

    1. Oh probably. I think I could learn to live without a lot of things, but tea and hobnobs would really be my limit! Thankfully there are so many Brits and Anglophiles in New York that British produce isn’t that hard to track down, but it’s not cheap, which is the main barrier I have to getting hold of it! It’s interesting that you just do tea and vegemite now – I suppose the food in France is so good though that you could do without stodgy British fare!

      What a compliment, Chrissy! Perhaps I’ve made you long for it enough to make you want to visit?!πŸ˜‰

  16. Rachel, I’m SO enjoying reading all your fascinating stories about New York (which I often read a few of at a time, when I’m catching up). I think I’ll put this book on my list, too, and you’ve inspired me to return to New York (the book, not the city!πŸ™‚ ) after Christmas.

    1. Oh I’m so glad, Penny! It’s a pleasure to have you reading along with me! Ooooh really?! If you come we have to meet up for some tea! (Or coffee..this is New York, after all!)

  17. I think I love you.

    Your blog is one of the sweetest, most endearing places on the internet I’ve ever seen.

    Books, tea, cake, smiling photo cutie…all mixed up in a golly-gosh textured fabric that makes you, dear R, as comforting as the nice treats I’m glad you recently enjoyed.

  18. Fascinating post. I took a module in American literature and culture and I’d love to take it again, just to absorb all the detail. I didn’t know about the immigrant history of New York.

    1. Oh I would LOVE to take classes in American history and literature…if only I could do those instead of the boring business classes I have to take! The immigrant history of this city is absolutely fascinating and what I love most is that so much of it is living history and can be seen just by walking through the streets.

  19. Oh, how right you are about familiar food. I lived in Egypt for a year when I was at university, and I longed and longed for the most ridiculous, nasty foods. Egg McMuffins! I wanted an Egg McMuffin more than I wanted to go to heaven when I died, and I don’t even LIKE Egg McMuffins. Of course, I now realize that I was probably very anemic and somewhat malnourished (I went down to an impossibly frail 93 pounds while I was there, from eating only falafel and hummous – I’m sure my body was desperately craving MEAT and FAT). A proper hamburger was my Holy Grail, and I never got a single one.

    1. Oh my – I can’t imagine being that malnourished or far away from food I was used to! I can see how it would be tricky to get westernised food in Egypt…I’d be with you on the chickpea overload! Eating chickpeas every day would have ME longing for Egg McMuffins, and I hate eggs!

  20. Delighted to see this book reviewed here. I have had it a while and am dipping in and out of it. It’s sad how the poor Irish immigrants had such a raw deal and no celebrated food history to speak of. The Germans had a very rich food history. My American grandmother’s parents were German immigrants but they ended up in Ohio. I was given many different dishes her mother had cooked for her as a child. Boiled potatoes covered in mustard and handed out the kitchen window as an after school treat. Apples fried in butter and sprinkled with sugar. Apple dumplings. Goetta, which is a mixture of pork, pinhead oatmeal and onions which is fried and served with eggs and toast for breakfast. I haven’t been to NYC in ages but would really like to go to this museum when I do.

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