An 'Edible History' Of Immigrant Families



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On Manhattan's Lower East Side, 97 Orchard Street is an old tenement building. It's now a museum. But in its life as an apartment building, it housed thousands of working class immigrants, each one with a story to tell. Now, some of those stories are being told through an exploration of the food they ate. Guy Raz speaks with Jane Ziegelman, author of 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

As immigrants from Europe began to stream into America en masse in the mid-1850s, hundreds of tenement buildings went up around Manhattan's Lower East Side. One of those buildings is still around today. It's at 97 Orchard Street, and it houses the Tenement Museum.

It was built in 1863 by a German immigrant named Lucas Glockner. Its earliest tenants were Germans, then Irishmen, then European Jews and finally, Italians. And one of the ways those new Americans preserved the traditions from the old country was through food.

And that's how writer Jane Ziegelman tells the story of 97 Orchard, that's also the name of her new book. It's a chronicle of five immigrant families who once called that address home.

Ms. JANE ZIEGELMAN (Author, "97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement"): Ninety-seven Orchard was built by immigrants for immigrants. It was, for its time, actually a well-appointed tenement building.

However, it has no central heat, it has no running water. What this meant, if you were a woman living in that building, is every time you needed water to do some cooking or some cleaning or to wash yourself or your kids, you had to trudge downstairs to the backyard, go to the well, pump some water, haul the water back up again.

RAZ: And they had to do this during every season, including the winter, when there was no...

Ms. ZIEGELMAN: Absolutely right.

RAZ: ...heating in the stairwells.

Ms. ZIEGELMAN: And that's - when I tried to imagine what life was like, that was exactly the scenario I imagined, carrying this icy tub of water up the stairs and having it splash your skirt. That life required tremendous physical stamina.

RAZ: Now, you describe the markets in this part of the Lower East Side, around the Bowery that Mr. Glockner's wife would often go to to find fresh produce, I was amazed to read about what you could get in New York City in the 1860s. I mean, there were a lot of choices.

Ms. ZIEGELMAN: You could buy bear. You could buy moose. And not only moose, you could buy moose snout. This was considered a particular delicacy.

RAZ: By whom?

Ms. ZIEGELMAN: That I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ZIEGELMAN: But there was someone out there who wanted his moose snout.

RAZ: And presumably, it was somebody who came from overseas, and that created a market.

Ms. ZIEGELMAN: That's exactly right.

RAZ: One of the jobs that you describe in this area was somebody who was called a cabbage cutter. Describe what that person did.

Ms. ZIEGELMAN: Sure. He was called, in German, the krauthobler. His job was to go door to door in the tenements with a special cutting device. It resembled a French mandolin, which is a slicing instrument, and for the German homemakers who were making their own sauerkraut, he was sort of the human Cuisinart machine. He would shave their cabbage into the thin shreds that are ideal for sauerkraut-making.

The fact that this individual could exist tells us something about the quantities of sauerkraut that were consumed on the Lower East Side.

RAZ: I want to ask you about another German family. This time, it was a Jewish family that lived in the building in the 1870s. This was the Gumpertz family. One thing that they must have encountered, that you described, were these geese farms in these tenements. How did they come about?

Ms. ZIEGELMAN: Well, first let me say that if my book has a breaking story, I would say that it's the goose farm.

RAZ: Breaking news. All right.

Ms. ZIEGELMAN: Yes, breaking news.

RAZ: You heard it here first.

Ms. ZIEGELMAN: That's exactly right. I stumbled on them in old reports from the New York Board of Health. The tenement goose farms were in fact large-scale commercial operations. They shared the same buildings that people lived in -and sometimes the same apartments - and which supplied East Side homemakers with ducks and chickens and turkeys and, most importantly, with geese.

RAZ: Ah, yes. Most importantly for one very important ingredient.

Ms. ZIEGELMAN: Fat. Of all the different birds out there, geese, I think, give us the best schmaltz. And one lovely accident that comes from having a fat bird is a fat liver. And these fattened livers, the food that we know as foie gras, were actually a delicacy among Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side in the mid-19th century.

RAZ: Now, obviously, Jewish immigrants would use goose fat for their cooking rather than lard, which may have been used by non-Jewish immigrants. But what actually, sort of had a more dampening effect on these tenement geese farms? Was it the rise of the sanitary police, the Health Department, or was it actually Crisco?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ZIEGELMAN: The Crisco. Should I explain why you mentioned Crisco?

RAZ: Oh, please. Yeah.

Ms. ZIEGELMAN: Crisco was actually intended as a soap. It was not intended to be consumed by people. However, the Procter & Gamble Company, in their infinite marketing genius, discovered that this was a food that could come in handy in the Jewish kitchen because it was parve, meaning it was neither a meat nor a dairy and could be used as a neutral form of cooking fat. And the advent of Crisco did very seriously impact the need for schmaltz.

RAZ: Now, there's an Italian family that you profile, the Baldizzi family. You actually interviewed, spoke with one of the daughters. What did she remember her mother cooking?

Ms. ZIEGELMAN: Yes. I spoke with Josephine Baldizzi. She had lived in the tenements as a small kid. She was about 10 years old. Her clearest food memory involved a dish, which her mother made and which she called pizza.

We might not recognize it as pizza. What it was, in essence, is a very large loaf of Sicilian bread, sliced across the middle like a hamburger bun, rubbed with olive oil and garlic and some oregano and maybe sprinkled with a little bit of parmesan cheese, they couldn't afford a lot, and then put into the oven to bake.

And when she took the pizza out and served it to the kids, she would say to them: You see, you are somebody, as if eating this good food could wipe away the humiliations of poverty. And I think that this is very typical of the power of food in Italian life.

RAZ: That's Jane Ziegelman. She's the author of "97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement." She's also the director of the forthcoming culinary program at the Tenement Museum in New York City.

Jane Ziegelman, thank you so much.

Ms. ZIEGELMAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.