The director of the forthcoming Culinary Center at New York City's Tenement Museum embarks on a cultural and culinary tour of the building at 97 Orchard St., which serves as the museum's principal display.
Ziegelman (co-author: Foie Gras: A Passion, 1999) offers the stories of five immigrant families who lived in the building sometime between 1863, when it opened, and 1935. The author's research is both astonishing in its dimensions and enlightening in its presentation. She begins with a German family, then follows with Irish, Jewish (from Prussia, Germany and Lithuania) and Italian families.
Each chapter includes some of the recipes fundamental to that family. Readers will learn the procedures for making things like hasenpfeffer (rabbit stew), krupnik (a sweet alcohol), fish hash, oyster patties, stuffed pike, pickles, challah and zucchini frittata. Ziegelman digs out the personal history of each family, but she is most interested in their cultural milieu. She notes the forces-some unfriendly, others welcoming-that greeted the new arrivals, and includes a splendid section on the cuisine offered at Ellis Island.
The author also examines how the food of the immigrants altered the eating habits of Americans (yes, there was a time when we disdained Italian food and didn't know what a bagel was), charts the rise of the delicatessen and describes the advent of Crisco. Scattered throughout are well-placed details that continually brighten the narrative, including a 1920 public-school menu, a portrait of the pushcart culture that thrived for years, the origin of schmaltz (the delectable grease from goose skin or chicken skin) and 1860s restaurant slang ("shipwreck" = scrambled eggs, "oneslaughter on the pan" = porterhouse steak).
A tasty, satisfying stew of history, sociology, cultural anthropology and spicy prose.