I remember a round coffee table, made of smooth wood and a glass top that revolved, that stood at the center of my parents’ living room for many years. In the days when I wasn’t much taller than the table, my cousins and I would run alongside it as we turned it, and then sit on the edge for a ride, much like a private merry-go-round. The glass top broke several times, but even as we got older and it became less a ride and more a place to serve food, it was my favorite piece of furniture. With yet another new glass top, it now sits in my sister’s home.
I thought again of that table as I read Jane Ziegelman’s absorbing new book, “97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement” (Smithsonian Books), with five particular ethnic stories unveiled through food. Ziegelman is interested in what these families — one Irish, another Italian, and three Jewish from Prussia, Germany and Lithuania, all of whom lived in the same building between 1863 and 1935 — put on their tables, how they fed their families on meager means, how they preserved their past history and culture through the food they ate, and at the same time, how they transformed their food — and themselves — into something American.
I learned that the patriarch of the Italian family, Adolfo Baldizzi, who was a skilled cabinetmaker, was born in Sicily and came to the United States in 1923 as a stowaway on a French vessel. Some years later, Baldizzi worked for my uncle and made the round glass-topped table.
So the reverberations of history are felt through material culture, like the table, and also through food, as Ziegelman ably demonstrates. Immigrant families at first scraped by, trying to recreate the tastes and foods of their old countries, using the different ingredients of their new homeland. Cooking, eating and memory were braided together. Later on, immigrant food would become iconic American food.
“97 Orchard” refers to a tenement on the Lower East Side, now the site of New York’s distinctive Tenement Museum. Ziegelman first got involved with the museum as a volunteer, conducting oral histories with people who had lived in the building. One of the people she interviewed was the daughter of Adolfo, Josephine Baldizzi, who has since passed away, who lived in the building as a child. When she met Baldizzi, the author had no idea that she would write this book. Ziegelman, 48, spent more than five years doing research to create this social history, looking at city records, the pushcart census of 1906, sanitary reports from the Board of Health, autobiographies, archives of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, unpublished immigrants’ letters, translations of Yiddish stories and cookbooks of the time.
For the author, food became a way of seeing. “I’m interested in real people’s food, not in the high end of cooking,” she says in an interview.
“The research was completely enveloping,” she says. “I felt that if someone put me back on the Lower East Side in 1910, I would know where all the stores were, where everything was in the neighborhood. I tried to convey that familiarity.” Plus, she learned to make strudel from scratch, as well as schmaltz, pickles and frittatas, the omelet-like standard lunch of Italian subway workers.
Ziegelman, who lives in Brooklyn Heights and grew up on the Upper West Side, discovered the Lower East Side neighborhood as a teenager. She says that in the contemporary streets, even amidst the modern and trendy, one can still feel the immigrant presence.
In telling the kitchen stories of the families, Ziegelman writes of professions like cabbage shaver, which no longer exist; and about how people shopped and came to give up certain foods, like organ meats and foods with pungent odors, as they became more acculturated. She describes the large kosher dining room at Ellis Island, where immigrants had their first tastes of America, and the experiences of immigrant children in school lunch rooms. She describes culinary overlap between the families.
For the Baldizzis, their staples were bread, pasta, beans, lentils and olive oil. They ate bread at every meal; they never threw away hard or stale bread, but turned it into something else. The Baldizzis were quite friendly with their neighbors at 97 Orchard, particularly the orthodox Rogarshevskys, who immigrated to New York from Telsh, Lithuania. Josephine Baldizzi was very surprised to see how her neighbor koshered chickens, attending to the chicken the way an Italian mother might bathe a particularly dirty child. Adolfo Baldizzi came to enjoy stopping off at Shreiber’s Deli for an evening glass of schnapps and buying hot potato pancakes from a street vendor.
Tucked into the narrative are recipes for such foods as stuffed pike, boiled sauerkraut, lentil soup and croccante, or almond brittle.
Ziegelman, a mother of two whose husband is a food writer, was named founding director of the Tenement Museum’s culinary center, which is slated to open next year. Programs will focus on education, including demonstrations of cooking from various ethnic traditions, explains Morris Vogel, president of the museum. The center will be in a 1988 building near the museum, at 103 Orchard Street, at the corner of Delancey Street. The site is now being fixed up to include, in addition to a full teaching kitchen, an expanded visitor’s center and museum shop.
When asked about the interest in food as a lens for viewing immigrant history, Vogel, president of the Tenement Museum, explains that it’s “one of the ways we connect with family, with memories of parents and grandparents. What did we do? We went to their homes where they presented food, not TV dinners or nouveau California cuisine, but the foods of their old countries. It was the way they honored that past and tried to pass it on. I guess it’s almost a sacrament.”
Vogel suggests that the popularity of Ziegelman’s book “might even be because it’s a way to understand, to honor, immigration at a time when the noise out there has made immigration suspect.”
The Rogarshevskys and other families would feel quite at home next week at many of our Rosh HaShanah tables — even if we’ve cut back on the schmaltz — and that too is a testament to the power and continuity of food, memory and tradition.