Sea­soned with his­tory and her­itage

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - EL­SPETH CAL­LEN­DER

While chew­ing on a piece of pre­served pineap­ple out­side the Pickle Guys in Es­sex Street on New York’s Lower East Side, it hits me. Not the pineap­ple, but an epiphany.

The word ham­burger orig­i­nates from Ham­burg. Frank­furter comes from Frank­furt. Now I see through fresh eyes the city’s sausages, schnitzels, bagels, pickles, pret­zels, cured fish, egg noodles, pressed meats, strudels, Black For­est cakes and the del­i­catessens that sell them.

The cat­a­lyst to my en­light­en­ment is a walk­ing food tour of this Man­hat­tan neigh­bour­hood that truly rep­re­sents the city’s im­mi­grant his­tory. The defin­ing in­flu­ences for the most popular foods in the US — the hot­dog, the ham­burger and even the good old Texan bar­be­cue — ar­rived from Europe in the 19th cen­tury; for a coun­try colonised in the early 1600s, that isn’t that long ago.

Many New York­ers, how­ever, found the dishes, and the new­com­ers, to be dis­taste­ful for some time. Thir­tythree mil­lion peo­ple em­i­grated to New York be­tween 1815 and 1915, mainly from Ger­many, Ire­land and Rus­sia. The ma­jor­ity were es­cap­ing war, famine and per­se­cu­tion and so, re­gard­less of pre­vi­ous cir­cum­stances, ar­rived with next to noth­ing.

Be­fore mov­ing to other parts of the city, state or coun­try to rebuild their lives, most were re­liant on gov­ern­ment-pro­vided ten­e­ment hous­ing on the city’s Lower East Side. This neigh­bour­hood soon be­came a mis­er­ably over­crowded slum and, in sur­vival mode, its res­i­dents in­stinc­tively re­tained their re­li­gions, lan­guages, cul­tural prac­tices and tra­di­tional eat­ing habits.

Ten­e­ment is an old word for a unit block ac­com­mo­dat­ing three or more fam­i­lies. One Lower East Side build­ing, at 97 Or­chard Street, housed about 7000 peo­ple from 20 na­tions be­tween 1863, when it was built, and 1935, when it was con­demned.

Af­ter the build­ing was re­claimed in the 1990s, for the pur­poses of a com­mu­nity mu­seum, one room was stripped back through 30 lay­ers of wall­pa­per, 20 coats of paint and eight lay­ers of so-called wash­able car­pet (linoleum). Brave and in­quis­i­tive New York­ers even­tu­ally ven­tured into the Lower East Side — called Klein­deutsch­land, mean­ing Lit­tle Ger­many, for most of the 1800s — seek­ing Ger­man food and lager beer.

From the 1870s the ground floor of 97 Or­chard Street was Sch­nei­der’s Sa­loon.

Into the next cen­tury, the area be­came pre­dom­i­nantly Jewish. Mean­while, there was a push by the city to “Amer­i­can­ise” im­mi­grants. This food tour of the Lower East Side is proof that melt­ing-pot plan failed.

Our small group wan­ders the neigh­bour­hood tast­ing black sesame and green tea puff pastries, fried plan­tain from a Mex­i­can Caribbean restau­rant, and sam­ples from Vanessa’s Dump­ing House.

We stop at a bialy bak­ery (like bagels, but bet­ter), the neigh­bour­hood’s last re­main­ing pickle shop, a Fuzhounese restau­rant and the jam-packed lolly store, Econ­omy Candy, still owned by the same Greek-Jewish fam­ily that opened it in the 1930s. Orig­i­nally they also sold shoes, but lol­lies were what took off.

The Ten­e­ment Mu­seum’s guiding style-of-choice is par­tic­i­pa­tive dia­logue. This en­cour­ages peo­ple to re­flect, through con­ver­sa­tion, on the mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence as a whole rather than just con­sum­ing his­toric de­tails; to per­son­ally recog­nise how im­mi­gra­tion has con­trib­uted to the heart, soul and stom­ach of this di­verse city. • ten­e­

El­speth Cal­len­der was a guest of the Ten­e­ment Mu­seum.

Clock­wise from above, the Pickle Guys; Ten­e­ment Mu­seum; out­side Vanessa’s Dumplings House

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