Seasoned with history and heritage
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. • tenement.org
Elspeth Callender was a guest of the Tenement Museum.
Clockwise from above, the Pickle Guys; Tenement Museum; outside Vanessa’s Dumplings House