97 Orchard: An edible history of five immigrant families in one New York tenement

“A place to cook and to eat, the kitchen was also used as a family workspace, a sweatshop, a laundry room, a place to wash one’s body, a nursery for the babies, and a bedroom for boarders. In this cramped and primitive setting, immigrant cooks brought their formidable ingenuity to the daily challenge of feeding their families.”

97 Orchard.

A building. A residence. A New York tenement, home to immigrants from Europe.

And in this case, five families who lived there between 1863 and 1935.

In the kitchens of the German Glockners (who owned the building), the Irish Moores, the Gumpertz family (German Jews), the Rogarshevsksy  family (Russian-Lithuanian Jews), and the Italian Baldizzi family, we learn how immigrant cooks fed their families, made their living, and introduced many familiar foods to this country, such as:

“German wursts and pretzels, doughtnut-shaped rolls from Eastern Europe known as ‘beygals’, potato pastries referred to as ‘knishes’, and the elongated Italian noodles for which Americans had no name but came to know as spaghetti.”

It was fun to read the various recipes that accompany the stories, such as fish hash and vegetarian chopped liver. And culinary traditions always fascinate, especially ones which seem so odd to us today, such as the apparently common commodity of broken eggs, as well as the fact that goose liver (i.e. foie gras) used to be fed to children as a nutritional supplement.¬†And the occupation of ‘cabbage-shaver’ for sauerkraut.

“With a tool designed specifically for the task – it worked like a French mandolin, the blades set into a wooden board – the krauthobler went door to door, literally shaving cabbages into thread-like strands. The cost was a penny a head.”

The only quibble I have with this book is its somewhat misleading subtitle. The ‘history’ of these five specific families is hardly that. We get little more than a glimpse of these family’s histories, instead they are used as a starting point to kick off each chapter, and to illustrate how the “culinary revolution” transcended this one neighbourhood, and which continues today “among immigrants from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America, who have brought their food traditions to this country and continue to transform the way America eats”.

I read this book for the Foodie challenge