97 Orchard, by Jane Ziegelman, tells the story of five immigrant families living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century. The stories of these Irish, Italian, German and Jewish families emerge through the food they cooked and the struggles they faced. Ziegelman chatted with Moment about American food, Jewish food and the place of immigrants in the American story.
What was the inspiration for 97 Orchard?
The inspiration was the tenement itself. A while back, when I was a graduate student at NYU studying urban anthropology, I heard that this new museum was opening on the Lower East Side devoted to America’s urban pioneers, immigrants who settled in tenement districts on the Lower East Side. I worked as a volunteer collecting oral histories from former tenement dwellers. They needed people to go around and collect histories of people that had once lived at 97 Orchard Street. One of the people that I met during that time was Josephine Baldizzi, [one of the women featured in 97 Orchard].
Anyone who’s been in that building feels its history and the sense of all of these people having lived there moving through the building. It’s a kind of haunted place in the best sense of the word.
Why did you choose these families specifically?
I chose the particular families because of the ethnic diversity that they represented.
Did you feel a special bond or closeness with any family or character in the book?
I really identified with the women. It seems to me that the men kind of check out in some of the stories in this book, and the women are the heroes of the story. In the Gumpert story, the father essentially abandons his family under the pressures of keeping his family housed during a particularly bad economic period. He buckles under the pressure and leaves the responsibility of caring for the kids to his wife, and she does what has to be done. That’s the story of these immigrants, that they take care of business. They find a way to do what has to be done, particularly in the interest of their children. These were people who had the ability to defer their own dreams and put aside their own needs in the interest of the next generation. And to me, that is really heroic behavior.
How did you decide that food was going to be the way through which you told these stories?
I’ve seen food as a really useful tool for interpreting culture and also as a way to enter the everyday lives of people who are not exactly like us. That’s part of the appeal of food. On one hand, food is something we all need. It’s a biological necessity. On the other hand, it’s tied up with all kinds of really profound human aspirations. It’s tied up with family and God and nature and our relationships to our community, so it stands at this really interesting point between heart and biology. It’s also just so incredibly concrete. I’ve always been interested in the way people lived and the texture and the tastes and the smells of everyday life, and I think food is a great way to get at that.
Is there such a thing as American food?
American food is defined by its diversity. It’s a direct reflection of the American people. This wasn’t always the case, but the immigrants who came to this country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries really changed the way we eat.
What about Jewish food?
There is no one Jewish cuisine—there are many Jewish cuisines. Jewish food is the food that’s important to us. That changes with geography and with time, so the category of Jewish food is this ever-shifting concept, but when you say Jewish food, I know what it is to me, and I think other Jews know what it is to them.
What is it to you?
To me, Jewish food is the food made by my grandmother. It’s chicken soup with kreplach, and it’s honey cake. It’s vegetable barley soup. It’s chopped liver. When I just got out of college and I got back to New York I’d meet my grandmother for lunch in the city, and we had to go someplace kosher, and our favorite place was Ratner’s. So everything on the Ratner’s menu—that’s Jewish food. The borscht, the blintzes, the kasha varnishkes and the knishes.
What was the most surprising thing you learned when researching the book?
The big surprise was how much farming went on in New York City, in the tenement district. There was this whole tradition of animal husbandry on the Lower East Side. The Jews raised geese and other kinds of poultry, the Italians raised goats and the Irish kept pigs. This was shocking to me. The life of children on the Lower East Side was also a real wake-up call, the fact that kids went to work at eleven or twelve years of age and that ten-and eleven-year-old girls were called ‘little mothers’ and bore the responsibilities of grown women.
Which immigrant groups are having the same kind of culinary influence on America today?
In New York, it’s people from Thailand, Vietnam, China—East Asians and Southeast Asians; Latin Americans and Mexicans; people from the Caribbean. Those are the three groups that are making their presence felt in New York. Caribbeans and Latin Americans are really active as street food vendors, so we’re seeing this kind of food on the streets. New York’s Chinatowns—and there’s more than one—are just extremely vibrant places, and Western people are discovering them and trying their food.