Archive for December, 2010

December 21, 2010

Foodie Roots

As many of my readers know, food and New York City go together.  But having just finished two books describing eating in NYC, I have to say that what I appreciate about NYC and food has grown.  About a month ago, I started to read 97 Orchard Street.  We learn about German, Irish, Ashkenazi Jewish, Lithuanian Jewish, and Italian cuisine of immigrant families who came to NYC beginning in the 1860’s through to the 1930s or so.  Right on the heels of reading that, I devoured The Art of Eating In, at the recommendation of one of my friends and colleagues at work.  And I found that these two narratives reflected one another in ways altogether unexpected.  So, here’s what I learned, and what you might learn if you choose to read one or the other of these two.

Germans believe in eating as a public activity, whether in the public market or the “lunch rooms” that they brought to the NYC scene in the mid 1800s.

Irish eyes may be smiling, but it’s probably not because of the food. The food history of the Irish who came to NYC after the potato famine is pretty sparse.  And because most who came were teenage girls who became household help, their cuisine mimicked the food of the Americans they worked for….

Oysters used to be sold as street-cart snacks. This isn’t so true anymore, but it really made me wish it were.

Remaining kosher on Ellis Island was challenging. Perhaps a no-duh, but a fascinating discussion of how that particular challenge was overcome.

The Italians brought salad to America.  Or at least to NYC.  In the 1930s.  Before that it was meat and grains and milk. Even back in the day, the dairy industry was a serious player.  And these Italian immigrants didn’t need to go on an “urban foraging tour” to identify edible wild greens– dandelions on your salad anyone? 

Freeganing has deep roots in NYC.  One of the most interesting chapters in The Art of Eating In takes you into the world of the food that is not eaten, but is past its prime, and by law must be thrown out.  Erway describes how you can eat well from day old bread and “expired” salad.  In the late 19th century and early 20th century, though, there were other ways of handling food-past-its-prime. Although not able to be sold at the original market, rag-pickers would sell it down the chain – and very little was wasted. A remarkable sentence appears in 97 Orchard Street, which reflects a situation not too different from modern-day NYC: “Heaps of discarded food, some of it perfectly good, which materialized each day in city trash bins, must have left the rag-picker gaping in wonderment.” (pg. 191)  A shadow system of food distribution, in the author’s turn of phrase.

Restaurants emerged from supper club type events in the mid-1800’s.  Supper clubs really are throwbacks to an earlier way of eating.  Or at least that’s my take. Again, a quote from 97 Orchard, “Blurring the line between home and business, the private restaurant offered diners a truly Old World eating experience: a home-cooked meal prepared in the style of a particular region or city back in Europe.” (pg. 171)  Erway’s reflections on how she moves to take part in supper club events as she seeks social opportunities around food, but in venues other than restaurants, reads like a mirror of immigrants seeking social interaction and food!

And last, but by no means least, living in the melting pot makes for delicious dinners, now and then. Fun reads both, I highly recommend them.

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