Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Jane Ziegelman is director of the Tenement Museum’s culinary center and has written extensively on food. Her book 97 Orchard is an interesting read, covering the importation of and interaction with America of five immigrant groups’ culinary habits. Chapter by chapter, the book discusses German, Irish, German Jewish, Russian-Lithuanian, and Italian immigrants’ American experiences. Ostensibly, this history is framed by the “five families” mentioned in the titles of the book itself and of the chapters, but that device is actually pretty shallow. It helps center the narrative on one place (which, incidentally, happens to be the Tenement Museum’s current address). This, however, does not matter much for the reading experience once it becomes evident that the families only serve to set the stage. The much broader perspective applied to immigrant New York life makes for rewarding reading.
And there is no doubt in my mind that it is a rewarding – and often very funny – book. Written in a simple but flowing style, the book covers tenement life between 1863 and 1935. In its relatively brief span (227 pages), 97 Orchard covers the foods and drinks common to the different groups discussed (and includes many recipes), the ways these foods and drinks were received by Americans (who, for example, did not like lager beer when they first tasted it), and how food and drink was a way to both retain immigrant identities and to Americanize or assimilate. The book also covers the many ways in which these foods and drinks were procured, from the dining situation at Ellis Island to German beer halls to Italian restaurants, from bustling markets to tenement store fronts and basement bakeries to delis and beyond. Some material is familiar, other material not; where else, for instance, would you find a treatment of the problematic situation with over 40,000 pigs wandering the streets of New York that was not successfully tackled until the 1860s?
The book, of course, is not perfect. It does not cover everything it could have covered, but it comes as close as is possible for a book of its scope. Some omissions are curious given the book’s popular tone and ambition – it covers Italian food but only mentions pizza in passing and although Jewish delis are discussed the more famous ones (e. g. Katz’s) are not even mentioned by name – but they do not leave the impression that the author has failed in any way. 97 Orchard is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in culinary history, immigrant life, or New York’s past. It is popular history at its best.