When 97 Orchard Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side welcomed its first families in 1863, tenants like Wilhelmina Glockner had to haul tubs of water for each day's cooking and for cleaning the building's narrow staircase.
"Tenement housewives were like human freight elevators, hauling groceries, coal, firewood, and children up and down endless flights of stairs," Jane Ziegelman writes in 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement (Smithsonian Books/Harper Collins, June 2010).
A Brooklyn-based food writer and teacher, Ziegelman, 47, recently was named to run the Lower East Side Tenement Museum's first culinary program - a demonstration kitchen where visitors can truly taste tenement life (www.tenement.org).
The program will be housed in a new visitors' center now under construction that is expected to open in late fall.
Morris Vogel, a former Philadelphian who is the museum's president, said the addition of a culinary program seemed natural, "because food is a central ingredient in the story of immigration."
"We get 170,000 visitors a year," Vogel said, "and we want them to understand what their forebearers went through in negotiating the terms of their lives in the New World. That's how we each develop an understanding of how important immigration has been in the development of this country."
"Food," he said, "offers another dimension into that all-American story."
Nearly 7,000 people called 97 Orchard home during its 70-year life span, and telling their stories is the museum's sacred charge. Guided tours there focus on a handful of specific families from Germany, Italy, Ireland, and Prussia, eloquently conveying their struggle to assimilate and survive.
Ziegelman's book follows those same families.
Even without running water or iceboxes, she tells us, the kitchens in the cramped tenement were the heart of each home. More than a place to cook and eat, the kitchen was a work space where women and children earned pennies shelling nuts or sewing. It was a laundry room and a place to bathe, even a bedroom for boarders.
For immigrants, faced with pressures to assimilate in the New World, food from the Old World became a source of ethnic or national pride. So the book, in part, is a tribute to the women (and men) who preserved the foodways of their ancestors.
In tenements, meal preparation was a challenge that required effort from every member of the family. Children scavenged wood for the stove and mothers stretched every penny, shopping at pushcarts where vendors were willing to sell just half a parsnip for that day's soup or stew.
Ziegelman traces 97 Orchard's families back to the Old World, where, for example, goose was more readily available than chicken. She takes us aboard the steamships on which immigrants traveled, where they had to pack oatmeal and flour to cook for themselves in steerage until 1848, when tighter regulations required ships to supply provisions.
When the Moore family journeyed here from Ireland in 1863, for example, "they boiled potatoes, oatmeal, salt beef and water for tea, their cooking pot suspended from a hook over a hot grate" in the ship's galley.
In steerage, "fights erupted as families vied for cooking time and many steerage passengers too poor to provide for themselves brought nothing or ran out of food before the ship reached its destination."
Ziegelman also describes the meals at Ellis Island, where 35 cents per person was allotted in 1902 for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Initially, immigrants were not charged for their meals at Ellis Island. The tab was paid by the steamship companies that had brought them to America. But that arrangement quickly led to fraud by the steamship companies, as meat and dairy items were skimmed off the menus, replaced by bread and butter.
Life in tenements such 97 Orchard had an unavoidable communal nature. After all, toilets (and outhouses before them) were shared. Plus, conversations and kitchen aromas permeated the thin walls.
On the upside of that, neighbors looked after one another. Tenement dwellers, who tended to avoid handouts from established charities of the day because of the stigma that carried, shared with one another.
That was especially true of the mothers. An Italian housewife would feed minestrone to the neighbor's Irish children while she was looking after them, Ziegelman writes, and a Russian mother might bring honey cake to an older Slovak lady across the way.
Then, as now, food was often the initial vehicle for getting to know each other.
Recipes for veal schnitzel with wild mushrooms, boiled beef with horseradish, stuffed pike, and gefilte fish were shared among tenants from different lands. And foods such as bagels and pasta worked their way into the new American menu.
These same immigrants played a vital part in feeding the rest of New York. They worked in slaughterhouses, waited tables, and peddled fruit, vegetables, and fish from pushcarts. German immigrants, who were among the first to arrive, set up sausage and sauerkraut stands first and later established delicatessens and beer halls.
Ziegelman, who has a graduate degree in cultural anthropology and a passion for food history, came to the museum's attention after she founded a hands-on educational program called Kids Cook!, which offers classes in basic cooking and pastry skills for children. She started that project in 2000, and it is still going strong with classes for ages 2 to 13.
"Teaching kids to cook opens them up to thinking about other cultures, to history, and to geography," she says.
Ziegelman says she hopes to bring in guest chefs and have all-ages cooking programs at the Tenement Museum.
Makes 6-8 servings
1 pound brown lentils
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 stalks celery, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ringwurst sausage (see note)
2 tablespoons flour
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Soak lentils in abundant cold water until they expand, about two hours. Drain and set aside.
2. In a large soup pot, sauté the onion and celery until soft and onion turns pale gold. Add garlic and cook until fragrant. Add the ringwurst whole, the drained lentils, and seven cups of water. Bring to a gentle boil. Turn down heat and simmer until lentils are barely tender.
3. Mix the flour with a few tablespoons of the soup to form a roux. When free of lumps, return the roux to the soup pot. Stir and continue cooking until lentils are fully tender but still hold their shape.
4. Remove the ringwurst, slice into disks, and return to the pot. Season with salt and pepper and serve hot.
Note: Ringwurst, also known as fleischwurst, is a German sausage made with pork and beef, similar to bologna in ring-sausage form. Find it in German delis, substitute bologna ring, or omit.
Per serving (based on 8): 258 calories, 13 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams fat, 31 milligrams cholesterol, 570 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 4 servings
3 medium onions, chopped
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large can (15 ounces) sweet peas, drained
1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts
2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
1. Sauté the onions in the oil until they are soft and golden.
2. Mash the peas with the back of a fork.
3. Combine with onions and remaining ingredients and chop by hand until your desired consistency is achieved. You may use a food processor, but take care not to overprocess.
4. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Per serving: 521 calories, 15 grams protein, 26 grams carbohydrates, 43 grams fat, 106 milligrams cholesterol, 267 milligrams sodium, 8 grams dietary fiber.