Tuesday, July 12, 2011

It's All Coming Back to Me Now: 97 Orchard

Bunny recommended that I add 97 Orchard by Jane Ziegelman to my reading list. This book is going to wind up on my short list of most favorite books. Ever. 97 Orchard Street is the New York City address of an apartment building, a tenement, that was home to countless immigrant families. Ziegelman recounts the stories of five of these families between 1863 and 1935, the Age of Migration. But she tells their stories from a unique perspective, the foods they ate. These immigrant families, the Glockers, Moores, Gumpertzes, the Rogarshevskys, and the Baldizzis may have adopted an Americanized appearance, dress, language, and schooling, but their food was traditional Old World. And fascinating.

Why, you ask, would that be so fascinating? Several years ago Bunny and I were in Salzburg (another story). Bunny, Math Girl with a German minor, translated the menu for me at our lunch spot but I had a hard time concentrating on her words because I was mesmerized by the contents of the plates passing by wafting their delicious goodness behind them. "I know this food!" I remember saying. "This is the food of my grandparents. This is the food of my childhood." Pork roast with gravy, boiled potatoes, noodles, sauerkraut, sausage, sausage and more sausage.

My forebears on both sides of my family came from Germany to the United States during the Age of Migration. This is my paternal grandfather John Henry Spehr with his sister Emma. Their daddy was a copper smith in New Jersey working for what would eventually become Fisher Carriage Company. Is that ringing a bell at all? General Motors used to have a logo of a horse drawn carriage and advertised "Body by Fisher." But he worked for them while they still made carriages. Their mama was a young Jewish teenager when she came to this country. 97 Orchard tells stories similar to that of my great grandmother's. She like many other girls her age, was sent out from home while young to cook for a family of higher income and social status. While yet a teenager she crossed the Atlantic by boat bringing with her a beautiful glass compote, a gift from her employers. Eventually with the invention of the "horseless carriage" my grandfather's family moved to Detroit where my great grandfather worked in the automotive industry.
From the above photo it seems likely or at least possible that when the Spehrs emigrated to New Jersey they may have lived in a building similar to that at 97 Orchard Street in New York. 97 Orchard is now the Tenement Museum. Who would have ever thought there would be such a thing as a tenement museum. You can look at it at www.tenement.org and see lots of photos of what the apartments looked like at the time, how they've been refurbished, and how the occupants lived. No plumbing (though it was available in other locations), no running water, one minute bedroom, and perhaps one window if you were one of the more fortunate tenants.
Up until I was ten years old I had grandmothers galore. At one point I had two grandmothers, two great grandmothers, and a great-great grandmother. Is my great grandmother, Edith Mary Crandall Cole's hat not the greatest? She would have fit right in at this year's royal wedding. This photo is from about 1910 and she is the lone Brit in the bunch. I just had to include this photo.
It is her daughter Florence who married my half-Jewish grandfather, the little boy on the steps. This is how I remember them. They lived just north of Milwaukee in White Fish Bay. It's their food that I so distinctly remember that influenced how my father cooked as well. And it comes straight out of 97 Orchard. Kosher dill pickles and all things hot and sour. Pickled herring and herring in sour cream. Ever heard of kipper snacks? That's herring in a sardine-like can packed in oil and yes, it smells terrible but my dad to this day downs a can easily. I still give him cans of kipper snacks for Christmas. How's that for syncretism? Home made chicken noodle soup. By the gallon. With matzo balls. And now get ready for this one. You can thank me ahead of time that I have not included a photo of the delicacy known as liver paste. It was a staple, especially when we had guests. Saute chicken livers and then mash them into a paste, form a ball with the paste (it would be about the size of a baseball) and then garnish with hard boiled egg yolks that Daddy pressed through a sieve. Sort of like Jewish sprinkles. Sort of. It was served with crackers and there was never any left over.
Evidently the German Jews were very particular about the fat in their recipes. When I read about this in 97 Orchard I just laughed out loud. For obvious reasons pork fat and butter were not used for frying meat. Chicken fat removed from the soup pot or goose fat from force fed geese that were living in the tenement was used in cooking. My father has always referred to anything greasy as chicken fat. Now I know why. My grandpa also loved comedians like Henny Youngman, Jackie Mason, and the Marx brothers. When he was acting silly he'd talk like they did with their Yiddish words and phrases. Ah, yes, it's all coming back to me now. He also had an affinity for schnapps. Not the flavored liqueurs, but the 80 proof grain alcohol that he called his "eye medicine." He'd go into his study for some eye medicine and give my sister and me a yummy chocolate we came to know as "nam-nam." I can see clearly now. One more thing. When my first grandson Jack was born I called him Bubby. It just came out. Now I find out that's Yiddish for grandmother. I don't remember hearing that, but where in the world did Bubby come from if it wasn't locked away in my mind somewhere?
The Glockner family saga from 97 Orchard is more like my mother's German side of the family. Protestant, farmers, office workers, clerks, and seamstresses. This is my great-great grandmother Mary Weickmann DeWall who was born in 1837 and lived to be 95 years old. Her family belonged to the Dutch Reformed church and migrated to Illinois as the Mid-west was a home away from home for those who had lived in small towns or on farms as opposed to the big city Germans. My great grandfather was the pharmacist, post master and general store owner in Forreston, IL. It was this side of the family that gave us noodle casseroles, stuffed cabbage, lots of pork roast and sauerkraut, apple sauce, apple pie, baked apples, dried apricots, apricot bread, apricot salad, but no fish. There is not a day in my memory that Gramma didn't have a fruit pie baked. Or multiple pies, cookies, fruit breads and muffins. That was just the way of the rural German American according to 97 Orchard and my experience.
I've finished the chapter on the Moores from Ireland, the great potato famine and how the Irish made a "kitchen" of water and pepper in which to boil their potatoes. Once the potatoes were cooked they drank the kitchen. Yum. We have the Irish to thank for the establishment of the American boarding house where Irish women learned to work their magic with potatoes, milk, oatmeal and butter. Oyster patties, fish hash, and a soup based on salt pork, onion, and macaroni for six cents a pot. Sorry, sweet tea is not a southern invention. When table sugar became available it was the Irish who added it to tea as a way to simultaneously stave off hunger and give this boarding house lady a little pep in her step.
Next up, the  Russian Jewish Rogarshevskys and the Baldizzi family. What stories wait to be told from 97 Orchard? I'll find out as soon as I finish off a little container of herring with sour cream. Just kidding. I'm going for the hearty blueberry muffin courtesy of the other branch of the family tree.

No comments:

Post a Comment