Jane Ziegelman’s glimpse into a city’s culinary soul
Ocean Beach resident Jane Ziegelman’s new book "97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement" chronicles the city’s immigrant’s past through food. And she recently talked with the News to discuss those who once made this Lower East Side home, the legacy they left behind and her own history on the beach she loves.
Q: Your family has been in Ocean Beach for many years, how has coming out to Fire Island shaped your life?
A: I feel very rooted. My family bought Java Head in 1966. But we were renting before that. I have memories of old-time neighbors who are not here anymore. There was the intrepid widow Mrs. Grady, who looked about 500 years old, riding around on her bicycle. Fire Island is an incredibly special place for me. When I’m walking down the street in Ocean Beach, I’m in the present, but also in the past, remembering all the history of folks I knew.
Q: I’m curious, what background do you have to become the first director of the culinary program at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side?
A: I’m self-taught. My academic training is in anthropology (New York University). I met Ruth Abrams, founder of the Tenement Museum, when I was a student there and volunteered for her. So I have a long history there.
Q: What are you going to bring as the new culinary director?
A: I’m not sure! I have a lot of vision and the basic idea is to document and celebrate the culinary talents of immigrant New York. There are lots of ways, like a demonstration kitchen.
Q: Your book "97 Orchard" describes the history of immigrants experience on the Lower East Side in one apartment building (now the Tenement Museum) through a look at what they ate. How did you decide to use food as a window into the past?
A:It was always my intention to do a culinary history of New York. You could say I’m surrounded by family in the culinary writing arts: my in-laws are food writers, and so is my husband. (Andy Coe wrote "Chopped Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.") As a member of the Culinary Historians of New York, I’m interested in looking at food as a window into the past.
Q: Your father Aaron Zielgelman, created the "Remembering Luboml" project about how his hometown in Poland, that was destroyed in World War II, is recreated. Is the love of history and the desire to recreate it a family tradition? Passed from father to daughter?
A: I’ve never thought about it before. But our two projects are like sister projects. They are before and after relationships.
Q: Lower East Side immigrants didn’t commit their recipes for writing. How did you go about researching them?
A: It was a huge challenge! I looked at cookbooks by immigrants in the United States; food columns in old city papers; and recipes handed down by immigrant families. I tracked down people’s descendents.
Q: One of the fascinating things I learned about that time was the presence of animals in their lives. Up until 1860, the Lower East Side was home to roaming pigs (Irish), fowl tucked under homes (Jews), goats in apartments (Italians). And chicken coops and bee farming are now making a comeback in the city.
A: Yes! But it’s fashionable for the upper-middle class now. They are just doing what has been done a long time in the city. And it’s never been interrupted; take the live poultry venues for Latinos.
Q: I’m of German ancestry, one of the things I enjoyed learning was the importance the making of sauerkraut played. There was even a profession- the "Krauthobler" or "cabbage cutter"- who went door-to-door cutting housewives’ cabbage. What was one of your favorite discoveries about your heritage?
A: I loved the idea of live poultry farms on the Lower East Side.
Q: What was the most inspiring?
A: The Italians were mainly farmers from the countryside so when they came to the Lower East Side they planted roof and window gardens. My favorite are the dandelion gatherers. These women went out and picked wild dandelions and sold then at the pushcart markets. They found a way to raise and gather food in a familiar way in an unfamiliar environment.
Q: I love to cook and one of my favorite aspects of the book was the inclusion of actual recipes of that time. Do you have a favorite recipe you researched for the book?
A: There were some delicious ones and I want to eat them. And then there are some that were just so interesting-the ingenuity-to create something out of cheap ingredients that no one else wanted. Like the Jews used organ meat in creative ways. A strange piece of meat like the gooseneck became a delicacy of stuffed neck.
Q: The descriptions of old New York were vivid. Washington Market in an 1869 Guide to New York was fantastic... Do you see the growth of farmer’s markets in the city as a connection to this history?
A: Well we are eating more like old New Yorkers now. We lost the connection and became more homogenized (white bread and mass marketed foods) years ago. Now locally produced and organic is back.
Q: With your background as a founder of "Kids Cook!", a multi-ethnic cooking program for kids, what do you like to cook?
A: I am adventurous. I will go out of my way to find ingredients. For instance I made my own schmaltz. You take a fatty chicken and render it. I used the fatty oil to fry potatoes among other things. I also used an 1889 Jewish cookbook to make my own strudel. Real strudel dough is strong and tough. It needs to be heavily kneaded and then stretched thin like tissue paper. I became a strudel making machine. There was strudel everywhere for a while. I became obsessed!
Q: What is the next project you have on your plate?
A: Food and refugees-to see what’s taking place now.