For me, the most memorable parts of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a coming-of-age novel set in the tenements of Brooklyn, involve food. When I think about that book, my mind jumps to the scenes when Francie Nolan buys half-priced stale bread from the bread factory wagons or when Francie’s mother tells her how to get the butcher to supply them with fresh ground beef. Food was important. The good times for Francie’s parents are described when they both had steady jobs and were able to eat roast beef with noodles.
I often thought about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn while reading 97 Orchard by Jane Ziegelman. 97 Orchard describes the food cultures of five different immigrant groups that resided in a tenement located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan: the Germans, Irish, German Jews, Russian-Lithuanian Jews, and Italians.
Ziegelman provides details on the staples of each group’s cuisine, the history and recipes of important dishes (such as gefilte fish), and how the food was received in the United States. For the most part, their food was not accepted. Those involved in the settlement houses tried very hard to move immigrant groups away from their food culture by adopting an American diet. The food of Southern Italians was deemed unwholesome because it contained too many vegetables. Thankfully, the Italians weren’t too keen on American cuisine and actually spent a great deal of their money on importing ingredients from Italy.
If you are interested in food or history, I highly recommend 97 Orchard. It is “as good as bread.”