The synagogue was hopping last night. In addition to the monthly Synaplex, a musical service that combines lovely melodies and musical performances (a duo of violinists with a piano accompaniment, this time)with the usual Shabbat service, there was also a fascinating talk by a writer. Jane Spiegelmann authored a book called 97 Orchard about the story of the families who inhabited the house that became the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of New York. Although most of us in the audience had family members who once inhabited such tenements in New York and elsewhere, we had no real idea how those people lived, so it was amazing to hear of this.
Spiegelmann spent 5 years researching this, and learned some unexpected facts, such as that fois gras, the livers of force fed geese, was a staple of the shtetl table in Eastern Europe and in the new world. Ashkanzi Jews regularly consumed geese, making use not only of their livers, but their fat and their flesh. Since the families were uniformly Kosher, they had to witness animals being killed to accept that their meat was Kosher. So they lived with their fowl, only later buying their live chickens and geese at marketplaces, as is still done in many places throughout the world.
Spiegelmann spoke also about the Italian families who inhabited the house at one time. Apparently, the upper crust commentators who observed their gustatory habits were uniformly critical, speaking from a racist perspective in which Italians were judged to be dirty, lazy, and unhealthy, as well as hostile and aggressive. How ironic that the very foods that health department representatives judged to be devoid of nutrition would later be touted as the best foods, nutritionally speaking, of them all. Things like olive oil, tomato sauce, garlic, etc., staples of the Italian diet, were dubiously regarded. Settlement workers tried to get the children of these immigrants to learn American (read "bland") cooking. They rejected it.
Instead, as Spiegelmann illustrated by reciting the current menu of a local diner in her neighborhood of New York, American culture absorbed like blotting paper all the various ethnic influences and foodways of the many cultures that inhabit it.
It's a fascinating book, and one I plan to get, though I didn't buy a signed copy last night. Perhaps I can pick one up on Amazon used or get it from UCI's library.