Yid.Dish: What We Used to Eat

By Roxanne B. Sukol MD

Published August 02, 2010.
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I spent most of the day yesterday on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Not literally. I was reading Jane Ziegelman’s new book, 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement. I wanted to know what they ate in the days before Crisco, Cool Whip, corn syrup, and Cocoa Puffs.

Besides the foods we commonly eat today, New Yorkers in the 1800’s ate buffalo, bear, venison, moose, mutton, otter, swan, grouse, and dozens of other species, both domestic and wild. Organ meats included sweetbreads, hearts, livers, and kidneys. Fish dealers offered eel, 15 types of bass, 6 types of flounder, and 17 types of perch. Produce included purslane (I’m sure there is some growing in your backyard), salsify (a root vegetable), borage, burdock, beach plum, black currants, mulberries, nanny berries, black gumberries, and whortleberries. Note the extraordinary variety in comparison to today’s offerings.

Breakfast often consisted of mutton chops, fish steaks, and porridge. Oysters, whether raw or cooked, were abundant and extremely popular at all meals. Herring was prepared in a myriad of ways, such as with sour cream and mayonnaise, pickled, fried in butter, smoked, rolled, stuffed with pickles, or as “chopped herring” salad. I know this salad well because I used to help my Grandma Rosie make it.

Grandma Rosie was born July 31, 1910, the fourth child in her family, and the first to be born in America. Yesterday would have been her 100th birthday. Here’s her recipe: Soak 12 pickled herrings overnight, drain, remove the skin and bones, and chop fine. Add 2 cups cooked potatoes, 1 cup apples, and 2 hard-boiled eggs, all chopped. Mince 2 medium onions, and add to salad. Add 1 tablespoon each of oil and white vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. The book also called for 1 cup of beets and some capers, but I never saw Grandma Rosie put capers or beets in her “chopped herring.”

Signature dishes on New York’s Lower East Side included hash, soups, and pies. Pie was so popular that immigrants called Americans “pie-eaters.” Mince pie, oyster pie, apple pie, pumpkin pie, chicken pie, and “sweetbreads in pastry” were among the choices. Leftover beef, mutton, pork and fish was frequently made into “hash,” and boardinghouse dwellers were called “hash-eaters.” Soups were made from bones, root vegetables, turnips, potatoes, cabbage, and dried beans. I learned an old Yiddish proverb: “Poor people cook with a lot of water.” In contrast, the American government chose from among pork and beans, beef hash, corned beef with cabbage and potatoes, pot roast, boiled mutton, and mince pie to feed to newly arrived immigrants at Ellis Island.

Smoked salmon is now considered a delicacy, but a century ago it was a food of necessity. Without refrigeration, food was kept fresh and edible with four agents: heat, smoke, salt and acid. Meats, fish and fowl were smoked, salted, or pickled. Fruits and vegetables were pickled, jarred, or dried. Corned beef, so named because of the large “corns” of salt used in its preparation, also belongs to the large family of preserved meats and fish.

Here’s a recipe for turning cucumbers into dill pickles. It’s very similar to the recipe Grandma Rosie gave me. Pack 30 kirby cucumbers of approximately the same size into 1 large or 2 small jars, alternating the layers of cucumber with layers of dill (20 sprigs total). Boil ½ cup kosher salt in 2 quarts water, and turn off the heat. Add 2 tablespoons white vinegar, 4 cloves garlic, 1 dried red pepper, ¼ teaspoon mustard seed, 2 coin-sized slices of fresh horseradish, and 1 teaspoon of mixed pickling spice to the boiled liquid and pour over the cucumbers. If necessary, add more salt water to completely immerse them. Cover and keep in a cool place for a week. If you like the cucumbers green, try one after 5 days.

New York was famous for a squishy and gummy white bread called the “New York split loaf.” In contrast, German immigrants made less expensive whole-grain rye and pumpernickel breads with dense, chewy textures and a sour, mildly nutty flavor. These latter ones were the breads my family bought to slather with real or vegetarian chopped liver, depending on who was coming to visit. Here’s Grandma Rosie’s recipe for vegetarian chopped liver: Saute 3 chopped, medium onions in 3 tablespoons of oil until soft and golden. Mash the contents of 1 large can of drained sweet peas, and add to the onions. Add 1 ½ cups chopped walnuts and 2 chopped, hard-boiled eggs. Chop by hand to desired consistency. Season with salt and a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper.

As Grandma Rosie said often, “Hearty appetite!”


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