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A Taste of the Tenements

Cake in the shape of 97 Orchard Street Image by David X. Prutting/

If you’re an American Jew, there’s a pretty good chance that somewhere, somehow, someone in your family made dinner on the Lower East Side.

Though the area has been home to a countless nationalities and ethnic groups, it holds a special place in the hearts of American Jews, many of whom can trace their first foothold in the country back to “the old neighborhood.”

On June 5, the Tenement Museum celebrated its 25th anniversary, and the 150th anniversary of the restored building at 97 Orchard Street, which housed over 7,000 people from more than 20 countries from 1863 to 1935.

As a tribute to the many sights and smells imprinted into the tenement’s walls, the gala was set up as an edible timeline, a “taste of the tenements,” catered by current local vendors and restaurants and inspired by the neighborhood’s residents. Here’s a window into what they would have been eating, and where you can find those treats today.

1860s-1880s: Oysters, whiskey, and hard cheese.

In the 19th century, more than 7.5 million people came to the United States from Ireland, many of them settling in the Lower East Side neighborhood known as the Five Points (named for the shape of the intersection of what is now Baxter Street and Mosco Street).

“The Irish were really important as fishmongers in the 19th century,” explained Jane Ziegelman, author of “97 Orchard; An edible history of five immigrant families,” also in attendance. “So, it makes sense that we’re eating oysters and listening to an Irish trio.”

Where to get it: Grey Lady, Salty Susan, Whistlepig Whiskey, Murray’s Cheese,

1860s-1880s: Pretzels, bratwurst, sauerkraut, and lager beer.

The first German immigrants started arriving in the 1850s. In the mid-to-late half of the 19th century, the Lower East side was affectionately known as “Kleindeustchland,” or little Germany.

From 1864-1886, John and Caroline Schneider operated a saloon from the basement of 97 Orchard, serving lager beer and hearty German fare to homesick neighbors.

Where to get it:Sigmund’s Pretzels, Café Katja, Top Hops

1900s-1910s: Herring, pickles, bialys, stuffed cabbage.

By 1898, the Lower East Side held the largest concentration of Jews in the world. Most of them were Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, but as Ziegelman reminds us, the first Jews actually arrived with the first German immigration wave in the 1850s and 60s.

97 Orchard was also home to the Confino family from Greece, who moved to New York in 1913. As Sephardic Jews, their cooking would have been as foreign to their Ashkenazi neighbors as smoked herring was to the Italians that followed.

During the gala, a museum educator, dressed to the nines, played the part of Victoria Confino, bride to be, who showed guests what kinds of things she would have kept handy in her kitchen. Cinnamon, all spice, cumin and ground coriander were passed around, along with dulce de rosas, a syrup made from rose petals, sugar water and lemon.

Asking us what we thought about the food, Victoria exclaimed: “I’m to be married soon and if his mama don’t like my cooking, she kill me!” Some things never change.

Where to get it: Russ & Daughters, The Pickle Guys, Hot Bread Kitchen, Noah’s Ark

1920s-1930s: Prosciutto, meatballs, pasta, and Parmesan cheese.

Remember those street scenes from the Godfather Part II? By 1910 over 350,000 Italians lived in New York City.

Adolfo and Rosario Baldizzi and their children, Sicilian immigrants, lived at 97 Orchard from 1928 until the building was closed in 1935, deemed unfit for inhabitation by the city’s new housing codes.

Where to get it: DiPalo’s Fine Foods, The Meatball Shop, Sauce, Saxelby Cheesemongers

1930s-1940s: Spanakopita, taramosolata, tzatziki, mousaka,pita, and croquettes.

Though Astoria, Queens, is where you’d go for authentic Greek food today, the Lower East Side was the first stop for many families, who later moved out of Manhattan as their socio-economic status improved.

Where to get it: Zenon Taverna, Souvlaki GR

1950s-1970s: Sesame noodles, dim sum, and dumplings.

In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States. Thought it was originally only supposed to last for 10 years, an amendment in 1902 made it permanent. The act was repealed with the Magnuson Act in 1943, but large-scale Chinese immigration didn’t occur until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

103 Orchard Street, where the museum now stands, welcomed the first Chinese families.

Where to get it: Shu Jiao Fu Zhou Cuisine, Dim Sum Go-Go, Vanessa’s Dumplings

1960s-1980s: Codfish fritters, avocado salad, fried plantains with pork.

Well after its traditional immigrant inhabitants had moved uptown or to the outer boroughs, the smells wafting down to the streets continued to mirror the changing populations of the Lower East Side, mostly from China and the Dominican Republic.

Where to get it: Palo Santo, Great Performances

Today: All of the above.

Today, the Lower East Side has come a long way from its tenement past. As one of the most rapidly gentrifying and trendy neighborhoods in New York, it remains the go-to destination for food lovers in the city and beyond looking for exotic new flavors, or just a little taste of home.


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