The other day I stumbled upon a great little program called Food(ography), hosted by the delightful Mo Rocca. The particular episode I was watching (still airing a handful of times on the Cooking Channel throughout September) was about street food, and it investigated various carts/trucks in cities throughout the US. I’m something of a foodie, and I love Mo Rocca, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to watch this show. But I wasn’t expecting it to have anything to do with my work until suddenly culinary historian Jane Ziegelman pops on the screen, on location at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in NYC.
Ziegelman recently published a book about the food history of the Tenement Museum’s turn-of-the-century residents, 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement. On Food(ography) she was explaining the street food vendors that started appearing in the Lower East Side in the late 19th century (watch her clip from the episode here). Ziegelman calls Orchard Street the “main drag” for Jewish push carts–pickle, anyone? Oyster carts were also common, providing what was at that time a cheap and plentiful local protein. And a concentration of German immigrants meant that sausages were eaten on the streets as well, first served on a communal plate, and then by the 1870s on a bun for easier transport. Irish and Italians in turn added their culinary traditions to the Lower East Side so that its streets, markets, delis, and home kitchens slowly blended into the melting pot we now call American food. I haven’t read Ziegelman’s book yet, but I imagine that food from pushcarts, so much less of a social commitment than stepping over the threshold of an unknown shop or a neighbor’s apartment, may have served as an important gateway for New Yorkers sampling a different ethnic food for the first time. And street food is particularly significant as the food of the people: affordable, readily available, quick and easy to cook–no fine dining here.
Later this year the Tenement Museum is scheduled to open its new visitor center at 103 Orchard Street. It will include a demonstration kitchen, run by Ziegelman, where visitors can experience immigrant cooking and connect with an aspect of the urban experience that too often gets left out of city museums. Meanwhile back at Food(ography), Mo introduces me to the Indian spice mini-donuts from Chef Shack and Ethiopian Beef Tibs from SHE Royal Deli, two food trucks gaining loyal fans in Minneapolis. The food history of cities continues to evolve in the most delicious of ways.
It’s lunchtime. Think I’ll go grab a Vietnamese sandwich.