Foods of the Lower East Side

posted on 14 Oct 2014 21:20 by sumolsen
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By Sarah Stanley

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Food was on my mind as I took a seat on the Brooklyn bound B train headed for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. I was on my way to take their Foods of the Lower East Side tour, which entails a two-hour walk around the neighborhood of 97 Orchard discussing ways that the immigrant experience has shaped the American foodscape. Other than a general excitement about the opportunity to try different foods for the sake of education, my mind was struggling with finding the meeting place of food and conservation. If conservation’s goal is long-term preservation doesn’t the consuming aspect of food stand in total contradiction to the conservator’s practice?

As I thought this through I looked across the train car and saw an ad for a food delivery service that read: “Kitchen. More like shoe storage. And mini-bar.” The kitchen, I realized, is where conservation and food meet.

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During the tour our guide took us on a journey from Germany to China or as I more clearly remember it, pretzels to dumplings. While the stories told involved many experiences and backgrounds they all displayed methods of cultural endurance or conservation. We stopped at a variety of establishments, from Essex Street Market to Economy Candy. Each location helped to develop a picture of the neighborhood’s history and how immigration continues to shape and evolve the American experience today. Most of the food traditions we experienced are continued as an attempt to remember and reestablish “home”. Food, like the concept of home, is relatable across all boundaries of understanding and creates an influential platform for cultural exchange. As an essential element of survival, food production becomes a powerful mode of cultural performance. By handing down recipes, the kitchen becomes a place of cultural conservation. Younger generations are taught through intent or simply through observation and the food culture continues.

Or doesn’t. As made so pointedly obvious in the ad on the subway, the continuation of family recipes relies on a willingness to keep cooking. Despite what subway ads might imply, the Foods of the Lower East Side Tour highlights the enduring nature of many foods in American culture that did not originate here. One of the most surprising tastes we had on the tour was pickled pineapple. Coming from The Pickle Guys, the last pickle shop on the Lower East Side, this piece of pineapple sums up the concepts of cultural influence and endurance.

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The Pickle Guys developed from common practice of selling pickles from barrels in Jewish communities during the late nineteenth-century. Something that once was so prevalent has now come down to one shop. Perhaps one thing that helps their tradition stay alive is a willingness to adapt and adopt new foods into their tradition. The pickled pineapple was introduced by an employee reminiscing about the tastes of his home in the Dominican Republic. Pickled pineapple brings in the flavor of a newer wave of immigrants while making a nod to the history of the original families who brought the pickle with them to the Lower East Side over one hundred years ago. When it comes to food, adaptation seems to be the key to endurance and provides a path to cultural preservation that our history and our taste buds can benefit from.

Sarah Stanley is a M.A. candidate at the Bard Graduate Center.

Images:
Image 1: Essex Street Market

Image 2: Economy Candy

Image 3: Pickled Pineapple

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