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Learning History by Eating: the Lower East Side Food Tour

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New York City makes me fat. I visit about once a year and I rarely go home without gaining more weight than I can afford: bagels, pastrami, hot dogs, tacos, cupcakes… anything and everything I can’t get in the French countryside.

Lower East Side food tours

Yes, I know we eat sublimely here but it’s not about eating well. It’s about sinking my teeth into comfort food once in a while, that crunchy, fatty, pasty, sugary, gooey stuff the French do so poorly.

I usually indulge wildly and hop from restaurant to diner to food stall, but this time I was a bit broke in New York and had to exercise uncharacteristic restraint. Instead of putting all my money into a single meal, I opted for a Lower East Side food tour, put on by the Tenement Museum.

From Germany to Russia and beyond

To my surprise the tour first met in a classroom, where I and a dozen others listened to a history lesson about the Lower East Side and learned that many so-called American foods – like hamburgers or chilli or French Fries – weren’t American at all. My guess is that most of us knew this already.

After a bit we ventured into the crisp outdoors and began the fun part, walking through the neighborhood. Many of the buildings look little different than in photos taken more than a century ago, with their brick buildings and outdoor metal fire escapes. I could almost imagine the pushcarts vying for a scrap of space.

At one time, we’re told, this might have been the most crowded neighborhood on Earth.

Lower East Side food

Jewish Market on Lower East Side, 1900. Courtesy shorpy.com

The initial LES – as the Lower East Side is called – immigration wave was German (with Irish and English minorities as well) and their cultural and culinary heritage included the good ol’ saloon, perhaps as insalubrious but more accessible than it is now.

Given the small size of tenements, families had nowhere to socialize so saloons were born, where entire families, children included, would gather to throw back a few lager beers.

To ensure everyone drank plenty, soft pretzels with incendiary mustard were provided, keeping throats parched and tongues bloated.

I tried the mustard, and cried.

These European immigrants were followed by Russians and Jews – and pickles, an affordable indulgence for the poor during the Gilded Age, when the wealth gap was widening. So too appeared the Central European bialys, the bagel’s predecessor, baked, not boiled. I visited on the Sabbath and Jewish shops were closed, so I’ll have to sit on my bialy hunger. Instead I crunched a bright green juicy pickle and loved it; I was slightly less enamored of the pickled pineapple, although that may have been due to the surprising taste.

At the turn of the 20th century, Italians arrived en masse but they weren’t highly thought of: they were considered dirty, uneducated, and their food was threatening. Garlic was seen as offensive, and was blamed for ‘agitation’. We shivered outside something called University Settlement House, where local cooking classes led by well-meaning ladies encouraged Italians to cook more ‘American’ food, like peanut butter and cottage cheese sandwiches (please, no!), boiled beets, vegetable soup or stewed prunes. How this might have been an improvement on lasagne or eggplant I cannot fathom.

We gratefully munched on sopressata Italian sausage wrapped around parmesan.

Eventually Americans caught on that Italians fed huge families on very little and timidly experimented with pasta. The rest is history.

Lower East Side food changes with immigration waves

Around the corner from the pickle shop is the indoor Essex Street Market, the only one left of four which opened in the first half of the 20th century to get rid of the pushcarts crowding the streets. We had a taste of mature cheddar (boring) and queso blanco with guava paste, a Dominican Republic specialty, slightly more original but not overly tasty, a bit like American mozzarella in both taste and texture.

With immigration restrictions lifted in the 1960s Dominicans and Chinese poured into the neighborhood, many of them opening restaurants. El Castillo is one of few originals left. These eateries had an interesting social function: Latinos only ate there if they worked so hard they had no time to cook at home, or if they were homesick, so the restaurants introduced Dominican dishes to others – including tostones, or fried plantain, which is something I’m afraid I’ve never liked. They feel like stale French Fries in my mouth, and taste like… well, like nothing. I would have loved to try something else from the menu, like fried pork or beef spare ribs – but it wouldn’t be fair to expect an expensive meaty meal on a two-hour food tour.

Across the street sits a store that elicited delighted squeals from some of my companions: Economy Candy. It used to be called Economy Shoes, and after tasting a brittle chocolate-covered pretzel, it might as well have kept its original name.

Crammed into close quarters

So many nationalities stuffed into such a small neighborhood made fusion food inevitable, as I saw when we tried a black sesame cream puff from Panade on Eldridge Street. Asian restaurants crowd this little enclave and are so authentic a few barely have a word or two in English, catering mostly to a Chinese clientele. This part of the LES borders on Chinatown, the largest ethnic community that hasn’t moved on to greener pastures.

Lower East Side Food

We had walked well over two hours and returned to our classroom, made distinctly more interesting by the arrival of rival dumplings, vegetarian in one plate and meaty in the other. I was in heaven.

This was my first edible tour in New York and I enjoyed walking the streets in search of Lower East Side food, but somewhere deep inside I’m a sitter-downer. I want to go into each restaurant, talk to the chef, sample a few selected dishes, and glide over to the next one.

No wonder New York makes me fat.

The two-hour tour, Foods of the Lower East Side, costs $45.

12 Comments

  1. Jeff Dobbins on December 23, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    Really enjoyed this vicarious tour. I’m a big fan of the Tenement Museum and, while I haven’t taken this tour, I’m erger to do so now. The East Side is such a fascinating place, recently transformed, yet as you pointed at, essentially authentic.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 23, 2012 at 10:28 pm

      I’ve stayed in the LES several times with friends and never realized the rich tapestry of culture woven through the neighborhood. So many immigrants came through here and left their mark. Next time I’m in NYC I’ll take another Tenement tour – I thoroughly enjoyed it and I look forward to hearing about yours!

  2. Koren @ City Gal on December 25, 2012 at 8:00 am

    The Lower East Side is my favorite neighborhood in NY – so many great authentic eateries that haven’t been spoiled yet. And yes, it’s easy to get fat living here!!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 25, 2012 at 9:46 am

      At least it was Saturday or I would have left a lot heavier! One thing our guide told us – a local Chinese restaurant in front of which we stopped had apparently put up a sign in English only recently. Otherwise only a Chinese sign was up, evidence of that authenticity, I think.

  3. Jennifer on December 26, 2012 at 12:54 am

    I totally understand what you mean. The real Italian food in the off-the-tourist-path parts of Italy is amazing, but sometimes you just want a good burger, or Tex-mex, or a bagel and a shmear!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 26, 2012 at 2:21 am

      I know! Sitting at home in France I’ve had a yearning for non-French food… some days I’d give anything to order some Chinese! Instead, I wait till I’m in town and then pay a fortune for what is considered a ‘luxury exotic meal’!

  4. Lisa | LLworldtour on January 13, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    Nice post! I’ve done the Tenement Museum, but not the food tour. Gotta say…I LOVE Bialys! We grew up eating them (and bagels with creamed cheese and lox, of course!) and I prefer the bialy. Less doughy and love those onions baked into the middle. In fact, I have some in my kitchen right now from Chicago’s aptly named “New York Bagel & Bialy”. 🙂

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on January 13, 2013 at 5:07 pm

      As someone who lived in Montreal I wasn’t familiar with bialys – always thrilled to make new food discoveries! I’ll go back to the Tenement Museum to see everything else they have – very intriguing place and a wonderful window into New York’s history.

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