Author examines immigrant history by looking at food

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Book chronicles struggle to keep cultural identity in families’ move to US

In “97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement,” author Jane Ziegelman examines the history of early immigrants to America who were unable to find many of the ingredients they had grown accustomed to cooking with in their home countries. Lacking the produce of their homelands, early immigrants had to adjust their recipes and create entirely new hybrid cuisines that combined the New World with the Old.

In her book, Ziegelman focuses on five immigrant families that lived at 97 Orchard, a tenement building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and their struggle to maintain their unique cultural identities while living in America.

Ziegelman’s book follows the German, Irish, Reformed Jewish, Orthodox Jewish and Italian families that lived at 97 Orchard, beginning in the 1860s through the Great Depression. The author’s food writing has appeared in various publications, and she is the co-author of “Foie Gras: A Passion,” which chronicles the controversial history of the French delicacy of duck or goose liver. Ziegelman is also the director of the up-and-coming culinary program at New York City’s Tenement Museum, a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the 97 Orchard tenement building.

The book “97 Orchard” is well-researched, almost to a fault. There is no question that Ziegelman is a good writer, and she does her best with the information she has, but the families profiled in “97 Orchard” did not leave many records and Ziegelman frequently has to rely on speculation to tell their stories. The book contains so much information and so many excerpts from other works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the human aspects of immigrant life are watered down to the point where it reads like a textbook.

Ziegelman’s efforts to preserve immigrant history is laudable, but straddling the line between entertainment and information is often a difficult task, and unfortunately, “97 Orchard” fails to grab readers’ attention.

Grade: B-