In a Tenement’s Meager Kitchens, a Historian Looks for Insight

...America’s growing population of food historians have similar instincts, if gentler research habits. The exploding interest in who ate what, and when, has them ransacking old cookbooks, menus, novels, letters and grocery lists, looking to see what strange news about our earlier culinary habits flutters to the floor.

I am prepared to be cynical about this new food historicism. I await the titles that pare this subject into micro-thin slices, books I suspect will be on the order of “Sesame Seeds: The Nutty, Delicate, Crunchy Little Plant Ovules That Revolutionized American Foodways and Changed the World,” or “1897: The Year the Oysters Tasted a Bit Dubious.”

In the meantime we have Jane Ziegelman’s modest but absorbing “97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement.” The story it tells, about Old World habits clashing and ultimately melding with new American ones, is familiar. But Ms. Ziegelman is a patient scholar and a graceful writer, and she rummages in these families’ histories and larders to smart, chewy effect. Ms. Ziegelman, whose previous book, “Foie Gras: A Passion,” occupies a place at the plummier end of the food history spectrum, introduces us to the Glockners, the Moores, the Gumpertzes, the Rogarshevskys and the Baldizzis, who all lived at 97 Orchard Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, between 1863 and 1935....

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