Monday, June 7, 2010

Fantastic Event Alert: On June 10, an immigration story told through food and song

‘You won’t believe this. My father brought this from Europe, and it has been kept ever since. It’s a cheese.’
- Josephine Burson, May 2007

Long before becoming an educator at the museum and learning about the raspberries, bagels, and jars of kasha left behind at 97 Orchard Street, I knew about the enduring strength of certain foodstuffs when left untouched over time.

Back in the spring of 1997, I went to Memphis, TN, my hometown, to see my paternal grandmother, Josephine Burson. She was in a nostalgic mood, recounting stories about her childhood and showing me photographs of her parents. When we had finished looking at photos, she brought out something that I had never seen before – something wrapped in aluminum foil that looked kind of like a pumice stone. She said it was a desiccated wedge of cheese, brought to this country by my great-grandfather in the early 20th century.

Apparently, sometime around 1895, my great-great-grandmother gave a wedge of cheese to her14-year-old son when he left his shtetl in Lithuania so as to avoid conscription in the Tsar’s army. My great-grandfather never ate the cheese, nor did he throw it away. He took it with him to Johannesburg, South Africa, where he went to live with his uncles for a time before striking out on his own.

Eventually, he moved yet another world away – not to the Lower East Side of NYC, but to Memphis, TN, where he married and had four daughters.

Strangely still in possession of the cheese when he died, my great-grandfather passed it down to my grandmother. When my grandmother passed away last June, I inherited the now 115-year-old wedge of cheese.

On June 10th, 2010, the cheese (now hermetically sealed in a glass jar) will sit in a place of honor at a unique dinner event at Henry Street Settlement. This intimate event, presented by fellow Museum educator Sarah Lohman and me, will feature a performance of my upcoming Rounder Records release, Silver and Ash. The album is a collection of songs that imagine my maternal grandmother's life in Germany through her immigration to the United States in 1938, while also exploring my own struggles with rupture, silence, guilt, and continuity.

The performance itself will be divided into four "chapters," each of which will be accompanied by a food course. The dishes, prepared by Sarah -- an historic gastronomist -- will progress from the late 19th century Eastern European origins of my story through Weimar Germany and 1950s Tennessee, ending with the dessert my grandmother always made for me as I was growing up: pound cake.

The recipes come from period sources, including The Settlement Cookbook, an early 20th century American cookbook that catalogs ethnic Jewish and German cuisines.

For tickets ($60) and more information, including Sarah’s delicious menu, go to

We look forward to singing and cooking for you on June 10th!

- Posted by Clare Burson

[Editor's Note: Clare first visited the Tenement Museum to take photos for her album art. She was so moved by the exhibits and stories of 97 Orchard Street that she decided to work here. Sarah was first featured on the Tenement Museum blog in January 2009, when she spent a week eating like an 1877 tenement housewife. She also found herself magnetically drawn to the Lower East Side and started working here last year. Don't miss this incredible chance to explore what we never get to inside the museum - immigration and family stories told through taste, smell and sound.]

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