Friday, July 2, 2010

The Fourth of July Picnic, Tenement-Style

Besides fireworks, the most important part of the Fourth of July for many is eating lots of delectable food straight off the grill. What did the residents of tenements eat on this holiday? And since the tenements were small and poorly ventilated in the summer heat, where would tenement-dwellers have eaten their Fourth of July cuisine?

In the hot summer weather, Lower East Side families tried to escape the tenements as often as they could, usually twice a month. Sunday was the most common day for a family outing, as it was typically the only day off from work. In years when the Fourth of July fell on a Sunday (like it does this year), families probably flocked to locations all over the city to have picnics. Scheutzen Park, which opened in New Jersey in 1875, attracted German immigrants from the Lower East Side’s Kleindeutschland neighborhood. They would walk to the trans-Hudson ferries that took them to New Jersey. Celtic Park, in Sunnyside, Queens, drew mainly Irish immigrants. (For more information on this topic, be sure to check out Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn of the Century New York by Kathy Peiss.)

Even on our nation’s birthday, it is likely that immigrants would have eaten foods that were familiar to them. Over time many of these foods have become part of mainstream American food culture. When we imagine summertime barbeques, we see potato salad, cole slaw, hamburgers, sauerkraut, sausage, Italian ice, and many other foods that immigrants introduced to the United States. And how could we forget the hot dog? German immigrants brought wienerwurst to the United States during the nineteenth century. Now an all-beef hotdog on a split-top bun is as American as apple pie. Also read 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement for more information about the food that tenement dwellers ate.

"Scraped ice seller on a hot day."
Collection of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum;key=9845

Interestingly, immigrants are to thank for the legendary Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. The story goes that four immigrants held a hot dog eating contest in 1916, the year Nathan’s Famous opened on Surf Avenue in Coney Island, to settle the dispute of who was the most patriotic of the bunch. The battle has been held every year on July 4th ever since and is open for anyone to participate.

In 1895, a trolley ride to Coney Island only cost five or ten cents. For families who could not afford travel costs, various fraternal and social organizations as well as political organizations and unions paid for mass outings and provided boats to take members to cooler locations. Coney Island drew an estimated 125,000 visitors on July 4, 1900. A New York Times article reported on the spectacle: “A sweltering host, seeking beer and breezes, descended upon Coney Island yesterday.” Apparently they argued with the train conductors about the extra 5 cent charge that applied to all holidays. Imagine being in the heat, desperate to escape the crowded tenements, and having to pay a higher price—it must have been brutal! The article continued, “A number of people living in the sweltering tenement districts in town remained by the ocean side all night to enjoy the cool air.” They were discovered after police, instructed to patrol the beach after 10 o’clock at night, found many people still lingering on the sand.

We wish all of our readers a cool and happy Fourth of July! (The Tenement Museum will be OPEN on Sunday July 4th so come for a visit if you want to celebrate our nation's heritage by recognizing some of the people who made it the America it is today...)

-posted by Devin

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.