Food is elemental. Next to air and water, nothing is more important to a person’s survival. And every civilization has been built on access to plentiful food. To understand a nation’s culture, you must understand its food – what people eat, why they eat it, and how they feel about what they eat.
Nowhere is this dynamic more obvious than here on the Lower East Side. With literally dozens of different nationalities sharing this neighborhood, you can find restaurants, shops, and markets selling foods from all over the world. Here you can find Chinese dumplings, Dominican fried plantains, Jewish pickles, and Italian cured meats all being sold cheek-by-jowl. People from all over the world come here to see the sights and especially eat these foods.
The Tenement Museum hasn’t really looked closely at this topic—until now. Starting in June, we’ll be offering a food-themed walking tour every Saturday and Sunday. We’ll serve you some of the neighborhood’s most popular foods from the past, and in the present day.
We’ll visit the Pickle Guys, the last of the old Jewish pickle merchants on the Lower East Side.
The author introduces the group to the much-loved Pickle Guys
We’ll walk through Essex Street Market, a haven for immigrants from all over the city looking for their favorite hard-to-find fruits and vegetables.
We’ll taste some of the candy from Economy Candy, a legendary, immigrant-owned candy store.
Chocolate covered pretzels from Economy Candy
We’ll compare Asian-fusion treats with traditional Chinese pork dumplings.
Green tea cream puffs from Panade Bakery
Pork dumplings from Vanessa's Dumplings
We’ll wrap up the tour with some traditional bialys, served inside our landmarked 1863 tenement at 97 Orchard Street.
But we’ll do more than snack. Throughout this tour, we’ll talk, as a group, about what food means to us. What’s your favorite childhood food memory? Under what circumstances would you go out to a Chinese restaurant as opposed to a French restaurant? And what’s the difference between a heaping plate of pasta served in an old Italian restaurant and a can of Chef Boyardee served at home (aside from the taste)?
By tour’s end, you’ll be full – but you’ll also have new insights into what food means to immigrants, what food means to Americans, and how seemingly exotic immigrant dishes eventually become part of the regular American diet. You’ll never think about what you eat the same way again.
--Posted by Tenement Museum Education Coordinator Adam Steinberg