Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Winter Version of Our "Foods" Tour Comes in From the Cold!

“I never much liked fried okra. But the moment I learned that my mother had had a stroke, I thought, ‘I never got her recipe for fried okra.’ It made me so sad.”

A group of visitors were gathered around a table above our new Visitors Center at 103 Orchard Street, sharing stories about their favorite childhood memories. It’s how we start every Foods of the Lower East Side program, and I never cease to marvel at the stories I hear. But this story about fried okra seemed to sum up so much of what this program is all about.

We began offering the Foods of the Lower East Side walking tour this summer, but as winter approached, we realized that it’s no fun trying to snack in sub-freezing weather. So we designed an indoor version of this program: all the same foods served in the comfort of our brand-new classroom with sweeping views of Delancey Street.

What could be better than dumplings on a cold winter day?

Something about moving the tour indoors changes the program. With more time to relax, nibble, and chat, visitors share more of themselves than they do on the walking tour. And with less time spent walking between stops, we have more time to discuss the history of immigrant cuisine and how it shapes so much of what we eat today.

But food, as the “fried okra” story reminded me, is as much about loss as discovery. So often, the foods we remember most are lost to us. Our grandmother has passed away, and somehow her recipe for fried chicken or brisket just doesn’t taste the same when we make it. Or we’ve moved to the big city, and the apples here just aren’t as crisp and fresh as the ones our father used to make apple cobbler.

These feelings of loss are compounded if you’re an immigrant. U.S.-born citizens can usually re-create their favorite foods with some success. But an immigrant can’t just walk down to the corner market and find the same ingredients their mothers used back in China or Mexico. And immigrants often work long hours, making it hard to find the time to cook for themselves anyhow. Leaving your mother is bad enough;leaving your motherland can be doubly heartbreaking. And if you’re an immigrant, the foods you eat are a constant reminder of both leave-takings.

Fresh bialys from Kossar's on their way to the Museum
Bialys, salami sandwiches, pork dumplings, gumbo, shepherd’s pie – no matter what we eat, there’s a story to be told. I’m so glad that we offer a program where everyone gets to hear and share those stories. It’s just one of the many ways we break down the cultural barriers that too often separate us from our fellow Americans, no matter where they were born or what immigration status they must bear.

--Posted by Education Coordinator Adam Steinberg

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