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What’s known today as “American” cuisine actually reflects scores of immigrants who brought their food traditions to the United States over hundreds of years. They came, they cooked, and they introduced their culinary traditions to each other. Soon, Jewish, Italian, Vietnamese and Scandinavian dishes—among others—became American food. That’s just what the Tenement Museum on New York City’s Lower East Side is helping visitors celebrate.
Typically, guests at the 1863 tenement house want to see firsthand how their immigrant ancestors lived upon arriving in America. As visitors wander through the rooms, especially the kitchens, they see culinary heritage through cooking tools and cherished recipe books.
It’s no wonder, then, that museum visitors are curious about where they can taste the same kinds of food immigrant families ate. That inspired the museum’s education coordinator, Adam Steinberg, to create a walking and tasting tour of the neighborhood focusing on food familiar to tenement occupants.
“Every tour starts and end at the visitor center,” Steinberg says. Visitors get a background of the tenement house and its occupants, including their cuisine. “I always ask the group for their own favorite food memory,” says Steinberg.
Invariably, they speak about family and a special-occasion food prepared for a holiday, birthday or anniversary, although, sometimes it involves a favorite cooking utensil. “I remember a visitor from Kentucky who talked about his mother’s fried chicken,” Steinberg recalls. “He still had her favorite skillet, the one she used to prepare the chicken.”
The 90-minute walk stops at eateries such as Loreley Restaurant & Biergarten for soft German pretzels, the Pickle Guys for a snack associated with the Eastern European Jewish community, Economy Candy for old-fashioned treats; and Castillo del Jagua, a Dominican diner. Other destinations include Panade, an Asian-fusion bakery where cream puffs might be flavored with green tea, and the Essex Street Market. Here, visitors can compare the Dominican cheese known as queso blanco with an English cheddar from Saxelby Cheesemongers. The tour ends back at the Tenement Museum visitor center with bialys, a Polish roll similar to a bagel.