The Tenement Museum (108 Orchard Street, 212-982-8420), with its tours of meticulously preserved apartments dating back to the 19th century, plays a crucial role in honoring the Lower East Side’s history as the neighborhood undergoes rapid transformation. Its weekly food event, “Tastings at the Tenement,” puts the immigrant experience into delicious context, with a culinary survey of the area that should resonate with both tourists and native New Yorkers.
On a recent Thursday, a tour began with a look inside the apartment of the Rogarshevskys, a Russian Jewish family that lived on Orchard Street in the early 1900s. A museum educator explained that the family would take on boarders to help pay the rent, cramming up to 10 people into the tiny space, which lacked bathrooms and electricity. Mrs. Rogarshevsky had to be resourceful in order to feed her relatives and renters, relying on cheap produce from the pushcarts that once crowded the streets of the Lower East Side.
After the apartment tour, the group moved to a museum classroom, where a discussion of food memories provided a segue to tastings from local restaurants and shops that recall the waves of immigrants who passed through the tenements. Pretzels with sharply spicy mustard from Cafe Katja offered a parallel to the basement German beer halls that dotted the neighborhood in the late 1800s. A selection of pickles from The Pickle Guys represented a marriage of old and new by including pickled pineapple — a tribute to the area’s Latin American population — along with traditional Eastern European-influenced sours. The group delved into LES institution the Essex Street Market with samples from Saxelby Cheesemonger, which sources its products from New York State farms, as well as a sweet and mild queso blanco dabbed with guava paste from Batista Grocery. Soppressata from Di Palo Fine Foods, peanut noodles from Fu Zhou Cuisine, and cream puffs from the Chinese-inflected bakery Panade rounded out a meal that celebrated the far-flung food cultures that have molded the LES into one of the city’s most historically rich districts.
As dinner progressed, museum educators asked guests to consider whether foreign cuisine, once transplanted to the U.S., can remain truly “authentic” — and if the hybrids that result, which become comfort foods to second and third generation Americans, aren’t equally worthwhile. The organizers provided insider tidbits, like how Economy Candy, when it first opened in 1937, used to sell shoes alongside its licorice and lollipops. They also encouraged the group to think about the impact of gentrification on food, describing, for instance, how Vanessa Weng of Vanessa’s Dumplings opted to expand her Mandarin dumpling house’s menu to entice the hipster influx with items that are not strictly Chinese.
With chain stores, bank branches, and big real estate encroaching upon what was once an enclave for poor immigrants, there is the danger of significant loss of culture. But the Lower East Side’s crowded, colorful past remains partially in tact, at least, in the globe-spanning flavors of the restaurants and groceries celebrated by the Tenement Museum. As one tour guest, a tourist from Switzerland, observed, the tasting event was about “making people proud of who they are, whoever they are.”
Tastings at the Tenement is held every Thursday at 6:30 pm, 103 Orchard Street. Tickets are $35 for adults and $30 for seniors and students.