Foodie and “Loisaida” (slang for Lower East Sider) that I am, I jumped at the chance to attend the latest “Tenement Talk” at the Tenement Museum last night to hear former NY Times restaurant critic and author, William Grimes, discuss his new book “Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York”. I was very impressed by Grimes’ ability to cover over 200 years of culinary history, in such a gastromically diverse city as New York, fairly comprehensively in the span of just under an hour. No mean feat. But Grimes is a terrificly humorous storyteller who paints absolutely fascinating pictures of early food culture, geared specifically to tales of the Lower East Side, for last night’s Tenement audience. (He’ll give another talk, which is sure to be varied in scope with Editor in Chief of Gourmet Magazine, Ruth Reichl, at the New York Public Library this evening). His talk was peppered with one amusing anecdote after another, as he touched on topics such as: the ‘sausage and sauerkraut’ oriented cuisine of the early LES when it was better known as “Little Germany” aka Kleindeutschland; the evolution of the Deli, from German to Eastern European Jewish & Italian immigrant ownership; and the impact of the Depression and Prohibition on the burgeoning restaurant and food scenes of the day.
Other favorite anecdotes from the evening included discussions of: the emergence of bread lines and 1 cent coffee carts, aimed at feeding the huddled masses, so long as they could come up with at least a penny in good faith; the backlash directed at such generosity, leading to the the condemnation of the starving artists and “slumming culture”; the evolution from “Beef and…” lunchtime counter establishments to the rise of lobster palaces; and the diversity of available food stuffs at the Fulton Street and (now defunct) Washington Public Markets.
During the Q&A portion of the evening, Grimes touched on a few more modern topics including: the rise of artisanal/gourmet vendie carts; and how geography and real estate, and the separation of live/work sectors have played a major role in NY becoming a stand up/eat out culture. The evening concluded with a “Which came first? The chicken or the egg” debate about whether restaurants make a neighborhood, or vice versa, and the recent turning of the tide from anonymous kitchen staffs and the restaurant owner as king, to today’s rise of celebrity superchefs and their destination eateries. Quite a lot of information to chew on, and a very enjoyable evening for foodie and NY history buffs, indeed. If any of these topics appeal, be sure to pick up Grimes’ book, now available in stores.
It’s also worth mentioning that, there are several other interesting Tenement Talks on the horizon, including “LES Stories: Apartment Tales”, “What Makes Architecture Great”, “The Amazing Journey of American Women: 1960 to Present” and “Holidays in the City”. Check the link below for dates. The Talks are currently being held in their Gift Store across from the actual museum (one the best shopping spots in the city to pick up cool & unique NY souvenirs). I recommend getting down to the LES early to walkabout and sample some of the great eats of the area, before you head over for the 6:30 pm talk. Katz Deli, babycakes, el labatorio del gelato, The Roasting Plant, Guss’ Pickles, and the Essex Street Market are great places to visit to get a taste of the local flavor, and are all less than a 3-minute walk from the museum. I don’t think they anticipated last night’s large turn out, so be sure to get to the Talk early as well, in order to secure a highly coveted folding chair. Free wine and soft drinks are provided, and donations are graciously accepted. The museum is offering a special in conjunction with their Tenement Talks – purchase a museum membership for $55 (which entitles you to free museum visits for a year and Gift Store discounts), and the featured book of the evening is FREE. It’s a very good deal, for a worthy cause, in my opinion. Hope to see you at the next one!
FREE @ The Tenement Musuem, 6:30 pm
108 Orchard Street between Delancey & Grand
Lower East Side, NY