I used to be an incredibly picky eater, but sometime in the past few years I decided to at least adopt the “I’ll try anything once” motto and be more adventurous. Imagine my delight when an invite from a friend for a food walking tour popped up in my inbox.
I didn’t think twice and I’m so glad I did it. Aside from sampling from some of New York City’s finest, I learned an incredible amount about the history of NYC as it relates to its food.
The tour I went on was the Tenement Museum’s Foods of the Lower East Side and I can’t tell you enough how cool it was. We began at the Tenement Museum’s apartment building (97 Orchard Street, NYC). A group of about 15, we went around the room and discussed how food plays a role in family traditions, recipes that have been past down and those that have been lost over the years, and what we consider to be The All-American Dish (I think apple pie won over hot dogs). I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother, Chic Montenaro, who, if noticing you lingering too long over your plate, would whisper “Eat it, or you’ll wear it for a hat!”
From the Museum we headed out. We learned about the various ethnic groups in the neighborhood, how they influenced food and vice versa. But, most importantly we got to sample treats from a variety of places, including The Pickle Guys, Economy Candy, Saxelby Cheesemongers, Russ & Daughters, Vanessa’s Dumplings, and El Castillo de Agua. I was thoroughly impressed with our tour guide and her ability to immediately transport us back in time. I could easily imagine Essex Street filled with pickle vendors and crowds of people doing their daily shopping. My only regret was we went on a Saturday, so the famous Kossar’s Bialys was closed for the Sabbath. Despite not being able to bite into one of their world-renowned baked delights, I was fascinated with the history of the shop. Bialys’ chewy yeast rolls, similar to bagels, originated in the town of Bialystock, Poland and made their way to the states when European Jews came here in the 1920s. Sadly, the original bialys aren’t even made there anymore. Kossar’s Bialys is the oldest of its kind in the U.S. and the only one like it here in NYC.
After the tour we visited the new gift shop at the Museum (where I couldn’t resist trying on a plastic pickle thumb) and headed to Sauce, Frank Prisinzano’s newest restaurant. As we savored over the polenta, burrata and Bolognese we couldn’t help but wonder what it was like for those first Italian-Americans who came to this city with a dream and made it.