MOFAD City and my work at the Museum of Food and Drink are moving along well. I’ve been exploring Jewish food vendors in the immigrant Lower East side: a new side of progressive-era food culture for me. In place of the radical vegetarians, health reformers, and nationally minded businessmen I normally study are the pioneers of a local economy that measured food partly by how it represented a particular culture. I’ve been researching the stories of individual restaurants and of the whole Lower East Side, discovering how the “Jewish Lower East Side” developed in both fact and myth.
In some ways, this project has been like any other. I’ve helped locate potential sources of funding, built a heavy library of secondary sources, reached out to more seasoned academics for advice, and taken a whole lot of notes. Much like for any other project, this work has been, to some degree, preliminary. Here though, my next (or at least my final) stop is not an archive, but the vendors of the Lower East Side.
Working on an app designed to convince users that their city is a museum exhibit, I’ve begun the unfamiliar task of researching places and people who still exist—and who have a stake in what I print. So far this semester, I’ve chosen the stores to feature in MOFAD City, and—along with the rest of the MOFAD team—started building relationships with business owners. Alongside commutes to archives, my research now includes candy on Rivington Street and bialys on Grand. Katz’s Delicatessen, Kossar’s Bialys, Economy Candy, the Pickle Guys, and the merchants of Essex Street Market are currently involved with the app. Stay tuned for a final list this spring.
As I meet with stakeholders and conduct research, I am learning to strike a balance between the academic mode of telling history and sensitivity to the businesses and people involved. The Lower East Side presents a unique challenge here, because its businesses and existing tours are invested in an existing narrative. Since the early twentieth century, Jewish businesses on the lower east side have catered to those seeking a view of Jewish tenement life. Many existing tours offer this story, taking visitors inside the lives of poor immigrant families in New York a century ago. This tour will modify this story, showing food’s complex roles as economic commodity and canvas for collective memories. The food in this app embodies deep tensions: it helped blend cultures while also marking Jews as a distinct subgroup; successful food vending helped Jews escape the ghetto while pulling tourists into it. The same food has broken down and erected barriers between Jews and other Americans; this app will explore that tension.
How do you explore subtle tensions along a digital walking tour? The work this semester has involved thinking about how technology and physical space tell stories. Tasting food, hearing audio clips about the restaurant, and pairing the vendors’ visuals with the texts’ narratives will immerse tour-goers into the world of LES Jewish food, while making them aware of the footsteps—both resident and tourist—in which they follow.
Finally, the LES tour will help inform the app’s stories of other immigrant foodways, some of them much more recent. Many people think they know the story of the Lower East Side, but fewer presume to understand Jackson Heights or Arthur Avenue. Other researchers are working on those tours while I research this one—the next semester will see us working together to form one cohesive exhibition. It should be fun.