The current Cook the Books Club selection is 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman. While a couple of articles about the book had made me curious, the reading turned out to be totally engrossing. Using five immigrant families as points of departure, Ziegelman paints a rich historical and social picture of New York City:
They are German, Italian, Irish, and Jewish (both Orthodox and Reform) from Russia and Germany—they are new Americans, and each family, sometime between 1863 and 1935, lived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Each represents the predicaments faced in adapting the food traditions it knew to the country it adopted. From census data, newspaper accounts, sociological studies, and cookbooks of the time, Ziegelman vividly renders a proud, diverse community learning to be American... Through food, the author records the immigrants’ struggle to reinterpret themselves in an American context and their reciprocal impact on American culture at large.1
There is a lot of material in this relatively small book and it is impossible to summarize: from a description of the tenement itself, example of a style of densely populated apartment building that became common to house immigrants, to the birth of a long series of food traditions and eating establishments, to the struggles immigrants faced to rebuild their lives in the new country, Ziegelman brings into the book disparate elements and weaves them into a profoundly human story. Period photographs bring the people alive and recipes enrich the narrative. A truly satisfying read.2
A good part of the book's appeal is due to the fact that I am an immigrant myself and have direct experience of, and perspective on, the process of transplanting one's culinary traditions into another country's soil. The Baldizzi family, with solid Sicilian roots, is featured in the book's last chapter. Some of the themes covered were known to me, like:
More than other groups, Italians arrived in this country with the firm knowledge that they were unwanted. (page 192)
Interestingly, on the same page, Ziegelman talks about Madison Grant, who appeared as a character in the Cook the Books Club's previous selection Honeysuckle Season by Mary Ellen Taylor. Prior to reading Taylor's novel I didn't know who Grant was, but right afterwards, I read about him in Ziegelman's book and also in the local newspaper3 where I learned that he was a founder of the Save-the-Redwoods League. Ziegelman describes how his ideas on race (he promoted eugenics) contributed to laws restricting immigration.
The chapter about Italian immigrants talks about a number of foods, including tomatoes and eggplant, which feature in famous dishes of the Sicilian cuisine, like caponata4 and pasta alla Norma. Probably the most famous Italian dish made with those two ingredients is parmigiana di melanzane (a.k.a., melanzane alla parmigiana). For years I have been making a dish inspired by the rich parmigiana and below I am sharing the recipe. On page 217 of the book there is a recipe for Eggplants in the Oven (melanzane al forno) by Maria Gentile, author of The Italian Cook Book (published in 1919) "among the earliest Italian cookbooks published in the United States" (page 206). Besides eggplant, tomato sauce and cheese, the recipe uses an egg.
For this dish I choose globe, Italian or Listada de Gandia (a.k.a., graffiti, shown in the photo at the bottom of the post) eggplant and in terms of tomatoes, I look for Early Girl. I make this dish with whatever I find and adjust the quantities as needed. You can roast eggplant and tomatoes when you have time and assemble the dish close to mealtime. It is nowhere near as rich as a parmigiana, because the eggplant is roasted rather than fried and I use cheese with restraint.
- 1 1/2 pounds / 24 ounces / 680 grams globe, Italian or Listada de Gandia (a.k.a., graffiti) eggplant
- 1 1/4 pounds / 20 ounces / 570 grams tomatoes, Early Girl or similar
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs (thyme, winter savory, basil)
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Fine sea salt
- 2 ounces / 56 grams fresh chèvre
- 1/2 ounce sweet cheddar (or other cheese of choice that melts well like fontina or gouda)
Heat the oven to 400 F / 200 C.
Line two baking sheets (or one baking sheet and one cookie sheet) with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.
Cut the eggplant crosswise into slices 1/2 inch / 1.25 cm thick. Drizzle some olive oil over the slices and toss them with you hands. Distribute the slices on the prepared sheets, leaving 1 inch / 2.5 cm of space around each slice.
Place the sheets in the oven next to each other or one on a rack above the other. Roast for 20 minutes.
Take the sheets out of the oven. With a fork, flip the eggplant slices. Put the sheets back in the oven, switching their position. Bake for 10 minutes. Take the sheets out of the oven. Let the eggplant cool for a few minutes, then transfer onto a plate.
Heat the oven to 350 F / 177 C. (If you roast the tomatoes after the eggplant, let the oven cool while you prepare the tomatoes, then turn it on again when they are ready for it.)
Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.
Cut the tomatoes in half crosswise and place them on the prepared sheet, cut side up. Drizzle some olive oil on the tomatoes and sprinkle the herbs (making sure they land on the tomatoes).
Roast for 30 minutes. Take the sheet out of the oven. Let the tomatoes cool for a few minutes, then transfer them gently onto a plate.
Heat the oven to 350 F / 177 C.
Assemble the dish in a 7.5 inch /19 cm soufflé dish.
Crumble the fresh chèvre. Grate the sweet cheddar (or other) cheese.
Distribute 1/3 of the eggplant slices in the soufflé dish to make a layer. Sprinkle a pinch of fine sea salt. Place 1/3 of the tomatoes on the eggplant slices. Distribute 1/2 of the fresh chèvre on the tomatoes.
Repeat the previous steps one more time to make the second layer.
Make the final layer of eggplant. Sprinkle a pinch of fine sea salt. Make the final layer of tomatoes. Sprinkle the grated cheese on the tomatoes.
Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes until the vegetables are hot throughout and the cheese melted.
Take the soufflé dish out of the oven and let the vegetables rest for a few minutes, then cut them and serve immediately.
Together with a salad (lettuce leaves from my garden, tomatoes and some fruit, like a peach or a fig or morsels of melon), this for me makes a full meal. Granted, I don't stop at one serving.
A quick look at my Instagram account provides evidence of my love for eggplant and tomatoes.
1 From Publisher's Weekly
2 An interview with the author aired on NPR of interest and a review on the NY Times
3 Removing a Monument to a Eugenicist Nazi Collaborator
4 From briciole's archive: post and recipe for caponata di melanzane
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the melanzane e pomodori arrosto con formaggio audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]
FTC disclosure: I have received the table linen free of charge from the manufacturer (la FABBRICA del LINO). I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for presenting it on my blog. The experience shared and the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.