Restoring the Merchant’s House Museum Kitchen

Walking into the period kitchen at the Merchant’s House Museum, one has the distinct feeling of somehow having just missed the cook or a servant darting past you bringing a platter of roasted meat and vegetables to the table. Stepping through the door, it’s easy to sense the ceaseless activity that once must have filled this room. The cast-iron stove seems ready for another shovel of coal, the beehive bread oven stands waiting for the next batch of risen loaves, and the family pie safe stands solemnly in the corner seemingly protecting its contents from small hands and ever-present pests.

The cast-iron stove and beehive bread oven at the Merchant’s House Museum on East Fourth Street in New York, once home to the Tredwell family. (The Merchant’s House Museum)

The Merchant’s House Museum is one of New York City’s greatest treasures and an extraordinary historical document of home life in the antebellum metropolis. In fact, the 19th-century row house, intact from the exterior as well as the interior, was Manhattan’s very first landmarked property upon the passing of the revolutionary landmark law in 1965. Built in 1832 in the affluent Bond Street area at what was then the northernmost part of the city, the elegant five-story Greek revival building was home to retired hardware merchant Seabury Tredwell, his wife Eliza, their eight children, and a staff of Irish servants. The family moved into the house in 1835 and lived there until the youngest surviving daughter, Gertrude, died in the house at the age of 93 in 1933.

Miraculously, despite dramatic changes in the neighborhood over the nearly 100 years since the Tredwells took up residence, Gertrude had maintained the house as it was last redecorated in the mid-1850s, “as Papa would have wanted it.” Upon her death, the house was purchased by a distant cousin, New York attorney George Chapman, who, realizing the rare treasure the house and its contents represented, made necessary repairs and opened it as a museum in 1936. Today, visitors see the home much as the Tredwell family would have known it, with much of their furniture intact and sitting where it always has. Exhibitions of personal belongings and an extraordinary revolving display of dresses and period clothing worn by the family are now on view for modern visitors.

It is in the kitchen where visitors often pause and spend a few extra minutes. There is indeed something compelling about this space. The sense of authenticity is extraordinary —the servant call bells with their original wires still in place . . . the work table in the center of the room covered with cuts and scratches documenting truly decades of butchered fowl, chopped vegetables, and endless loaves of sliced bread, and the beehive bread oven cleaned and ready for the next day’s baking.

Despite the dramatic detail of the intricate plasterwork in the parlors and the restrained elegance of the furniture and furnishings, it is in the kitchen where visitors often pause and spend a few extra minutes. There is indeed something compelling about this space. The sense of authenticity is extraordinary—the servant call bells with their original wires still in place at the ready to summon a servant to Mrs. Tredwell’s bedroom, the work table in the center of the room covered with cuts and scratches documenting truly decades of butchered fowl, chopped vegetables, and endless loaves of sliced bread, and the beehive bread oven cleaned and ready for the next day’s baking.

In opening his museum’s doors to the public, Chapman intended to present the house as the family would have known it when they moved in 1835. His goal was to preserve the safe and predictable world of old New York, before, at least in his opinion, it became full of Gilded Age opportunists interested only in amassing wealth and power. The look of Chapman’s restoration of the house was restrained, even ascetic. One of his main principles was to display only objects that had belonged to the Tredwells. For the kitchen, he removed several of the objects he found upon taking over the house. A 20th-century gas stove was taken out, as was an icebox, and most importantly and mistakenly, two original heavy stone utility tubs. A pantry and storage room between the kitchen and family room were renovated to become a modern bathroom for visitors and next door a small service kitchen was installed for museum events.

The kitchen hearth at the Merchant’s House Museum in 1936, and the kitchen as it appears today. (The Merchant’s House Museum)

One of the largest objects he removed was the Tredwells’ original cast-iron stove, bought by Seabury Tredwell in 1857 for the grand sum of $37.76. Restoring the hearth to its 1832 appearance, he added a rebuilt crane from which he hung one of the Tredwells’ old cast-iron pots. Chapman’s goal was to show the kitchen as it appeared in the 1830s and ’40s when, at least for some years, open-hearth cooking was the standard in New York homes.

With Chapman’s death in 1959, the vision for the house was set to move in a new direction. He had, however, unquestionably established the Old Merchant’s House, as he called the museum, as one of the country’s most unique and important historic house museums.

The Decorators Club’s view of the kitchen space was a far more romantic 19th-century vision than the preservation practices of today dictate. They brought in a central dining table and included a rocking chair draped with a shawl. . . . An early 19th-century kitchen was a hardworking space. . . . It is unlikely that a 19th-century servant would draw a rocking chair up to the hearth—and have kept her job.

In the early 1960s the leadership of the museum was taken over by The Decorators Club, a New York-based women’s organization of interior designers. The Decorators Club had a new vision for the presentation of the house interior and began work to transform it to represent the best of the home’s former beauty, as well as to use the historic townhouse as their headquarters.

The Decorators Club’s view of the kitchen space was a far more romantic 19th-century vision than the preservation practices of today dictate. They brought in a central dining table, included a rocking chair draped with a shawl and mounted the Tredwell blue and white transferware on the wall. None of this was authentic as to how the space would have been used or experienced by the family or their revolving staff of Irish cooks and servants. An early 19th-century kitchen was a hardworking space, one that was quite obviously hot, wet, crowded, and full of cooking smells of all sorts. It is unlikely that a 19th-century Irish servant would draw a rocking chair up to the hearth and enjoy a cup of tea—and have kept her job. Nonetheless, the vision of the Decorators Club continued to gain press and visibility for the museum.

The early 1970s were monumental years in the preservation of the house. Until that time, although the interiors had been repainted and woodwork had been patched, no serious comprehensive structural restoration of the entire building had ever taken place. Damage as the result of time and lack of repair had progressed to the point where the house had become structurally unstable and the roof was in serious danger of collapsing. As a result of his connections with The Decorators Club, the house’s savior arrived in the form of Joseph Roberto, an architect from New York University with a passion for New York history and the skills to give the building a desperately needed overhaul.

Roberto was acutely interested in stabilizing the structure but also passionate about the authentic presentation of the rooms and contents. As he began his work, removing floorboards, shoring up walls, and repairing the roof, he discovered further clues as to how the house actually appeared to its inhabitants in the 19th century.

Based on his findings, the kitchen was extensively renovated. Historians were aware that a fresh water supply was brought to the neighborhood at some point after 1842, when the Croton River reservoir and aqueduct were built in today’s midtown. The Tredwells’ household utility water was caught and held in a 4,000-gallon cistern buried just behind the house, where it remains today. Plumbing then brought the water into the kitchen via a system of lead pipes discovered in the basement. Roberto installed a 19th-century sink and pump along the west wall, which, at least for the time being, helped visitors imagine how an early water supply was likely brought into the kitchen.

Seabury Tredwell, a hardware merchant, lived in the mansion with his family. (The Merchant’s House Museum)

Roberto purchased a period Abendroth cast-iron stove and installed it in the open hearth. Seabury Tredwell bought a similar new stove in 1857, though we don’t know if it was the family’s first, or it they were replacing an earlier model with a more modern design. Early cast-iron stoves made domestically were often the bane of cooks for their lack of strength and tendency to crack. Nonetheless, the introduction of a double-oven, six-burner cast-iron stove would have made the cook’s life easier in preparing meals for a household that at its height approached nearly 20 members.

In recent years, under the guidance of Executive Director Margaret Halsey Gardiner, the kitchen and entire house have undergone yet another restoration with a detailed eye to restoring the house as accurately as possible to the 1850s, when the Tredwell family undertook a top-to-bottom redecoration of their home. During the period, many wealthy families were leaving the once fashionable Bond Street area and making the move uptown to the rapidly developing neighborhoods along Fifth Avenue and in Murray Hill. For reasons unknown, the Tredwells chose to remain in their beloved East Fourth Street home and update their interior décor.

As part of the research for a comprehensive Historic Furnishings Plan begun in the early 2000s, even more was discovered about the kitchen, which led to its most recent renovation. Extensive exploration of the piping system, hidden for decades behind the walls, revealed new information on the kitchen’s original layout. The utility tubs that Chapman mistakenly removed have been replicated and reinstalled. These sinks were originally used for laundry and the washing of heavy pots and cooking equipment. The sink and pump system installed by Roberto was removed and a zinc replica, created from period advertisements and drawings, has been installed to give a more accurate impression of the original sink servants would have used for the washing of fragile glassware, lamp globes, and china.

Eliza Tredwell. (The Merchant’s House Museum)

TTTA question has long lingered as to the original color of the walls throughout the house. Most of the walls have been kept a neutral off-white color since Roberto’s era. In 2011, a thorough paint analysis of the house was completed, revealing the kitchen and ground floor to have been painted a warm ochre color in the 1850s. A thorough repainting of the ground floor in 2013 has returned the walls to this original color.

In addition, a long-maintained assumption was that a pass-through window existed in the kitchen, connecting it to the ground floor front room, which functioned as the family’s intimate dining room. This pass-through window would have, in theory, made it easier for the servants to pass food from the kitchen into the dining room for service. When excavations were completed within the walls separating the two spaces, no evidence of a pass through was found; however, the outlines of an interior window were discovered. This interior window was designed to bring light from windows on the exterior walls to the dark interior pantry. Given the placement high on the wall, this window clearly functioned to bring at least some light to the original linen and china storage pantry. The window has since been reconstructed and restored to its original place.

One of the mysteries of the Tredwell kitchen has centered on a cupboard-like space just to the left of the hearth and above the brick beehive bread oven. When the kitchen was working full tilt, the cupboard would have unquestionably been an extremely hot space. Speculation has assigned it various purposes including a place for bread dough to rise or a space to warm plates. Museum historian Mary L. Knapp, author of An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City: 1835–65, provided the answer through some recent research. A diary entry in an obscure source revealed that such a cupboard actually functioned as an iron storage cupboard. The kitchen would have been a very wet place and any iron cooking implements would be in constant danger of rusting. In the cupboard, heat would evaporate any moisture on them, thus preserving them for safe use.

Fans of TV’s Downton Abbey will recognize these as servants call bells. (The Merchant’s House Museum)

Among the most intriguing aspects of the kitchen are the servant call bells suspended on curved wires on two of the walls. It is extremely rare to see an intact system of what, in 1832, was a high level of technology. Visitors on tours today laugh and inevitably make a reference to the similar bells made famous by the British television series Downton Abbey. House guides hasten to clarify that the presence of the call bells is the only similarity between the worlds of the fictitious Masterpiece Theatre family and the Tredwells.

As with any historic house museum, the search for authenticity is continuous. With the re-opening of the restored kitchen in 2014, the space now reflects the room the family and their servants would have known in the 1850s as accurately as possible. Current museum programming includes talks, tastings, and demonstrations to further educate the public on the cooking and dining practices of mid-19th-century New York. The search for more information never ceases, and yet, in the ground-level kitchen of the Merchant’s House Museum, there is a tremendous sense of the authentic. If you squint when the light is just right, you can almost see a servant returning from the dining room, rushing to the stove to assemble the next platter, and smell the comforting aromas of a family dinner in progress.

The Merchant’s House Museum is located at 29 East Fourth Street. Visit the museum’s website at www.merchantshouse.org for details on its hours of operation, guided tours, and special events.

Mimi Sheraton’s Culinary Bucket List

AA: Although most of your writing has been for a popular audience, you seem to have tendency toward an academic or social science method.

Mimi Sheraton
(Photo by Eric Etheridge)

MS: I think that’s probably true. When I left the Times, my editor there told me that the most letters of protest they received about my leaving were from academics. And he was my editor only for restaurant reviews, because they were in a separate section then. They weren’t in the food section at that time; they were in the weekend section. Also, Frank McCourt’s book, Teacher Man, has almost an entire chapter on my work, which he assigned to his English classes at Stuyvesant High School. Every week they had to read Mimi Sheraton’s review and then go to the cafeteria and do a “Mimi Sheraton” on it. He described the elements in my reviews that made them effective. So I think that my viewpoint was quite academic. Many people say clinical, but I personally prefer academic. Whatever it was, it was, and it seems to have resonated. I think besides, as they say, the history of our times, my work traversed a great deal in the history of food in this country, having started writing about food in about 1955. I was the food editor of Seventeen before that, but that was not serious food. There I wrote about things that teenage kids could make for parties. I was also the home furnishings editor. But given the time in relation to the end of World War II, it took about 10 years for food to become promotional again: new ideas about food emerged, many servicemen coming back from foreign countries had developed a taste for foreign food, and television became much more widespread. In 1954, I remember not having a television set and going to a friend’s house to watch television. About eight of us went because none of us had TVs, and we went to hear Edward R. Murrow demolish Senator Joseph McCarthy. We knew it was going to be a historic program. We all brought something to eat and had dinner at her house.

Dione Lucas had started cooking on television in 1948, but she was one of the earliest. The whole field of mass communications had not yet begun. As that swelled, the field became much more diverse, and right now it’s at such a frenetic pace. I’m very glad I’m not involved, having to rush to come up with new ideas. You have to run all over the place and eat standing up in noisy places, and eat from trucks, and a lot of things I’m not crazy about doing.

The thing that really changed the style of food coverage in the press, restaurant reviews, and all the rest, was Craig Claiborne. There is no question that he broke the ice at the New York Times in 1957. Until that time, food in newspapers was primarily the work of home economists who had test kitchens, and they did those kinds of recipes. He came in with a really professional restaurant point of view, and that changed food writing very, very much. I think my chance to break through came at New York Magazine. I’d been writing about food a little bit before then, but at New York Magazine you could be very “in your face.” You could hate things. [Editor] Clay Felker liked that. That brought a lot of attention to me, ultimately resulting in the New York Times calling me and asking me to go over there, which I did.

Before that I had been very fortunate in having invented a number of projects that took me all over the world, so I had very good experience in a lot of foods that were pretty obscure then. Most especially the food of Southeast Asia. By the time I went to the Times, which was in 1975, I had been all over Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, and a lot of places which had no representation here, on the East Coast at least, so the foods were very surprising. And I absorbed all of that knowledge.

In seeing how that restaurant was put together, I really learned how to be a serious restaurant critic, because when you see that everything is a choice . . .

Plus, before, or really between jobs as a critic, I was a researcher for Restaurant Associates, and the famous Joe Baum, when they were creating The Four Seasons. I did a lot of menu research on seasonal dishes and special celebration dishes, food lore, and so on. And in seeing how that restaurant was put together, I really learned how to be a serious restaurant critic, because when you see that everything is a choice—what kind of pepper are we going to put on the table, what are the steak knives going to look like, all of that—you begin to think, if you’re a critic, maybe you should pay attention to the height of the chair and the lighting, and does the steak knife really work. So my work became known as clinical or academic. I wrote what I wanted to know, what I would want to read, if I were deciding whether or not to go to a restaurant.

AA: It sounds like a lot of your work was historical, even when the goal was not necessarily to write history.

MS: It was indeed. A lot of it was cultural, especially about symbolic foods and dishes, and the way things used to be served. In 1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die, you see a lot of old references to what foods meant: there is [Mexican painter] Covarrubias in Bali [whose book, Island of Bali, includes detailed descriptions of Balinese foodways]; there’s the whole Dutch hutspot—the Spanish conquered the Dutch and then left, and they left behind a dirty pot, and the Dutch tasted it and have been eating it ever since. I think they washed the pot.

But food is history, and, of course, the influence of one culture over another as a result of wars or colonization influences what people eat. Border food in particular countries usually reflects what’s on both sides of the border. In France, in Alsace, you have some very Germanic touches on the French cuisine, whereas if you go down to the south of France near Spain you begin to see something else. People are influenced back and forth, and I think that a country that is an outstanding example of this is China, because it is so old and so huge that it has had all kinds of influences through the ages.

In Japan, for example, tempura was something developed from 16th-century Portuguese missionaries in Japan who could not eat meat on what were called fast days, or ash days, and the word in Latin was quattuor tempora, meaning four times, referring to the four weeks in the Catholic calendar during which no meat was eaten. So the Portuguese ate vegetable and seafood fritters, and the Japanese saw them, and did a little bit to them, and called it tempura. There is also a steamed sponge cake very popular in Japan that came from the Portuguese missionaries, who made a steamed pound cake. There is quite a lot of that kind of—you know—the beneficent side of some of the awful aspects of history. Who invented the veal cutlet Milanese, otherwise known as Wiener schnitzel? It’s been an argument—not the most serious argument—between Austria and Italy all of these years. So, you begin to see the more beneficent side of these awful aspects, like war. You get something good to eat, at least, many generations later.

AA: From my perspective, working in Jewish studies, you watch merchants going all over the world, and you can see the food moving with them.

MS: That’s right. Carp, for example was a fish that Jews brought to Europe. And of course, the bagel is a mystery—Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has written about that. I would say the only interesting thing about the origin of the bagel, which might have been copied, is the boiling before the baking, because there is nothing unusual about bread in a ring shape. Almost every culture that bakes bread has a ring of some sort. The boiling is the really different part. And yet in Germany, traditionally, there are what we call soft pretzels, like the ones that you buy on the street here. Those are boiled in the traditional German way. I don’t know if the people who sell them on the corners have boiled them, but they are crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, and they’re yeasty; in fact they call them bagel pretzels. But who did it first? … It’s like pasta. I don’t really believe that Marco Polo brought pasta back to Italy. I think any culture that had eggs and flour and water sooner or later made a noodle. And bialys, you know I’ve written a whole book on bialys. . . .

I don’t really believe that Marco Polo brought pasta back to Italy. I think any culture that had eggs and flour and water sooner or later made a noodle.

AA: I do. That book is more academic than some of your other work. You approach the bialy from an almost anthropological perspective. What made you decide to write a whole book on the subject?

MS: I loved bialys. I knew they came from Bialystok, because many years ago in New York, Kossar’s used to have a bakery on 14th Street near Second or Third, in addition to where they are now, and both locations were both known as Kossar’s Bialystoker Kuchen Bakery—it was in the name. I was going to Eastern Europe to do a big story for Condé Nast Traveler, and Poland was one of the places I was going, and I was curious. So I said to my husband, who was going with me, let’s take a side trip to Bialystok on our own to see what I can find out. I started by doing research here. Different people owned Kossar’s then, and they had some background. Also, on the East Side, there was the Bialystoker Center and Home for the Aged. It just closed two or three years ago, very sadly. It was a nursing home, but it was also a cultural center and they published, theoretically quarterly, but maybe not every quarter, a publication called the Bialystoker Shtimme, the Voice of Bialystok. From the front cover to the middle it was in English and from the back cover to the middle it was in Yiddish. Through Kossar’s bakery I was introduced to the head of that, a lovely man who had been from Bialystok, who was well into his 90s. He told me everything he knew and gave me the names of some people in Bialystok to contact. I took some bialys with me because no one thought any existed in Poland, and I wanted to be able to show what I was talking about. At Kossar’s they warned me not to pack them in plastic, or they would get moldy. If you pack them in paper they’ll dry out; you won’t be able to eat them, but at least they won’t be moldy. We went to Bialystok and spent a whole day there with a local historian, Tomy Wisniewski. He took us all around. There were only five Jews left in the town and nobody really remembered the bialy.

They only had the faintest idea. It was only made by Jewish bakers. One baker’s mother told him about this little onion roll that the Jews used to bake that everybody loved, and she remembered that there was something going on in the center, she didn’t know what, so he put a piece of cheese in the center. It didn’t taste anything like a bialy. When I got back to New York, I told the man at the center that I wanted to publish an article in the Shtimme about my search, because it was a publication that went to what they called the Bialystok landsleit [countrymen], in the diaspora all over the world. So he says, “That’ll cost you one hundred dollars.” I said okay, but that I wanted it to appear in Yiddish too, and he said, “That’ll cost you another hundred.” What I was saying was that I didn’t expect to be paid for the article. I also contacted the Forward and I did a story for them on it.

So without my going out to write history, history comes into so many of the explanations (of various foods). I don’t really consider myself a historian because I don’t focus on history, but I certainly draw on it quite a bit.

As a result of the Shtimme and the Forward, I began to get letters from all over the world—Australia, Israel, France, all over the United States, and Argentina. I tracked down everyone. The only ones I contacted by phone, and every other way, without actually meeting them, were in Australia. But I went to Argentina, to Israel, and France, and throughout the United States. The book is made up of all of these people’s memories and what happened to them from the bialy on. The bialy was like Proust’s madeleine. In some cases they had found local makers. In fact, the person I interviewed in Argentina was a retired bialy baker. There was a man in Israel that I interviewed; he’d become very rich. There was a Yemenite baker in his neighborhood who made a kind of roll out of pita dough that reminded him of a bialy, so he taught him how to make bialys.

Bialystok is the town where Esperanto, the international language, was invented by a Jewish ophthalmologist. There were about 400 Esperanto speakers in Israel and they would meet a couple of times a year, and this man would always bring bialys from the Yemenite baker. So, if you’re talking about history, you have Esperanto; you have the whole life of Bialystok, which was very rich and colorful. I found a film on Bialystok at the National Center for Jewish Film in Massachusetts. There was a series of five films made in 1939 in Poland: A Day in Warsaw, Jewish Life in Cracow, Jewish Life in Lwow, Jewish Life in Vilna, and Jewish Life in Bialystok. I bought that film, and it was all about life in Bialystok, Esperanto, and the bialy. I did a lot of talks all around the country that year and at the Oxford Food Symposium, and I showed the film. It was a rather chilling aspect of history, but here the bread evoked the whole history.

Another historical book I wrote early on was called Visions of Sugarplums, about the traditional cakes, candies, cookies, and confections in all of the countries that celebrate Christmas. Only traditional items, not invented red and green iced caked, but symbolic confections. The book is about the history of each item, what it meant, why we eat something called the Balthazar, and why we have baked goods in Germany in the shapes of animals. There was a time when instead of animal sacrifices, which the poor could not afford, they baked either a bread or a cookie in the shape of an animal. In fact, bread baked in the shape of an animal goes back to Egypt. The ancient Egyptians did it to amuse children. So, I mean that without my going out to write history, history comes into so many of the explanations. I don’t really consider myself a historian, because I don’t focus on history, but I certainly draw on it quite a bit.

I was also the historic foods consultant on the Horizon Cookbook and Illustrated History of Eating and Drinking Through the Ages. American Heritage did an American history, and the same publisher did a book on eating and drinking all over the world. Meryle Evans was one of the editors, and she hired me to be a food historian, tracing the histories of the dishes and doing some of the recipes. I remember researching vitello tonnato, which translates as “tuna-ed” veal. Veal was much cheaper than tuna, but tuna was the taste that everyone wanted, so they would boil veal with anchovies or very salty fish, so that the flavor of the fish would get into the meat. Then they would make a sauce of the reduced stock. So it was tuna-ed veal, but it never saw tuna.

I also included the history of the Wiener schnitzel. I had a lot of history in The German Cookbook. My German cookbook has been in print since October 1965, and last November Random House issued the 50th anniversary edition. I added a preface including recommended restaurants and food stores in Austria, Germany, and throughout the United States. It’s been selling very well, and it includes a lot of the history of dishes—things like what Ludwig the Mad liked to eat, or which dishes were related to Danish food in the Schleswig-Holstein region, which at one time was part of Denmark, so they have a lot of similar dishes there, which are quite different from dishes in other parts of Germany.

AA: The story of the bialy baked by a Yemenite baker in Israel highlights some of the problems with the idea of authenticity, doesn’t it?

MS: In the early days of the New York food store Agata & Valentina, up on First Avenue and 79th, they had a Tibetan cook making marvelous mozzarella. That’s very much a New York story too. Everybody got mixed up on the Lower East Side. My husband was Italian, and I used to think of making blintzes marinara, making them like cannelloni. It’s not such a big stretch. Or matzah brei with mozzarella in it—what could be bad?

AA: I’m interested in the way we understand authenticity. People seem very invested in, for example, having a Italian grandmother cook their cannelloni. Does it really matter who is doing the cooking? Or is the important thing the recipe itself?

MS: I don’t think it matters who is doing the cooking. I think what matters is the dish. We have a couple of very good Italian chefs who are not Italian. Michael White is not Italian; Mark Strausman is not Italian. They’re very, very good Italian chefs, both of them. So, I think it’s what they do. I once interviewed the Italian journalist Luigi Barzini, who was very big on food. He had a big estate in Tuscany and his cook was Filipino. He said that the best Italian cooks in the homes of wealthy Italians were Filipino cooks. I once went to dinner at the Missonis’—they served marvelous food made by a Filipino chef, but Rosita and Tai Missoni had trained him in the way Italian food should be done. It also depends also on the personality of the cook. I mean, if the cook isn’t going to be able resist dumping some cumin into the spaghetti sauce because it doesn’t quite taste right to him, then you’re in trouble, but if someone gets it, then it doesn’t matter who is doing the cooking.

AA: So it is a matter of being steeped in the culture and perhaps the history of a cuisine?

MS: And I think having a palate that understands the differences in cuisines.

AA: Your newest book, 1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die, deals with so many different cuisines. You must have been researching it for years.

MS: Ten years of putting it down and picking it up again.

AA: How did you choose the thousand?

I don’t think it matters who is doing the cooking. I think what matters is the dish. We have a couple of very good Italian chefs who are not Italian. Michael White is not Italian; Mark Strausman is not Italian. They’re very, very good Italian chefs, both of them. So, I think it’s what they do.

MS: I sat down with a pen and a pad and I started writing. After a few days I had 1,800 items on my list, many of which were dropped in favor of other things that presented themselves later. I thought in categories: what do I want from France, and what do I want from Italy—that I know about. As I did the research, I found a few things that I didn’t know about that I thought should be included. I also included what we called in the index “cultural feasts”—inspirations for foods and meals from books, films, and paintings, a lot of which is historic. After I had the list, the hard part was writing, and the really hard part was finding sources for everything. You’ll notice that each piece is annotated one way or another, whether it’s a restaurant or a food store, a mail order source or a recipe. A reliable recipe in a book and online—that’s what the publisher wanted wherever possible. I had a researcher doing that part, and I checked every source that she found and decided which I wanted. So it was a lot of nitty gritty, which I hate.

AA: Was it hard to be objective? Do you have favorites among the thousand?

MS: Well, the book isn’t meant to be about what is best. It represents what the people in the world eat. There were important dishes that, whether historically or culturally or for some reason, struck me as something you should eat before you die. Some of them are pretty hard to take, like vegemite, which is . . .  yuck. But it’s like peanut butter in Australia and New Zealand. Kids spread it on bread and love it. So, it’s a little bit about tolerance and opening your mind.

I was very impressed with the food of West Africa when I began researching it here in New York, in Harlem, especially the foods of Senegal and Nigeria, which I think are going to begin to influence our cuisine very much. It just has the right look and right kind of tastes and textures. Now that there are restaurants fancy enough to be mainstream and non-West Africans can try the food—and chefs are always looking for new seasonings and new spices—I think it will influence our food in the next two to four years. So that was something else I wanted to include.

We also wanted a certain balance in the entries. For example, we wanted some desserts, we didn’t want too many chicken dishes…so we had to decide which to drop. The funny thing is that in the end, I forgot one of my most favorite dishes in the world, which was on the original list and I just didn’t get around to writing it. I still don’t believe I haven’t written it, but there is no trace of it in cyberspace or anyplace else, and that’s the Chinese Szechuan dish mapo doufu, which I just love. When the galleys came back and I looked at China, I asked, “Where is mapo doufu?” My editor said, “Where is what?” She said, “You never turned in anything on mapo doufu?” We looked through all the computer files to find it. The only place it appeared was on my original handwritten list. I’m not going to write any more books, but if I were, it would be “An ode to mapo doufu: how could I have missed you?”

AA: Since you’ve mentioned new influences on our cuisine, what do you think about the current Middle Eastern food trend?

I was very impressed with the food of West Africa when I began researching it here in New York, in Harlem, especially the foods of Senegal and Nigeria, which I think are going to begin to influence our cuisine very much.

MS: I love it. I think right now it is a very hot influence. Middle Eastern, also in terms of North African and Israeli. There is a very good restaurant near here called Mémé, which is run by two Israeli brothers of Moroccan descent. They serve all sorts of mezze, and they do a fabulous shakshuka at lunch and brunch, and a tagine. I think it’s a very big influence—the hummus rage is everywhere. Oleana, in Cambridge [Massachusetts], reflects that quite a bit. To some extent, I think of the trend as more eastern Mediterranean than I do Middle Eastern. The foods of the eastern Mediterranean are almost exactly the same as the foods of the western Mediterranean—eggplants and tomatoes and olives. What’s new is the use of more spices than fresh herbs as seasoning; that’s just my impression. They are heavier, more complex preparations of … [dishes that are] basically very similar to things like ratatouille. . . .

AA: So they are new flavors, but are familiar enough for people here to be comfortable with them?

MS: Right. They’re different, and there is more of a flavor bang. I think that as our palates become more desensitized by overstimulation, we keep looking for new flavors. In England, the chef that has made a huge difference, certainly there and here, is Yotam Ottolenghi, who is Israeli and who does this kind of mixed cooking, with cumin and za’atar, and his books have sold very well here. He has had a big influence.

AA: Israeli food is really interesting because of its mix of ethnicities.

MS: Absolutely, and for a long time it wasn’t presented that way. When I was there in 1994, the food had a very bad reputation, most of which was well deserved, but in international restaurants. In the Bukharin, Yemenite, Tunisian, and Moroccan restaurants, the food was terrific. It was when I went to an Italian, French, or Chinese place that the food was pretty horrible.

AA: My father’s family is from originally Yemen and moved to Palestine in 1938. I remember visiting Israel often and always thought the food was great, maybe because we always went straight from the airport to a Middle Eastern restaurant.

MS: To me the Yemenite food was a big surprise. I thought some of the more interesting foods were Yemenite, Tunisian, and Moroccan. I was surprised that the Ashkenazi places were not good, because so much of Israel was built by Ashkenazi Jews, but it’s pretty hard to find that cooking done well even in New York, at least in a restaurant. You can find good Ashkenazi cooking in homes.

AA: Ashkenazi food is making a little bit of a comeback in Israel. There is a trend toward “Jewish” foods, meaning Ashkenazi.

MS: For a long time Sephardic food, which is basically Middle Eastern, was overtaking Ashkenazi food here in the U.S. for a number of reasons. It was more healthful. Ashkenazi food was like wall-to-wall-cholesterol, and people began to hear that it’s not good for you. Sephardic is Mediterranean—olive oil and eggplant. Also younger people, even if they were kosher, did not like the look of the Ashkenazi delis and dairy restaurants. They were very sloppy and the younger generation really didn’t like that. So we still have dairy restaurants, but now they’re hummus and pita and that kind of thing.

AA: Was growing up in Brooklyn a big influence on you?

MS: Absolutely. Certainly my mother’s cooking was, but we also ate out a lot. We were not kosher. We used to go to Sheepshead Bay a lot to eat at Lundy’s, and my mother cooked lobster, clams, ham, and everything at home. The other kind of restaurants we went to were Chinese, of course, and steak and seafood. We didn’t go to Italian. Occasionally, my parents went to a particular French restaurant that I remember being taken to as a kid. But otherwise it was steak, seafood, Jewish delis, not so much dairy restaurants, and Chinese—big in Jewish communities—Cantonese.

AA: Academics are still trying to figure out the connection between Jews and Chinese food.

We weren’t kosher. My mother cooked ham and bacon at home and once in a while she made a pork chop, but she hated the word “pork.” If you said ham is smoked pork, she’d say, “Who asked you?”

MS: I’ve written about that. I did a big piece at the Times once. We had a contact at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Wolfe Kelman, who was always happy to talk to the press. He told me that every Friday at the Seminary was Chinese food day. It’s hard to figure out why. Saying that Jews lived across from Chinatown doesn’t work because I have Danish Jewish friends who love Chinese food. And they even ate it in Denmark where the Chinese food is horrible. We have Parisian Jewish friends, born and raised in France, who ate Chinese food every Sunday night.

AA: One theory is that because ingredients in Chinese food are generally chopped, non-kosher items are less identifiable or intimidating. Do you find that convincing?

MS: Well, I think I know why Jews liked Chinese food when they got here. What they liked was Cantonese. There was no other kind of Chinese food then. My parents went to Chinatown a lot, and there were Chinese restaurants in our neighborhood, but it was all Cantonese. It was made with onions and celery, sautéed soft, crisp noodles, a lot of chicken, chicken soup with wontons that were like kreplach, and the beverage was tea, and it was cheap, and you shared. You could take a big family out to dinner, and everybody shared. Really kosher people wouldn’t go. Semi-kosher people would go and not order shrimp or pork. While I was reviewing for the Times we began to get a crop of kosher Chinese restaurants. They were generally horrible. They would use corned beef for ham, and made all kinds of weird substitutions. But in general, I think Chinese food was cheap, it was soft and mild flavored and oniony. We only ordered about 10 dishes from the menu: subgum, chow mein, chop suey, sometimes egg foo young; my mother liked beef and peppers. The same dishes kept coming up, and every time I went to a Chinese restaurant I wanted to order something new. I thought, “There are other things on the menu. Why do we keep [ordering the same thing?] . . .” Now Jewish people go to all the different kinds of Chinese restaurants, but it was Cantonese that really got them in the beginning.

We weren’t kosher. My mother cooked ham and bacon at home and once in a while she made a pork chop, but she hated the word “pork.” If you said ham is smoked pork, she’d say, “Who asked you?” But if we went to a Chinese restaurant we always ordered the roast pork appetizer. It was different there; all bets were off. Anyway, that’s a particular kind of history. I remember seeing a documentary film seven or eight years ago about Jews who were rescued from the Germans and settled in China, in Shanghai in particular. After the film, the director took questions, and I asked, “Were the Jews in Shanghai happy to be eating Chinese food?” But that’s not where the connection began. I had been eating Chinese food long before that. That’s certainly history.

Excerpt: 1001 Foods to Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover's Life List

A Classic Way With Surf ’n’ Turf

Vitello Tonnato

Veal with Tuna Sauce

One of the most sumptuous of Italy’s cold summertime dishes, and a creation worthy of the most demanding cognoscenti, vitello tonnato can be served as an appetizer or as a light luncheon or late-supper main course.

Unsurprisingly, the preparation of those paper-thin slices of rose-pink veal and that tangy, silky sauce is subject to the differences of opinion that surround so many revered dishes. Many agree that the veal rump or loin should be poached with bay leaves, vegetables, and garlic prior to being chilled and very thinly sliced. The veal is then napped with a sauce based on tuna, a little anchovy, and capers—and here is where roads most commonly diverge.

Traditionalists insist that the sauce should contain no mayonnaise; instead, the tuna must be worked with olive oil and trickles of the poaching stock until it becomes a mayonnaise-like emulsion. Of course, whipping the tuna into mayonnaise with some olive oil added as a thinner is an easier way to achieve that silky consistency, so this method has become increasingly common among cooks. In either case, the tuna must be of the oil-packed, jarred variety, so as to be intensely salty and mashingly soft. Fresh tuna simply doesn’t cut it.

Another variation, this one a smart innovation recommended by the English food writer Elizabeth David, is to roast the veal to a medium-rare state, rather than poaching it, so the meat remains firm and does not become waterlogged.

A look at the dish’s origins, by way of the Livornese cookbook Il Cuciniere Italiano Moderno (1842), sheds some light on the reasoning behind its unusual flavor dichotomy. At the time, veal was much less expensive than tuna, and was often seasoned to taste like a substitute, such as mock tuna. Tuna itself never touched the dish. Rather, cuts of veal were boiled with anchovies to impart a fishy flavor to the meat, and the simmered-down stock—anchovies and all—was beaten with olive oil into a thickened sauce. Fishy veal was the result.

Surely modern versions are more sublime, especially when served with some good hearty bread and a glass of dry white wine.

Where: In New York, Da Silvano, tel 212-982-2343, dasilvano.com. Further information and recipe: Italian Food by Elizabeth David (1999).

Dipping into Colonial New York’s Chocolate

Each time I pick up a piece of chocolate I partake in an aspect of New York’s history. Surprisingly this New World product blazed a trail of commerce, appetite, and opportunity for New Yorkers of the Colonial period. As I researched my book, On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao, I learned that New York and chocolate have enhanced one another.

A porcelain chocolate pot with gilt trim, circa 1788, is an example of the pots used for Colonial-era chocolate beverages. This one, now in the collection of the New-York Historical Society, was part of a beverage service made for Samuel Shaw, first American consul at Canton. (Collection of the New-York Historical Society)

Hunting for Chocolate up the Hudson

It was a stormy New York June day, and our plan included an outing to the Gomez Mill House, the oldest extant Jewish homestead in North America, which was built in 1714 as a trading post by prominent New Yorkers. In a perfect mix of history, chocolate, and family frolicking, we explored the Gomez family’s chocolate roots in Newburgh, about 60 miles north of New York City. The Gomezes were among the several Colonial- and Revolutionary-era New Yorkers who engaged in the manufacture, retail, and consumption of cacao and chocolate. Their river plot at the intersection of several Native American trails led to a “holy” site near a spring. The mill there could have been used for grinding chocolate, although there is no direct evidence of such use. Millstones would have been used for grinding mustard, snuff, and chocolate in the Colonial period.

The Gomez Chocolate Manufactory was located at the intersection of Anne and Nassau Streets. (Photo by Deborah Prinz)

The Gomez Chocolate Dynasty

At least five members of the Gomez family within two generations traded in chocolate in New York City: Mordecai (1688–1750); his wife Rebecca (1713–1801); his brother Daniel (1695–1780); Mordecai and Rebecca’s son Moses (1744–1826); and their nephew Isaac (1768–1831).1 I was delighted to learn of the role of women in the chocolate business then. Rebecca Gomez sold chocolate, as did a few other women of the day. However, Rebecca was the only woman known to manufacture it. She plied her wholesale and retail chocolate made at the “Chocolate Manufactory” at Anne and Nassau streets.2 Indeed, many of these pioneering chocolate endeavors in New York preceded those of the Massachusetts-based Baker’s Chocolate Company, which has billed itself as “America’s Oldest” and “the first branded ‘Baker’s Chocolate’ product in 1780.”3

Millstone at Gomez Mill House, Newburgh, New York. (Photo by Deborah Prinz)

To further understand this early New York chocolate, I traveled what I call the chocolate trail to Colonial Williamsburg on a Rockefeller Fellowship. There, I was fortunate to spend time with food specialist James Gay, who helped me understand the unique aspects of chocolate in Colonial America. The Gomez family’s chocolate business was built on a granular chocolate, which was plentiful and commonly imbibed as a beverage.4 There were no chocolate ice creams, chocolate candy bars, chocolate truffles, chocolate cakes, or chocolate chip cookies.

Colonial Chocolate Habits

New York’s significant trade in cocoa beans supported a daily chocolate habit throughout the colonies. Hot chocolate made from “cocoa nuts” or “chocolate nutts” (cocoa beans) sometimes comprised the full meal.5 Our Colonial chocoholics did not simply toss a packet of chemicals, sugar, and processed cocoa into boiling water. Painstaking preparation of this early American chocolate began with the import of the beans, which still had to be roasted over a fire and shelled individually. The chocolate nibs were then ground with sugar (sometimes along with cinnamon and/or other spices) while being warmed over a chocolate stone with a roller, and were then cooled into hard tablets. This process resulted in a drinking chocolate similar to that found elsewhere at that time, and today in Mexico and Guatemala.6 The solidified chocolate, wrapped in used newspapers or in rags of questionable sources, was often stored haphazardly, likely absorbing the smells of fetid foodstuffs or rancid products. Before indulging, the hardened chocolate required further mixing with water and sugar, and was heated in a chocolate pot fabricated with an opening in the top for a stirrer (molinollo or mill). This hot chocolate might have then been served in unique cups designated for drinking chocolate. Colonial chocolate was very slow food.

An American colonial pantry at Colonial Williamsburg boasts a chocolate pot and stirrer. (Photo by Deborah Prinz)

Colonial New Yorkers relished their chocolate. Today’s elegant and diverse New York chocolate purveyors build on these pioneering enterprises and recipes. My own chocolate appetite may have evolved past Colonial period pleasures, yet remains firmly rooted in these historical traditions.

Chocolate, 1796 style

Here is a recipe for the kind of chocolate beverage enjoyed in Colonial times. It appears in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, published in 1796.

To Make Chocolate:
Take six Pounds of cocoa-nuts, one of anise-seeds, four ounces of long pepper, one of cinnamon, a quarter of a pound of almonds, one ounce of pistachios, as much achiote as will make it the colour of brick, three grains of musk, and as much ambergris, six pounds of loaf-sugar, one ounce of nutmegs, dry and beat them, and searce [sift] them through a fine sieve; your almonds must be beat to a paste and mixed with the other ingredients; then dip your sugar in orange-flower or rose water, and put it in a skillet on a very gentle charcoal fire; then put in the spice and stew it well together, then the musk and ambergris, then put the cocoa-nuts last of all, then achiote, wetting it with the water the sugar was dipt in; stew all these very well together over a hotter fire than before; then take it up and put it into boxes, or what form you like, and set it to dry in a warm place: the pistachios and almonds must be a little beat in a mortar and then ground on a stone.

Taiwanese Immigrants Spark a Golden Age for Chinese Food

Until the 1970s, most of the Chinese restaurants in New York City served Cantonese food. Starting in the ’70s, however, New York’s Chinese restaurants began serving more diverse regional cuisines. This study illustrates that Taiwanese immigrant restaurateurs were largely responsible for this change. In the 1950s, Taiwanese began immigrating to the United States. Some of the immigrants were of high socioeconomic status and worked in white-collar professions, but many, like the Cantonese immigrants that preceded them, worked in lower-status jobs or opened small businesses, like groceries, tailor shops, and restaurants. These Taiwanese restaurateurs changed New York’s Chinese food landscape. They opened restaurants throughout the city, broadened our knowledge of Chinese regional cuisine, and made important innovations in New York’s restaurant business, pioneering photographic menus and food delivery.

The Story of Lin Jiongguan’s Cottage Grill Restaurant in Manhattan

Mr. Lin Jiongguan was born in Taichung, in central Taiwan.1 During the 1960s, he served as a manager of supplies at the Ambassador Hotel (Guobinfandian, 國賓飯店) in Taipei. At that time, Taiwan’s restaurant industry was in its early stages, and through his work at the hotel, Lin familiarized himself with a variety of Chinese cuisines.2 In the early 1970s, Lin immigrated to New York City with his family. His prime motivation was his hope that America’s higher education would benefit his children.

In 1975, Lin opened a Chinese restaurant called Cottage Grill (Wufu, 五福) on 46th Street and Broadway, which remained opened until 2000. According to Lin, before the 1970s, New Yorkers knew little about Chinese cuisine because, aside from the Cantonese restaurants in Chinatown, only a few Chinese restaurants dotted the city landscape.

Because New Yorkers at that time were still largely unfamiliar with Chinese food, Lin took photos of all of the dishes and included them on both an outdoor signboard and interior displays.

Lin regarded his restaurant as a fast-food establishment and marketed it accordingly. In fact, he characterized it as a cafeteria that served only “one main food staple (either rice or noodle) and three dishes” (Sancaiifan, 三菜一飯).3 Most meals cost just $2.99; shrimp dishes were $3.99. Cottage Grill’s menu included Japanese-style curry chicken, shelled fresh shrimp, beef with green peppers, fried chicken, and mixed vegetables. Because New Yorkers at that time were still largely unfamiliar with Chinese food, he took photos of all of the dishes and included them on both an outdoor signboard and interior displays. According to Lin, photographing and displaying images of Chinese dishes was rarely done at the time and proved to be extremely expensive. He emphasized this point and expressed pride in his pioneering work.

As Cottage Grill’s business grew steadily year after year, Lin hired numerous chefs who had moved to Taiwan from China’s Dachen Archipelago (Dachendao, 大陳島), off the coast of Zhejiang Province, and then to the United States. In 1955, the United States Seventeenth Fleet, in cooperation with Taiwan’s Kuomintang party, had evacuated the Dachen Archipelago before the territory was taken by the Communist Party of China’s People’s Liberation Army. Some of these Dachen migrants, lacking sufficient social networks in Taiwan, had difficulty resettling on the island and decided to immigrate to the United States; New York was one of their major destinations. Ultimately, many of them found work in the city’s restaurant industry, principally as chefs at Chinese restaurants run by Taiwanese immigrants from an earlier wave of migration.4

President Richard M. Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai make a toast during Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. (The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum)

Lin’s Cottage Grill restaurant remained in operation from 1975 to 2000 for three major reasons. First, prior to the opening of his restaurant, very few cafeteria-style Chinese fast-food restaurants were in business outside of Manhattan’s Chinatown. Second, the innovatively displayed photos of dishes, whether inside or outside the establishment, created a customer-friendly atmosphere, helping patrons recognize what type of dish they would be ordering and eating. Third, the restaurant benefited from President Richard M. Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and the United States’ establishment of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1979. These shifts in American diplomacy fueled people’s interest in Chinese food and benefited Lin’s restaurant in particular.

The Story of Morris Lee’s Foliage Restaurant in Flushing

Morris Lee (呂明森) didn’t always want to be a restaurateur.5 After what he described as a carefree childhood growing up in a doctor’s family in southern Taiwan’s Jiayi County, he attended Tamkang University in Taiwan, and then moved to Tokyo to study interior design. He then relocated to New York City, where he established an architectural business called the Pan-Beauty Company in Flushing, Queens. Obsessed with the idea of promoting Taiwanese cuisine in the Unites States, Lee opened Foliage Restaurant (Hongyue, 紅葉) in Flushing in 1982. His previous academic and vocational experiences in Taiwan, Japan, and the United States gave him a rare set of talents and abilities, and his restaurant attracted considerable attention from members of New York’s Taiwanese community, as well as from the local news media, with much of the focus on the restaurant’s unique design and delicate Taiwanese cuisine.

Restaurateur Morris Lee receives an award for business excellence from the Borough of Queens in recognition of his contributions to the Taiwanese community. (Photo courtesy of Morris Lee)

Lee incorporated Japanese elements into his restaurant liberally. Japan had occupied Taiwan from 1895 through 1945, and the island was greatly influenced by Japanese culture. Lee had become even more familiar with Japanese culture during his time as a student in Tokyo. Foliage Restaurant’s decor highlighted a dining atmosphere in a Japanese style, while emphasizing the visual appeal of the establishment, and of course, the visual delicacy and refined character of its foods. Lee worked tirelessly to achieve these features. For example, he applied natural Japanese elements to his restaurant’s design, using decorative wood and stone for the main entrance, dining tables and floor. In fact, the restaurant had a distinctly Japanese visual appeal to it. Lee also combined Japanese and Taiwanese cuisines, going so far as to create a sushi bar serving both Taiwanese dishes and Japanese sashimi. The purpose of this bar was to help customers relax before they were seated at tables. Lee hired chefs from Taiwan to prepare Taiwanese cuisine, ranging from steamed fresh abalone, steamed lobster, and mullet roles (wuyuzhi, 烏魚子) to high-end dishes.

Foliage Restaurant’s decor highlighted a dining atmosphere in a Japanese style, while emphasizing the visual appeal of the establishment, and of course, the visual delicacy and refined character of its foods.

Lee also used music to enhance his customers’ dining experience. He hired bands to perform Taiwanese, Japanese, and English songs on weekends. The restaurant’s piano bar operated daily and livened up the dining atmosphere with karaoke performances. Rarely seen in New York City in the 1980s, karaoke was prominent in Japanese culture. Lee had learned about this form of cabaret in Japan and introduced it to his customers. To market his restaurant, he placed advertisements in many influential Chinese-language newspapers printed in New York. In large part because of the time and effort that he devoted to both designing and running Foliage Restaurant, it soon attracted a reverent following in Flushing’s Taiwanese community. In fact, Foliage Restaurant received a prestigious business award from the borough of Queens for promoting Taiwanese cuisine in Flushing. Unfortunately, Lee closed his restaurant in 1986, after a shootout involving rival gangs took place during a late-night meal. His career as a restaurateur over, Mr. Lee devoted himself to the promotion of commercial development in the US Taiwanese communities and used his expertise in interior design to help many owners of Taiwanese restaurants in the greater New York City area design their restaurants.

The interior of Foliage restaurant was greatly admired for its spare, modern Japanese aesthetic, a quality that was unusual in Chinese restaurants at the time. (Photo courtesy of Morris Lee)

The Story of Empire Szechuan Gourmet Franchise (Shuxianyuanjituan, 蜀湘園集團)

From 1976 to the 1990s, Empire Szechuan Gourmet Franchise, run by Taiwanese immigrants, played a pivotal role in the Chinese restaurant scene. These immigrants ushered in a golden age of Chinese cuisine in greater New York, simultaneously running up to 14 restaurants in the 1980s and the 1990s. Moreover, the chain was a pioneer of restaurant food delivery in New York City.

The first restaurant in this chain opened its doors to the public on the southwest corner of 97th Street and Broadway in 1976. The restaurant’s establishment was a collaborative effort undertaken by three people: Mr. Hsiao Chungchen (蕭忠正), Mrs. Chang Yafeng, (張亞鳳), and Mr. Wong Yinjun (翁英俊, also known by the nickname “Handsome Wong”). Wong was Chang’s younger adopted brother. According to Hsiao,6 his wife came up with the name “Empire Szechuan” in reference to New York State’s nickname, the Empire State. Furthermore, President Nixon’s aforementioned visit to China in 1972 had spurred Americans’ interest, not just in Chinese food generally, but particularly Szechuan and Hunan cuisines. Thus, the decision was made to name the chain “Empire Szechuan Gourmet Franchise” (Shuxianyuanjituan, 蜀湘園集團)7, which in Chinese literally means “The Garden of SzechuanHunan Cuisine.” During the initial operation of the chain’s first restaurant, Empire Szechuan Gourmet Franchise sold both Taiwanese and Szechuan dishes. The former specifically attracted the attention of Taiwanese students attending nearby Columbia University. Hsiao and Chang were responsible for the front-of-the-house work, such as taking orders, managing food-delivery services, and training and hiring employees; Wong was responsible for the kitchen, owing to his previous experience doing prep work and line cooking in Taiwan.

A menu from Empire Szechuan Gourmet Franchise restaurant. (The Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library)

At a time when delivery from New York City restaurants was rare, Hsiao hired Taiwanese students from Columbia University to do this work. In fact, Empire Szechuan was one of the city’s first eateries to popularize home delivery. Within a short time, this market strategy quickly expanded the first Empire Szechuan branch’s reputation throughout upper Manhattan.

In 1980, Empire Szechuan opened its second and third restaurants at the same time, one located at the intersection of Columbus Avenue and 68th Street and another on Third Avenue and 29th Street. As the chain expanded, the number of owners increased from three to six. In addition to Hsiao and Chang (and not including Mr. Wong, who left the chain because of differences over management styles), Empire Szechuan had four new co-owners: Mr. Ma, Chef Chen, Chef Jiang, and Chef Wu, the last three of whom came from the Dachen Archipelago. As noted above, many former residents of the Dachen Archipelago immigrated to New York in search of employment opportunities, and many of these immigrants, after learning how to cook, became highly competent chefs.

Hsiao and Chang had worked with Chef Chen, Chef Jiang and Chef Wu for several years and had come to regard them as amiable and responsible. Thus, during the expansion of the chain, they decided to invite the three chefs to join the list of co-owners. According to Hsiao, the golden age of Empire Szechuan Gourmet Franchise stretched from the 1980s into the 1990s, during which time there were, at the chain’s peak, a total of 14 restaurants simultaneously operating in greater New York City, including locations from Manhattan to Long Island.8 In order to ensure sufficient daily food supplies to all of the franchises in greater New York, the company even established a supply center near Lincoln Center.

The number of Empire Szechuan franchises ebbed and flowed as a result of organizational factors, economic climate, and personal conflicts between the owners. In addition, the revitalization of New York’s Chinese food scene that the company had helped to create greatly increased both demand and competition. By the 1990s, Chinese immigrants were flooding into greater New York, and many of them opened their own restaurants specializing in Chinese food, thus creating fierce competition for the chain.

When I interviewed Hsiao, he had been retired from the company for almost two decades. In retrospect, he was very proud of the contributions that the chain had made, promoting Americans’ awareness of Chinese food in general and of Szechuan–Hunan cuisines in particular. Hsiao enthusiastically praised the chain’s Szechuan offerings, including fish-flavored eggplant in garlic sauce, a series of dry-fried dishes, and sesame-paste noodles.

President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 had spurred Americans’ interest, not just in Chinese food generally, but particularly Szechuan and Hunan cuisines. ... Empire Szechuan Gourmet Franchise sold both Taiwanese and Szechuan dishes.

The stories of the these three Chinese restaurants run by Taiwanese immigrants in New York from the 1970s to the 1990s illustrate that Taiwanese immigrants, due to their commercial competence and ingenuity, played a pivotal role in promoting and selling Chinese cuisine, broadly defined, before the huge flood of mainland Chinese immigrants began in the 1980s. Nowadays, restaurant-goers enjoy various Chinese cuisines in New York, including American-Chinese food, regional Chinese cuisine, and even authentic Taiwanese cuisine. Back in the early 1970s, however, before US–China diplomatic relations were officially established in 1979, and even before President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, Americans in general—even New Yorkers—knew little about Chinese food except for what they ate at the early Cantonese restaurants.

The first case examined in this study reveals that Lin invented, or at least pioneered, a specific market strategy both by running a Chinese fast-food restaurant, which was rare in the 1970s, and by offering signboards with photos of the menu’s Chinese dishes, which served as visual guideposts for Americans untutored in the world of Chinese food. The case of Lee’s Foliage Restaurant illustrates a high-end restaurant’s blending of Japanese and Taiwanese elements, including sophisticated decor inside and outside the restaurant, karaoke entertainment, and exquisite Japanese and Taiwanese cuisines. The last case—that of the Empire Szechuan Gourmet Franchise—concerns a restaurant that remains a legend among owners and operators of Chinese restaurants in New York City. The story of the company demonstrates how Taiwanese immigrants successfully ran a Chinese restaurant chain, serving food that went beyond the traditional Cantonese-inspired dishes (chiefly Szechuan–Hunan cuisines). The franchises offered boldly flavored Chinese dishes to an American dining public, which, in the 1970s, became increasingly interested in Chinese cuisine, in part because of political developments.

The golden age of restaurants initiated by Taiwanese immigrants faded with the dramatic influx of Chinese immigrants that led to the establishment of “authentic” Chinese restaurants in greater New York City. These three stories reveal an often-overlooked aspect of the history of Chinese cuisine in the United States.

How the Flavors of the City Were Cooked Up in a Book

New York City’s rise to global culinary eminence begins in prehistory, when glaciers formed the topography that would turn the region into a culinary treasure trove. The American Indians who arrived in the area thousands of years ago would eventually plant the maize, squash, and beans that Europeans and other New World explorers would embrace centuries later.

Since the early 17th century, the city has been shaped by millions of immigrants: Dutch, English, German, Irish, Italian, Eastern European, Jewish, Chinese, Japanese, Senegalese, Indian, Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Afghani, Russian, West Indian, and Mexican—to name a few. These nationalities represent the crest of the immigrant tidal waves that engulfed—and enriched—the city, where today 186 national and regional languages are spoken in the public schools. Each group’s food traditions and preferences have added savor and spice to the city’s culinary stew. Some foods retained their distinctive forms and flavors, while others dissolved and disappeared; still others reemerged as today’s familiar favorites—hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, tacos, bagels, egg creams, cheesecake, falafel, and chow mein.

The interior of the Horn & Hardart Automat branch at 1165 Sixth Avenue, circa 1912. (Manuscripts and Archives Division, the New York Public Library.)

My interest in New York’s culinary history began in the spring of 1991, when I heard that the Horn & Hardart Automat at the corner of Forty-second Street and Third Avenue was closing. Once a thriving chain of restaurants emblematic of New York City’s hustle and bustle, the Automats were distinguished by their unique mechanical food dispensers. Perhaps CHNY members will remember the gleaming rows of small windowed hatches behind which food was displayed. The customer deposited some coins into a slot and turned a knob, and the little glass door popped open: Voilà: Lunch! Behind the wall, workers replaced the dishes with fresh ones as soon as the compartments were empty. It was a modern, efficient, and, to me, fascinating way to get a meal.

A woman posts a sign in the window of a Horn & Hardart Automat, circa 1912. ( Manuscripts and Archives Division, the New York Public Library)

Some automats were open all night—a perfect fit for “the city that never sleeps.” Their heyday was in the 1930s and ’40s, when tens of thousands of people visited automats every day. By the 1980s, though, the few that remained were dingy and seedy. Even the poorest New Yorkers had long since deserted the once-novel automat in favor of cafeterias, coffee shops, and fast-food chains. Still, the automat was a quintessential New York culinary landmark. I had eaten at only a few of them since arriving in the city in 1977, but I was surprised that they should disappear with so little fanfare, and with barely a murmur of public protest.

Automats were gone, but for many of us their fascination lingers on. New Yorkers were reintroduced to the original Automat through an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York in 2002, and again when the “Lunch Hour” exhibition opened at the New York Public Library in the fall of 2012. The show included a panel of the familiar glass-and-chrome food compartments (alas, empty), and offered the rare opportunity to see what they looked like from the back. For many visitors with fond memories of the automat, it was the high point of the exhibition.

The automat’s demise was just one small facet in the city’s ever-changing culinary kaleidoscope. But I can honestly say that it changed my life. During the last quarter-century I have collected thousands of pages of notes, dozens of books, dissertations, and interviews, as well as newspaper, magazine, and journal articles about the New York City’s food. I have incorporated some of this data into my other books, and into the food history classes I’ve taught at the New School since 1995. I also published a brief culinary history, New York City: A Food Biography. But when I finished that book, I had more than a thousand pages of notes that I couldn’t possibly have included.

A number of good books have been published about the city’s culinary life, but, good as they are, I felt that a more comprehensive approach was needed—and it wouldn’t be a one-man job.

A number of good books have been published about the city’s culinary life, but, good as they are, I felt that a more comprehensive approach was needed—and it wouldn’t be a one-man job. I approached Oxford University Press about the project in 2013. An editorial committee was selected: Associate Editor Cathy Kaufman; and the Area Editors—Dr. Ari Ariel, Michael Krondl, Dr. Cindy Lobel, Kara Newman, Dr. Jonathan Deutsch, and Judith Weinraub—who designed and selected entries, identified and guided authors, and reviewed and edited their work. Advisory Editor Cara de Silva identified potential topics and writers, and Meryle Evans researched the illustrations. A total of 174 writers, many of them CHNY members, wrote (and rewrote) the 586 entries. I thought I knew a lot about the city’s culinary history and its current food scene, but I was humbled to read the entries that the contributors submitted. The really good news is that after two years of work and a cast of hundreds, Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City was released by Oxford University Press in November 2015.

On the Chocolate Trail

On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao (Jewish Lights Publishing) by Rabbi Deborah Prinz.

This book explores the surprising Jewish and other religious connections to chocolate in a gastronomic and historical adventure through cultures, countries, centuries and convictions. Rabbi Prinz draws from her world travels on the trail of chocolate unravel religious connections in the early chocolate trade and shows how Jewish and other religious values infuse chocolate today. The book includes recipes, a glossary, tips for buying ethically produced chocolate, a list of chocolate museums around the world and more.

1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover’s Life List

1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover’s Life List (Workman Publishing) by Mimi Sheraton.

A joyous, informative, dazzling, mouthwatering life list of the world’s best food. The long-awaited new book in the phenomenal 1,000 . . . Before You Die series, it’s the marriage of an irresistible subject with the perfect writer, Mimi Sheraton—award-winning cookbook author, grande dame of food journalism, and former restaurant critic for The New York Times. The book fully delivers on the promise of its title, selecting from the best cuisines around the world (French, Italian, Chinese, of course, but also Senegalese, Lebanese, Mongolian, Peruvian, and many more)―the tastes, ingredients, dishes, and restaurants that every reader should experience and dream about, whether it’s dinner at Chicago’s Alinea or the perfect empanada. In more than 1,000 pages and over 550 full-color photographs, it celebrates haute and snack, comforting and exotic, hyper-local and the universally enjoyed: a Tuscan plate of Fritto Misto. Saffron Buns for breakfast in downtown Stockholm. Bird’s Nest Soup. A frozen Milky Way. Black truffles from Le Périgord. Mimi Sheraton is highly opinionated and has a gift for supporting her recommendations with smart, sensuous descriptions―you can almost taste what she’s tasted. You’ll want to eat your way through the book (after searching first for what you have already tried, and comparing notes). Then, following the romance comes the practical: where to taste the dish or find the ingredient, and where to go for the best recipes, websites included.