Food City: Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York

Joy Santlofer

The Stella D’Oro Biscuit Company, a small family-run factory in the Bronx, was changing rapidly in the 1950s.1 Early in the decade many small firms were moving beyond their local neighborhoods to reach a wider market. Anything seemed possible. In the late 1940s, Joseph Kresivich, a native of Trieste, Italy, opened a new Stella D’Oro factory three blocks from the original bakery in the Kingsbridge section, which he had started in 1932 with his wife, Angela, and where they baked anisette cookies, breadsticks, biscuits, and biscotti for the local Italian community. After the war the cookies and breadsticks caught on with dieters, a growing consumer group eager to buy products that cut calories. Stella D’Oro did not, however, spare the calories in their Swiss Fudge cookies, which enjoyed a large and loyal Jewish following because they were made without milk or butter and thus were kosher.

Stella D’Oro’s European-style baked goods were not very sweet and were geared toward adult tastes. In the new factory, the company’s workers (who joined the 98,000 other New Yorkers who, as late as the 1950s, were manufacturing all types of food) could produce larger quantities to supply the many new customers. By midcentury, even though the sons and daughters of immigrants were leaving the old neighborhoods for other parts of the city or the suburbs, they had not left the tastes of their childhood behind. Over the decade Stella D’Oro products, like other ethnic specialties, appeared on more and more greater New York supermarket shelves.2

Hard to believe, but bagels were still considered exotic fare. In an article about a strike at the factory in 1957, the New York Times assumed Gentile readers had never seen a bagel before, describing it as “a kind of hard roll with a hole in the center.”

The trend toward eating less bread continued in postwar America. Higher incomes and increased spending power allowed for more varied purchases, and with all the processed products beckoning from the supermarket shelves and freezers, bread had new competition. And new troubles.

The factory bread industry was roiled by labor issues throughout the 1950s.3 Helped by the New Deal, unions had finally organized big bread. Two large strikes were averted in the first two years of the decade, when, in one of their first real victories in three hundred years, bakery workers won a five-day workweek. By then most of the 22,000 New Yorkers making bakery products were union members, and the Bakery and Confectionery Workers numbered 2,500 members working in 9 of the city’s largest companies. A two-week strike in 1954 won them further wage increases.

During the early 1950s wheat prices were rising. The causes were varied. The United States was sending wheat to war-ravaged countries, and bread bakers faced competition from macaroni-makers, whose preferred durum wheat, decimated by disease and bad weather, was in short supply. By mid-decade prices for shortenings had risen almost 100 percent. S. B. Thomas was the first bakery to increase the price of its bread, and all the other manufacturers soon followed. Drake’s Bakery, one of the largest companies devoted exclusively to cake baking, discontinued several types of doughnuts in the 1950s. It was narrowing its line to those varieties that weren’t too expensive to make and “developing items we can live with.”4 Its main plant was at 77 Clinton Street in Brooklyn, but it also built two factories outside the city. That was a sign of things to come.

In the 1950s, Jewish rye and bagels, Danish pumpernickel, Norwegian grisle, Irish soda bread, Swedish limpa, and German Kaiser rolls, plus hearth-baked bread, were all made in automated factories by small specialty bakers in neighborhoods mainly scattered throughout Brooklyn.5 After closing its original bakery in Manhattan, the Pechter Baking Company bought a former Ward Baking plant at 800 Pacific Street, between Vanderbilt and Carlton Avenues in Brooklyn, in 1953.6 It opened additional plants in the Bronx and Westchester County and ran the Harrison Baking Company in New Jersey. Pechter made dark, heavy ryes and pumpernickels, white bread, Kaiser rolls, egg bread, layer cakes, bialys, and bagels. Hard to believe, but bagels were still considered exotic fare. In an article about a strike at the factory in 1957, the New York Times assumed Gentile readers had never seen a bagel before, describing it as “a kind of hard roll with a hole in the center.”7

The Larsen Baking Company had opened in 1900 in Red Hook to make grisle, a sour rye bread baked in an oven with bonfires on each side that gave the crust a smoky flavor and made the bakers look “like coal miners.”8 The smoky flavor was sacrificed when the bakery automated and the dough was baked with steam heat. In the 1950s the bakery made a wide variety of Norwegian breads and cakes, but as with many ethnic bakeries, demand for grisle was dwindling as the neighborhoods changed. By the end of the decade most of Larsen’s business was in cakes, sweet breads, and green soda bread for Saint Patrick’s Day.


In 1953, Horowitz and Margareten sold out its Passover production during the hectic week leading up to the holiday as “people come in cars from all over the city to the bakery to buy ‘hot’ matzohs.” One of the family explained, “Everyone expects them fresh from the griddle.” This was still a family-run business, and “children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren” were expected to pitch in during the Passover rush. The ninety-year-old matriarch, Regina Margareten, still made daily visits to the block-long Long Island City plant. She rarely sat at her glass-topped desk, because she was too busy overseeing every stage of the baking process.9

In 1945 she had been instrumental in making the decision to move Horowitz and Margareten from the Lower East Side to the larger Long Island City plant. In truth the company hadn’t had much choice; the old neighborhood had been condemned to make way for a housing project, part of mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s plan to build a more modern and efficient city. The company’s employees followed it to the new factory; they were family. “My people have been with me for years, and many of their children work here now,” Regina said. “In fact, I’m godmother to about twenty-five and have attended many of their weddings.”

As a grandmotherly businesswoman and the company spokesperson, Regina made an annual radio broadcast during Passover in the 1940s and 1950s. First she gave a Yiddish greeting, which she would repeat in English “for the sake of the children who may be listening in.”10 In 1952, in her final talk, she thanked the United States for the “freedom, prosperity, and happiness we have here.” Regina Margareten worked until two weeks before her death in 1959. The “Matzoh Queen” was ninety-six. Her passing marked the end of an epoch.

As the 1950s came to a close, it was clear that for the largest factories there were greener pastures than New York City. Like many corporations, National Biscuit had gone on a building spree following the war, when it could finally begin construction after years of pent-up desire to expand. But National’s New York complex, “the largest cracker bakery in the world,”11 wasn’t included in the nine factories around the country that the company renovated during the 1950s. Multistory structures couldn’t house advanced machinery—they had become obsolete.

As the 1950s came to a close, it was clear that for the largest factories there were greener pastures than New York City.

The first National Biscuit plant to leave New York was Hills Brothers Dromedary Dates near the Brooklyn entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.12 The complex of fourteen buildings was deemed outmoded, and production was moved to a plant in upstate New York almost 300 miles away. For the four hundred employees, mostly women, it might as well have been Tibet.

The National Biscuit compound in Manhattan—New York’s largest factory, which included 7 acres between 14th and 16th Streets and Ninth and Eleventh Avenues, multiple bakery buildings, railroad and pedestrian bridges, a cafeteria seating 500, a research lab for 125, plus a huge parking garage on 14th Street—was sold in 1956.13 But before National closed shop, hardbread crackers had one last role to play in the city where they had been invented. In 1957, New York’s government amassed stores of crackers made by National Biscuit on 15th Street. It was the height of the Cold War, a period when both government agencies and private citizens bought “survival crackers” to stock fallout shelters in the event of a nuclear attack. A cache of 352,000 crackers was packed in airtight containers under the Brooklyn Bridge and forgotten, only to be discovered in 2006 during a routine structural inspection. An official who sampled the forty-nine-year-old crackers said they “tasted like cardboard.”14

The company was moving to a new location in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, about 12 miles north of the George Washington Bridge.15 Its 40 acres could accommodate a sleek horizontal factory where the operations would be performed by the latest automated machinery, including a new “electronic brain” that could direct a myriad of ingredients in sixteen giant mixing machines. Machine-driven systems would handle many of the tasks performed on standardized production lines, making New York’s large pool of skilled workers unnecessary. National Biscuit’s corporate offices stayed in the city, moving into a newly constructed skyscraper at 435 Park Avenue.

The company and its executives were welcome in the suburban community, but its workers were not. Maxwell Lehman, the deputy city administrator, reported that the “feeling in Fair Lawn as in other communities [is] that the type of worker who would come out of New York was ‘not wanted.’”16 The mayor declared that the town “welcomes all who can find a home.” But that was just a politic way of saying the same thing, as most of the towns in the adjacent areas had banned the building of apartments or “look alike” tract housing. The mayor did concede that “many workers might find it economically difficult to obtain homes priced within their budgets.” As there was nowhere affordable for the New York employees to live, in the end the “great majority” of workers in the new National Biscuit plant already lived in New Jersey.

Some companies supplied buses to ferry their workers to far-off factories. That option usually petered out. Many just couldn’t afford to make the time-consuming commute. When a factory relocated to a distant state, moving was out of the question. The hard truth was that companies were happy to shed their New York workers, most of whom, organized in labor’s New Deal banquet years, were paid a union wage.


Excerpted from Food City: Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York by Joy Santlofer. Copyright © 2017 by the Estate of Joy Santlofer. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Ancient Heritage Cookies: Gluten-Free, Whole-Grain, and Nut-Flour Treats

Luane Kohnke (Pelican Publishing Company, Inc.)

Deeply rooted in ancient civilizations, and part of mankind’s history for thousands of years, ancient and whole-grain flours have been rediscovered as healthier alternatives to all-purpose flour. This book features 50 recipes that focus exclusively on whole-grain, ancient-grain, and nut flours. Each chapter includes a brief history of the featured grains and a beautifully illustrated map. Thirteen of the recipes are gluten-free and two are vegan.

Adventure Dining in New York Before 1970: Good, Cheap and “Ethnic”

The term “ethnic restaurant” is misleading, as it assumes there is a complementary “regular” or “normal” restaurant type. It also might seem casually insulting, implying condescension toward people from foreign countries and their food.1 Los Angeles Times food expert Jonathan Gold is quoted as saying, “I hate the word ‘ethnic.'” Gold, who probably knows more about this category firsthand than anyone else, prefers “traditional,”2 yet this neutral formulation, along with others, such as “foreign” or “immigrant” restaurant, are either inadequate as descriptions or retain a taint of stereotype and subordination. In what follows, I use “ethnic restaurant” in awareness of its unfavorable or ambivalent connotations, because the success of these enterprises is related to ideas of exoticism in the minds of customers who do not form part of the immigrant group. Ethnic restaurants have been appealing to outsiders over the last 150 years because they offer inexpensive culinary novelty. That novelty has to attract the tastes of patrons initially unfamiliar with the cuisine, and so authenticity has tended to be less important than the impression of a safe exoticism.

Ethnic restaurants have been appealing to outsiders over the last 150 years because they offer inexpensive culinary novelty. That novelty has to attract the tastes of patrons initially unfamiliar with the cuisine, and so authenticity has tended to be less important than the impression of a safe exoticism.

Before about 1960, such restaurants were referred to as “foreign,” “exotic,” or most often simply by national type. It was quite possible to assume a patronizing attitude toward foreign cuisines without employing a general descriptive term. In Lawton Mackall’s 1948 guide Knife and Fork in New York City, grand as well as modest restaurants are grouped under breezily humorous headings such as “Chummy and Cheery” (festive atmosphere), or “Shelly and Finny Fare” (seafood). Mackall’s man-about-town diction lists Chinese under “Pagoda Provender,” Indian as “Curry Quest,” and Hungarian as “Paprika in the Pink.” Russian cuisine is summarized as “Shashliks and Vodka,” but Middle Eastern overlaps to some extent with “Pilaf and Shish Kebab.”3

The use of “ethnic restaurant” in publications begins with the 1960s. In a 1959 review of “A Bit of Bali,” New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne remarked, “Because New York is a city of sophistication and with tremendously different ethnic groups, the public here has extraordinary opportunities to dine on the ‘exotic’ fare of a hundred regions.” Here the word “ethnic” appears in association with “restaurant” for the first time. The formula “ethnic restaurant” henceforth would become established in the Times and elsewhere to describe places serving the cuisine of an immigrant group.4 The notion of ethnic restaurants as constituting a kind of complex code of hidden information was developed in the 1990s in New York directories such as Robert Sietsema’s Good & Cheap Ethnic Eats.5

New York City has been famous since before the beginning of the 20th century for the international diversity of its food offerings, part of the image and self-regard of the metropolis. For example, the cover drawing for The New Yorker issue for April 2, 1938, entitled “Lower East Side,” depicts scenes from eight restaurants: Japanese, Turkish, Scandinavian, Russian, German, Chinese, Jewish and Italian. To the left of the pictures are labels listing several dishes in each category. Some are standbys such as sukiyaki, risotto Milanese, “Borshch,” or Apfelstrudel. There are, however, a surprising number of dishes that would not now be widely recognized: Kezartma (a Turkish eggplant dish), Kissel (Russian berry soup) and Goma-aye (Japanese sesame-sauce dressing).

A chef in Marconi’s Restaurant on Mulberry Street preparing two Italian sausage sandwiches for a customer to take out on New Year’s Eve, photographed by Marjory Collins in 1942. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection)

Notably missing here is French cuisine. Its absence shows that “ethnic” does not simply mean “foreign.” From the 18th to late-20th centuries, France defined international culinary distinction. The first real restaurant in the United States was Delmonico’s, established in the 1830s, which billed itself as French. Antoine’s in New Orleans, founded in 1840, always described its food as French and has only accepted the term “Creole” within the last 20 years. Of course Delmonico’s offered American specialties, such as Terrapin and Canvasback Duck and invented Lobster Newberg and the eponymous Delmonico Steak, and most of Antoine’s signature dishes, such as Oysters Rockefeller or Pompano en Papillote, are not French. Generally, however, the prestige of France imposed a certain uniformity on high-end restaurants. In mid-20th century New York, Le Pavillon was the leading restaurant, and under the authoritarian rule of Henri Soulé, the restaurant was intimidatingly French. The first New York Times Guide to Dining Out edited by Craig Claiborne and published in 1964, listed eight three-star restaurants, and all were French except for the Coach House, a purportedly American restaurant that in fact served something closer to what was called at the time “Continental Cuisine.”6

Le Pavillon was expensive, as were Delmonico’s and Antoine’s, so part of the separation of such establishments from the “exotic” or “foreign” category was that the latter were cheap and often in out-of-the-way places (from the middle-class viewpoint) such as Chinatown or the Lower East Side. Restaurant types are divided by class as well as nation, and ethnic restaurants were part of the growth of middle-class dining options (others included coffee shops, cafeterias, tea houses, luncheonettes and the Automat). Fancy restaurants might affect an ethnic identity; the Russian Tearoom in New York or Omar Khayyam’s in San Francisco are examples. The entire category of pseudo-Polynesian “tiki” restaurants included the very high-end Trader Vic’s at the Plaza Hotel in New York and in several other cities. The food might be faux-ethnic, more Chinese than anything else, but the tiki category certainly relied on a sense of the foreign exotic.

Culinary Diversity

What the cultural historian Andrew Haley refers to as the celebration of New York’s “culinary cosmopolitanism” began in the 1890s. An article in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly in 1893 boasted that New York offered superior variety to Paris: “On a wager [one] could dine differently four times a day for a week, and have each repast composed of foreign dishes, served by foreign waiters, and eat with foreign-born men and women as his convives.”7 The diner being addressed here is, of course, generic “American” rather than “foreign” and it is worth noting the appeal of dining with members of the appropriate ethnic group as a diverting experience of authenticity. In fact proprietors of such restaurants tended to tailor their offerings to suit the tastes of the eclectic American diner. In a 1939 study of Chinese restaurants, Ling Lew distinguished between those that catered to Americans versus a smaller number with a predominantly Chinese clientele. The latter were modestly appointed, but offered better and more authentic food. At the New Hangchow, with primarily American customers, the menu featured chop suey and chow mein, along with pepper steak, shrimp with tomato and egg rolls. At the Lotus Inn, with a Chinese customer base, the menu included fried lobster Canton style, almond roast pork, roast pork with Chinese vegetables, and shrimp with lobster sauce and Chinese vegetables.8

John’s Restaurant on Twelfth Street near Second Avenue was a favorite among haunt of Italian journalists and intellectuals. At the rear table, with glasses, sits Girolamo Valente, editor of La Parola, photographed by Marjory Collins in 1943. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection)

Restaurant owners are motivated to appeal to generic American diners because there are more of them and they are less discriminating, unlikely to make invidious comparisons with how their mother or grandmother made a particular dish. Serving food adjusted to the tastes of an American clientele is a longstanding business strategy. Today, although there are many recent Chinese immigrants and specialized regional restaurants in Flushing or Sunset Park, the majority of Chinese restaurants in New York as well as nationally are patronized primarily by people who are not Chinese.

The Chop Suey Craze and After

New York’s mosaic of immigrant cultures notwithstanding, it was Chinese food that first defined ethnic dining and Chinese that has remained the leading imported cuisine on a national level. Today there are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S., more than there are branches of McDonalds, Wendy’s, and Burger King combined. The origins of this mass-market popularity date from the so-called Chop Suey Craze, which began in 1896 when a high Chinese government official visited New York. According to one version, Li Hongzhang’s chef introduced chop suey to the city, or else it was served at a reception for the envoy given at the Waldorf Hotel. In an article entitled “Queer Dishes Served at the Waldorf by Li Hung’s Chinese Cook,” chop suey was defined as “fricasseed giblets.” This was not inaccurate, but the impression of novelty was. Chop suey had been offered in Chinatowns in the United States and consumed by non-Chinese patrons at least as far back as the 1880s.9 The craze, however, was real: by 1905 there were more than 100 chop suey restaurants in New York outside of Chinatown, especially along Third and Eighth Avenues. The stir-fried preparation of offal that was common in the Pearl River Delta region, where most Chinese immigrants in New York were born, was transformed for the American palate into a dish of meat (beef, chicken, pork) with a thick, gravy-like sauce.

By the 1920s, chop suey was suspected of being not really Chinese, but rather something invented in America to fool Americans.

By the 1920s there was widespread awareness of its inauthenticity. Chop suey was suspected of being not really Chinese, but rather something invented in America to fool Americans. An article in the New York Times in January 1928 cited “differing opinions as to whether chop suey . . . is a real Chinese dish or an American’s conception of one.”10 By the end of that same year some disturbing new information was reported in the Times in an article entitled “Chop Suey, Popular Here, Is Hardly Known in China.”11 Although chop suey remained popular into the 1960s, it became an elementary mark of sophistication to disdain it. Chop suey would gradually disappear from menus, not because of the rise of authentic Chinese food, but because of changing fashions. The history of ethnic restaurants reflects a tension between catering to the taste of Americans and projecting a plausible authenticity. People are willing to relax their critical standards. Everyone knows General Tso’s Chicken is unknown in China, but many continue to order and enjoy it even with this knowledge.

The other great ethnic restaurant success story has been Italian. In 1890 about 100,000 immigrants from Italy lived in New York and something on the order of 100 cafés and restaurants solicited their business.12 Already in 1885, however, a reporter for the New York Sun observed with surprise that many patrons of these restaurants were not of Italian origin.13 The first American-born people who turned up at foreign restaurants in the United States, especially Italian places, were what contemporaries referred to as “Bohemians.” These were not the starving artists of the original French vie Bohème but rather urban men and women of mildly artistic temperament and enough income to spend on small indulgences such as dining out. They were artists or writers looking for exuberance, informality, and novelty, people whose unconventionality encompassed the possibility of cohabitation without marriage, extending even to a more-or-less obvious gay identity.14 By 1900 Bohemian neighborhoods such as New York’s Greenwich Village featured an eclectic, vibrant combination of nonconformists and Italian immigrants.

“Food and Foreigners in New York” was the legend on this illustration John Gilmer Speed depicting the varied foodways that came together in the city of New York in 1900. The vignettes depict a “Sausage Factory on the East Side; Habib Assi, the Syrian Chef; Where the Polish Jews Do Their Shopping.” (Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library)

Italian restaurants provided a raffish gaiety and served as meeting places for the literary and artistic circles of Greenwich Village. The best-documented example of a first-generation Italian restaurant is Gonfarone’s on MacDougal and Eighth Streets. We know a lot about the restaurant through a memoir by Maria Sermolino, who worked at her father’s establishment from 1900 to 1917.15 In the 1890s Gonfarone’s had been patronized by Italians and functioned as a kind of boarding house, serving just 15 people at a time. Signora Gonfarone took in Analecto Sermolino as her partner, and they perfected a 50-cent table d’hôte menu and expanded the restaurant’s size. Gonfarone’s was soon sought out by artists and writers from the neighborhood and the family deliberately staged what passed for a colorful Italian atmosphere. Sermolino hired an Italian musical trio to play what his daughter recalled as “different sounding noises” to please its artsy but rather undiscriminating clientele. A lively tableau featured one of the busboys playing the harmonica, a waiter juggling, and a cook who would emerge from the kitchen brandishing a knife in picturesque fury as if recreating in farcical form the violent conclusion of I Pagliacci. Maria Sermolino summed up the appeal of Gonfarone’s: “a simple, Latin variety of hedonism,” a formula of playing at being Italian that the social changes of the next hundred years would not extinguish.16

Gonfarone’s offered minestrone soup, spaghetti, spumoni, and antipasto consisting of celery hearts, black olives, salami, sardines, anchovies, stewed tomatoes with bread, tuna, and pimento. The main courses showcased items that were more American than Italian, typically sweetbreads, roast beef, and broiled chicken. The 50-cent price rose to 60 cents on weekends, when half a lobster with mayonnaise was added to the menu.17 Like most Italian restaurants of the first part of the 20th century, Gonfarone’s offered a colorful atmosphere, but with familiar food.

The night Mamma Leone’s opened, April 27, 1906, the following table d’hôte menu was served:

  • Antipasto Supremo
  • Minestrone
  • Spaghetti or Ravioli with Meat Sauce
  • Roast Chicken or Scaloppine Piccata
  • Green Salad
  • Cheese
  • Spumoni
  • Caffé Nero18

This is a little more adventurous than Gonfarone’s, and the “typical” Italian dishes such as minestrone soup or veal Piccata were exotic at first before becoming established, much in the manner of chop suey or chow mein, if less dramatically. The conventional foreign dishes were, in fact, not so foreign. While the inauthenticity of Chinese-American favorites was obvious by the 1920s, it took longer for the same suspicions to overtake Italian-American adaptations, although visitors from Italy were not fooled. In the 1920s Niccolà de Quattrociochi, a Sicilian salesman for an Italian canning company, sarcastically typified spaghetti with meatballs, coteletta Parmigiana, Italian antipasto, and beefsteak Milanese as tasty American inventions that he hoped someone would introduce into his home country.19

The decades between 1920 and 1970 saw an expansion in the variety of New York ethnic restaurants. Indian, Middle-Eastern, Armenian, and Scandinavian places appeared. Many of these combined exotic atmosphere with what now seems surprisingly ordinary food with just a few stereotypical foreign dishes. A menu from the Punjab restaurant on Bleecker Street dating from the 1950s features a few curries, but also French items along with Chinese pepper steak, shrimp cocktail, London broil and spaghetti with red or white clam sauce. While Chianti was suggested to accompany the Italian fare and “vin blanc” for French, Far Eastern food, it was asserted, should be consumed with a king-size Martini.20

A 1930 review of another place called the India Rajah, on 48th Street west of Broadway, shows that despite the seeming simplicity of the ethnic restaurant menu, it was still confusing to outsiders. In his Dining in New York, Rian James identified the India Rajah as a “Turkish (Parsee)” restaurant. “Upstairs,” he reported, “you will find the Rajah, about as big as a medium-sized clothes press, and not nearly as sanitary; but you’re in Turkey now—and if you were terribly fussy, you wouldn’t have gone to Turkey in the first place. Besides, the food is worth the trip.” It gets more peculiar:

The table d’hote starts with Tamarind—a lemon-colored drink made from vegetables—as an appetizer. A watery, albeit true-to-type, native soup follows. Then the real business of the Turkish dinner sets in. Choose lamb, chicken, or beef curry—oh, such a fiery curry sauce! . . . You’ll enjoy your dinner speculating about the other queer-looking diners, and learn, astonishingly enough, that all sheiks don’t wear goatees, ride white horses, and brandish swords. 21

Thus New York, during the first two-thirds of the 20th century, was full of diverse restaurants representing many nations and cuisines, but for those patronized by a nondistinct American clientele, they fell into a few categories with predictable and not especially authentic dishes. This is not to say that restaurants or diners have a moral obligation to put a premium on authenticity, nor to deny the pleasure that people experienced in the past. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, my family ate regularly at the Tien Tsin on 125th Street and always ordered the same things: winter melon soup, beef with snowpeas, chicken with almonds, and lobster Cantonese. We were certainly too sophisticated to consider chop suey, but I recall being impressed when on one occasion my college-student cousin dined with us and ordered Moo Goo Gai Pan.

In 1965 the harshly restrictive immigration laws imposed in the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolution were radically liberalized. The Hart-Celler Act kept the general principle of limiting immigrant visas, but lifted the virtual prohibitions on immigrants from “non-white” parts of the world. The impact of this legislation reverberated throughout American life, including the proliferation in the 1970s of restaurants established by recent immigrants. Calvin Trillin likened the Hart-Celler Act to an Emancipation Proclamation for serious eaters.22 The result of resurgent immigration has been an increase in both the diversity and number of ethnic restaurants, some to serve the new communities, but a majority oriented toward American customers for the same business reasons as influenced earlier generations. Restaurant types are not simply an unmediated reflection of increased immigration, however. In 2014 there were 60,000 Filipinos in New York, but only four Filipino restaurants. 23 Most restaurants that present themselves as Indian are owned by people from Bangladesh or Pakistan, and half of all the cooks are from a single province in Bangladesh, Sylhet.24 Most employees below the chefs in any New York restaurant, including ethnic eateries, are from Latin America. The proliferation of ethnic restaurants and the fashions for different cuisines are therefore contingent, shaped by cultural shifts and the active efforts of restaurateurs.

A restaurant at 88 Washington Street Manhattan, identified as “Lebanese (Syrian),” photographed by Berenice Abbott in 1936. (The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library)

Besides the increased diversification, recent decades in restaurant history have seen changes in relative culinary prestige. Certain Italian and Japanese restaurants are now among the most elegant and expensive establishments in New York. whereas before the 1980s, almost all of them were modest if not downright cheap. The Italian restaurant has gone through several stages, from the Bohemian family-style restaurant of Greenwich Village (roughly 1880–1920) to the large, palatial but still inexpensive spectacle epitomized by Mamma Leone’s (from the 1920 until about 1980), and most recently, the stylish, expensive, regional (usually Northern) style pioneered by Lidia Bastianich’s Felidia, which opened in 1983 and Tony May’s San Domenico, which opened in 1988.

A parallel development lifted Japanese restaurants. Establishments serving a non-Japanese clientele had featured sukiyaki, tempura, and other easily approachable dishes of the sort featured in the 1938 New Yorker cover. During the 1960s, sushi went from being portrayed as a strange and off-putting specialty appreciated only by the Japanese themselves to widely popular and diffused. In 1962 Craig Claiborne observed that raw fish was “a trifle too ‘far out’ for many American palates,” but three years later he acknowledged “a growing public enthusiasm for the Japanese raw fish specialties, sashimi and sushi.” The ascent of Japanese restaurants into the high-end was demonstrated in 1983 when Mimi Sheraton in The New York Times gave Hatsuhana three stars, the first time a Japanese restaurant had received such a ranking.25

In a city where Japanese and Italian destinations rank among the top and over-the-top levels, the contrast with Chinese and other Asian foods is glaring. After experiencing a rise in reputation and regional diversity in the wake of President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, some Chinese restaurants had great success as well-decorated and relatively costly gastronomic destinations, places such as the Shun Lee group in New York or the Mandarin in San Francisco. This was an unachieved revolution, however, and only recently, with the opening of La Chine at the (now Chinese-owned) Waldorf-Astoria, is there another attempt to raise the status, atmosphere, and innovation of the Chinese restaurant.

The real frontier in the New York landscape is not so much the next “new thing” geographically (Senegalese? Colombian?) or rediscovery (Italian-American; German), but rather a blurring of the categories of ethnic identity and prestige. David Chang, a second-generation Korean-American, is the pioneering example of mixing up ethnic and experimental, and combining high-end attributes with ostentatious informality. On the one hand, his restaurants are often difficult to get into and he has invented creative and daring dishes. His restaurants are talked about and publicized among a sophisticated crowd. On the other hand, they are informal. Chang said of Momofuku, “We were going to serve good food . . .regardless of the paper napkins, the shitty silverware, the fast-food condiment island in the middle of the dining room.”26 This ethnic haute cuisine and smart casual27 atmosphere do not resemble the fancy, “authentic” Japanese or Italian restaurant because the food isn’t recognizably Korean except by inflection or gesture, and also because its haute status doesn’t mean imitating the atmosphere and service standards of established elite dining conventions. Parallel to the rise of new American or farm-to-table fashions, we are starting to see an alternative to the complementarity of ethnic/picturesque/cheap with high-end/ European/expensive.

Butter: A Rich History

Butter: A Rich History (Algonquin Books) by Elaine Khosrova. Butter explores the history of butter. That delicious staple we so often take for granted is not merely a stick tucked into our refrigerator door. It’s a culinary catalyst, an agent of change, a gastronomic linchpin. An award-winning food writer and former pastry chef, Khosrova serves up an account that’s as rich, textured, and culturally relevant as butter itself. From the ancient butter bogs of Ireland to the sacred butter sculptures of Tibet, Butter is about so much more than food. Khosrova details its surprisingly vital role in history, politics, economics, nutrition, even spirituality and art. From its humble agrarian origins to its present-day artisanal glory, butter weaves a fascinating story, and Khosrova has travelled across three continents to tell it. She also includes the essential collection of carefully developed core butter recipes, from beurre manié and croissants to pâte brisée and the perfect buttercream frosting, and provides practical how-tos for making various types of butter at home. The book also lists a wide variety of recommended butters.

Dave Arnold, the Man Behind the Museum of Food and Drink, Says a Gristmill Was His Rosebud

Dave Arnold is the author of Liquid Intelligence (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014) and founder and president of the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) in New York.

Dave Arnold

He was an early player in the modernist food movement (which emphasizes science in contemporary cooking) as an educator, writer, blogger, and inventor, and headed the first Culinary Technology Department at the French Culinary Institute (since renamed the International Culinary Center).

He is host of the radio program Cooking Issues on the Heritage Radio Network and is a designer of equipment for modernist cooking methods. After several years of masterminding pop-up exhibits around the city, in 2015, Arnold saw his lifelong fascination with how cooking works, where food comes from, and how food and drink have shaped human culture culminate in the opening of MOFAD, an exciting new museum space with an ambitious charter: to begin collecting, organizing and displaying the science, history, and culture of food and drink.

CR: You’ve said that during your grade-school years in the ’70s, your mother was very busy in medical school, and her own family had never been big on cooking. Who were your early food influences?

DA: My mom, even though she was going to school, was extremely interested and adventurous when it came to food. At the time, an early Renaissance cookbook, Fabulous Feasts by Madeleine Cosman, came out, and my mom did medieval feasts from that—not that she had the time. So I got interested. We were cooking all the time, and when I was about nine, I used to cook unattended—looking back, really not smart. We had a really crappy electric oven and I remember lighting my jacket on fire by leaning against the element; it was one of these puffy, 1970s highly flammable jackets. I put out the flames with my hands. When I was in elementary school, I would deep-fry by myself. I made beignets.

CR: You made beignets in elementary school? With a yeast dough!?

DA: No, I used the Café du Monde mix—there are limits. I used to make this pancake mix in a sack, Pillsbury Panshakes. In the late ’70s we were going through a paper-bag thing, so once a week I would make my paper-bag chicken: rub the butter on the chicken, salt, and I would add curry powder—that was my signature spice. I added curry powder to everything. Then I had a run with garlic salt. I made garlic bread constantly, and once I dumped a whole bunch of the garlic salt on the bread and ate it. My dad made me sit in the back of the ’76 Torino; I wasn’t allowed anywhere near him.

A puffing cannon in action at “Boom!”—the Museum of Food and Drink’s exhibit on breakfast cereal. (Photo by Paul Adams)

CR: How did your interest in food first extend beyond the enjoyment of cooking and eating?

DA: We went to Tarrytown, to Philipsburg Manor, and I used to love that gristmill. I would go at least once a year. At the time, they still had some fifth-generation miller. I take my kids now, but I miss that guy and the gristmill. They really only do cornmeal now. One of my life dreams is to own a gristmill. Maybe the museum will. I love gristmills.

CR: At college you started out in physics but switched to liberal arts, and your graduate work was in fine arts. How did you end up in food science?

DA: At Yale there was no such thing as food studies, and at that time 99 percent of the people who did food science didn’t really like food. That’s something that has changed over the past couple of decades. Most people who are getting into it now care about food—a huge positive change and something that goes relatively unrecognized outside the business. I did not ever lose my faculties for observation. In art school I studied sculpture. Most of my stuff was mechanical, machine-based, engineering-based. I built mechanical equipment, or I would do microprocessor development. In 1997, my wife bought me Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking because I spoke that language. We had moved into this illegal loft and I started buying used restaurant equipment at auction and trying to work some of it into the sculpture I was doing, and cook on it. I bought a half-size Blodgett and cut it open and put in double insulated glass to film inside the oven, so I could light it from all directions. I ended up just baking a lot of cookies in it.

CR: When did you get the idea to establish a museum?

Food is good way to learn about culture, science, history, history of economics, and social issues—a lens that you can see a lot of things through. I realized that an institution like this didn’t exist.

DA: I had the idea for the museum in 2004. I did an exhibit on American country-style ham, as part of the International Hotel, Motel, and Restaurant Show at the Javits Center during a very dark time for American ham because it was getting pushed as a commodity. That exhibit was my first attempt at the museum idea. The ham exhibit came to the attention of Michael Batterberry at Food Arts, and he brought me in to write on history. He told me to write a review of a biography of Alexis Soyer, a 19th-century chef. In researching it, I went to the New York Public Library and took a picture of every page of the Gastronomic Regenerator because copies of the book, if you could find one, were 400 bucks. Michael realized I was working with Wylie [Dufresne, the chef at WD-50], so he had me write about science and technology, and then Michael forced Dorothy Hamilton [the late founder and CEO of the French Culinary Institute] to hire me for food tech stuff at FCI.

CR: He forced her?

DA: She didn’t know me from a hot rock. That’s the way Michael worked. He picked people he thought were good and then twisted the right arms to get them where they needed to go. The entire time, my idea was to get the museum going. I got hired at FCI in 2005 and stayed until 2011 or ’12. An interesting time. Nils Norén was there, a monster cook, I started a blog called Cooking Issues, started the radio show that I am still doing.

CR: What accounts for the current interest in all things food, and is it a sustainable state?

DA: People who 30 years ago would never have considered being in the food world now are, and that’s got to be the Food Network. Chefs are considered a cool thing to be. Back in the ’80s if someone said they wanted to be a chef, people would say, “Really? Did you just get out of prison?” Michael Batterberry said that one of the things they were fighting for was recognition of chef as a true profession, rather than just a job. Well that’s been successful.

CR: Has modernist cuisine taken off in New York the way it has in Europe?

DA: Every single high-end restaurant in New York uses modernist techniques. They all do, they all use low-temperature cooking, they all use hydrocolloids [thickening agents used for culinary purposes]. Even at very traditional places like Le Bernadin, a lot of that stuff came in through the pastry side. Let’s say you weren’t using hydrocolloids in the main kitchen—well, all of the pastry folks were. If you look at restaurants that you can label modernist, then no, they are not as pervasive here, but that’s just New York style. For a long time WD-50 was the restaurant that was known for these techniques. WD wasn’t just about these [modernist] techniques; it was about this wild ride of creativity, and that is a very specific project. In fact, everyone who is interested in this kind of creativity is interested in new techniques. But not everyone who is interested in using new techniques is interested in you knowing about it.

A fortune cookie assembler on display at the Museum of Food and Drink. (Photo by Megan Swann, Museum of Food and Drink)

CR: Why a museum?

DA: Food is something that you need to taste and smell and see, and one of the ways I like to understand other cultures is by seeing how they eat, how they shop, how they break bread. Food is good way to learn about culture, science, history, history of economics, and social issues—a lens that you can see a lot of things through. I realized that an institution like this didn’t exist. Most of the exhibit topics that we are tackling have to hit a number of points: history, science, and economics. We like stories where the deeper you dig, the more there is to grab a hold of.

CR: What do you consider the characteristics of a successful exhibit?

DA: It teaches you something that you can understand; it is compact, kid friendly, maybe with buttons. I have two main tests that I try to put everything through. One: Would people on either side come to the exhibit and say, “You got it right?” We don’t want someone coming in and saying it’s a puff piece for the industry or from the industry saying that’s a leftwing hack job. The second is: Can someone who knows nothing show up and someone who is an expert, and both get something out of it? Is it going to work for a wide range of people with diverse interests, and is it evenhanded enough that we are not seen as taking a side?

CR: What is the future of MOFAD?

DA: We have shown that it works as a museum experience. Now we need money, and we need to get bigger. We’ve proven a brick-and-mortar space is desirable and viable. We need to demonstrate to people that supporting MOFAD isn’t just an act of hedonism because you like food. We are here to change the way Americans think about food, and that is worth support.


The Museum of Food and Drink is located at 62 Bayard Street, Brooklyn. For opening hours and more information, visit the MOFAD website.

Eat, Live, Love, Die: Selected Essays

Eat, Live, Love, Die: Selected Essays (Counterpoint Press) by Betty Fussell. From hundreds of essays published over the last half century, Fussell has selected 42 to voice her personal obsession with food as the key to what matters to us most on our shared journey toward death. With an introduction by Alice Waters.

Chinese Cooking in the US: From Soy Sauce to Red Wine Lees

One of the biggest challenges in cooking ethnic food in the United States is finding appropriate ingredients. And that was precisely my problem when I first arrived to study at Boston University during the 1970s. Driving along US Route 1 in Saugus, Massachusetts, one could not possibly miss a huge entrance to a restaurant with an A-frame roof crowned by a Polynesian totem pole. Around the back, stood a smaller attached structure anchored by a 1950s Ming pagoda. This was the Kowloon Restaurant, which sported a mismatched architecture reflecting a mishmash of supposedly exotic Asian-Pacific food inside. It is still operated by the two generations of the Wong family and has been since they took over the restaurant in 1958.

A selection of dry goods at a market in Chinatown, in Manhattan. (Photo by Kian Lam Kho)

This confusing combination of Polynesian and Chinese-American food was the standard Chinese fare known by the locals then, and included classic dishes such as the pupu platter, crab Rangoon, sweet and sour pork, moo goo gai pan and lo mein. To be fair, there was some genuine Chinese food available. Relatively authentic Cantonese restaurants in Chinatown could be found, and the legendary Joyce Chen Restaurant in Cambridge served rather good Shanghainese and Beijing dishes. Still, I yearned for the flavors of my family’s home province of Fujian. To satisfy my craving, I turned to my family in Singapore for recipes, and sought out ingredients to make them.

A display of bottle gourds in a market in New York’s Chinatown. (Photo by Kian Lam Kho)

But alas, many of the Fujian regional ingredients were simply not available. Boston’s Chinatown at that time was mostly occupied by Cantonese immigrants, and their markets stocked ingredients predominantly for their cooking. Even then, only the most common sauces and spices were available. Soy sauce, cooking wine, oyster sauce, and hoisin sauce were readily available. Spices such as star anise, cloves, cassia bark, and dried chili peppers could be found in most markets. Curiously, Sichuan peppercorn was also obtainable in spite of being banned by the US government from 1968 till 2005 for fear that it could spread a citrus canker to American orchards. Other imported ingredients included canned goods such as bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and mushrooms, as well as dried ingredients such as mushrooms and seafood. With limited ingredients available, I was only able to make basic braised dishes and simple stir-fries.

Then I discovered the Chinatown in New York City during the middle of my sophomore year. Encouraged by a few classmates, we drove down to the city for a long holiday weekend. Not only did I enjoy the Sichuan and Hunan restaurants that were beginning to open then, I also found well-stocked markets in Chinatown. Like a boy in a candy shop, I binge-shopped that weekend and started regular trips to New York City to stock up on hard-to-find items. Herbal ingredients for making soup, for example, were some of the prized ingredients not generally available in Boston.

Although New York City markets were amply filled with imported Asian products, they catered primarily to a Cantonese population. The introduction of Sichuan and Hunan cuisine in restaurants opened during the late 1970s by a few chefs from Taiwan stimulated the demand for more diverse ingredients. However, it was not until the late 1980s, when I moved to New York City and was pleasantly surprised by the gradual transformation of the products for sale in the Chinatown markets, that I realized a major shift was about to occur.

Celtuce, the stalk of a Chinese lettuce, for sale in Chinatown, New York City. (Photo by Kian Lam Kho)

After the opening of the People’s Republic of China in the 1980s, many new immigrants arrived from regions outside Guangdong [formerly known as Canton); Fujianese immigrants congregated along the East Broadway corridor in Manhattan, northeastern and western Chinese immigrants flocked to Flushing, in Queens, and many others from the Chinese eastern coastline scattered throughout the city. To cater to the new population, numerous new restaurants and markets opened. Produce markets started carrying a wider variety of Asian vegetables and fruits, either imported or grown locally by Asian farmers. Fishmongers also began to sell more exotic Asian seafood. This evolution significantly altered the Chinese grocery shopping experience in the city.

A fishmonger’s stall in Chinatown, New York City. (Photo by Kian Lam Kho)

For more than a decade now, I have enjoyed the ability to purchase all sorts of products from all over Asia. Red wine lees used in Hakka cooking and sweet white wine lees from Shanghai are now found in Chinese markets throughout the city. Soy products in limitless forms such as silky tofu, pressed tofu, tofu sheets, tofu skins, and tofu puffs are carried everywhere. Cooking wine comes in the common Shaoxing variety as well as laojiu (aged rice wine), white rice wine, triple-steamed rice wine, and rose-flavored wine. Because they have to carry products from all the regions of China, I can safely say that today, New York City’s Chinese markets offer a wider array of goods than most markets in China, which still tend to offer only regional goods.

Edible Flowers: A Global History

Edible Flowers: A Global History (Reaktion Books) by Constance L. Kirker and her sister, Mary Newman. Few things in life have as much universal appeal as flowers. But why in the world would anyone eat them? Greek, Roman, Persian, Ottoman, Mayan, Chinese, and Indian cooks have all recognized the feast for the senses that flowers brought to their dishes. Today, chefs and adventurous cooks are increasingly using flowers in innovative ways. Edible Flowers: A Global History is the fascinating story of how flowers have been used in cooking from ancient customs to modern kitchens. It also serves up novel ways to prepare and eat soups, salads, desserts, and drinks. With 60 illustrations, 45 in color, the book is as beautiful as any flower.

Food City: Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York

From the breweries of New Amsterdam to Brooklyn’s Sweet’n Low, a vibrant account of four centuries of food production in New York City.

New York is hailed as one of the world’s “food capitals,” but the history of food-making in the city has been mostly lost. Since the establishment of the first Dutch brewery, the commerce and culture of food enriched New York and promoted its influence on America and the world by driving innovations in machinery and transportation, shaping international trade, and feeding sailors and soldiers at war. Immigrant ingenuity re-created Old World flavors and spawned such familiar brands as Thomas’ English Muffins, Hebrew National, Twizzlers, and Ronzoni macaroni.

Food historian Joy Santlofer re-creates the texture of everyday life in a growing metropolis―the sound of stampeding cattle, the smell of burning bone for char, and the taste of novelties such as chocolate-covered matzoh and Chiclets. With an eye-opening focus on bread, sugar, drink, and meat, Food City recovers the fruitful tradition behind today’s local brewers and confectioners, recounting how food shaped a city and a nation.