Foods for Special Occasions in the Netherlands and New Netherland

Rose Cover ImageThe seventeenth-century Dutch celebrated four winter holidays: Saint Nicholas’ Day on December sixth (later celebrated on the Eve of that day as it is still today), Christmas, New Year’s, and Epiphany (Twelfth Night, or the Feast of the Three Kings) on January sixth. For children, Saint Nicholas’ Day was the most important, and the traditions from this celebration have been absorbed into our American Christmas festivities. Virtually nothing is certain about the real Saint Nicholas. His legend may have grown out of life stories of several bishops by that name. According to tradition, he was a fourth-century bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor, who became associated with anonymous gift-giving. Saint Nicholas was also the patron saint of sailors, who brought his cult via the sea routes from Eastern to Western Europe. In the Low Countries, he was often the main character in the miracle plays performed in town squares. This made him less a venerated saint and more of a popular figure. He became the kindervriend, or children’s friend, who brought presents and sweet treats to the small folk. The latter included duivekaters (holiday bread), candied cinnamon bark, or flat, chewy honey cake formed in a wooden mold. He was so much a part of yearly family celebrations that even during the Reformation the Kinderfeest (children’s feast), could not be eradicated by government and Protestant church officials and the celebration has lasted until this day.

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the American novelist Washington Irving (1783–1859), observing the Saint Nicholas’ Day celebrations by his Dutch American neighbors, borrowed its central figure and made him part of the American Christmas festivities. He changed the tall, thin, stern-but-just bishop into our short, rotund, and jolly Santa Claus. Nineteenth-century illustrators created further embellishments to his appearance, while different ethnic groups added their traditions, and the result was the secular component of the American Christmas celebration.

In the Netherlands, the religious holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost were (and still are) celebrated for two days. Deacons’ records of the Dutch Reformed Church show they were celebrated this way in New Netherland as well.

New Year’s Eve was especially noisy, with the firing of guns to bring in the New Year. Ordinances in both the Netherlands and New Netherland eventually prohibited such behavior. The special treat for New Year’s Day in the Netherlands was nieuwjaarskoeken (thin, crisp wafers), which originated in the eastern part of the country and adjoining parts of Germany. These wafers were made in a special wafer iron. The oblong or round long-handled irons, made by blacksmiths, created imprints of a religious or secular nature on the wafers. Wafer irons were often given as a wedding gift, even in this country. Enormous quantities of wafers were prepared on New Year’s Day. They were consumed by family, servants, and guests and distributed to children, who went from house to house singing New Year’s songs, while collecting their share of treats along the way. There is ample evidence in diaries and letters that Dutch Americans continued the custom of visiting each other on New Year’s Day. In New Netherland, however, the nieuwjaarskoeken were molded in wooden cake-boards, instead of wafer irons (see recipes in the handwritten cookbooks of Elizabeth Ann Breese Morse [d. 1828] and Maria Lott Lefferts [1786–1865] of Brooklyn). The American New Year’s cake is a combination of two Dutch pastries brought here by the early settlers, the nieuwjaarskoeken described above and spiced, chewy, honey cakes formed in a wooden mold or cake-board. It was in the late eighteenth century that this homemade pastry prepared in heirloom wafer irons by the Dutch changed to a mostly store-bought product purchased by the population at large. Bakers found it much more expedient to roll out the dough, imprint it with a cake-board, cut it out, and bake it. Because the pastry was not connected with a religious celebration, most groups easily adopted it.

Laurens Block
1650,
“Novum Amsterodamum’ (New Amsterdam, New Netherlands).”
Embedded from http://digitalcollections.nyhistory.org/islandora/object/nyhs%3A3271

Culinary historian Stephen Schmidt holds that Americans became acquainted with Dutch cookies through nieuwjaarskoeken (New Year’s cakes), bringing the word cookie into American English. Recipes for cookies appeared for the first time in the earliest published American cookbook, compiled by Amelia Simmons in 1796. Cake-boards developed into a unique kind of folk art, similar to their counterparts in the Netherlands, recording important events of the time, political figures, or the American eagle.

The last Dutch winter holiday, Epiphany, did not leave a lasting mark on American life. In the Netherlands it was a rather rowdy occasion, celebrated within the family circle with waffles and pancakes served as the standard fare.

The spring religious feast of Easter was celebrated in some parts of the Netherlands with large bonfires and most everywhere with the consumption of Easter eggs. No specific mention of Easter (other than the collection of offerings by the deacons of the Dutch Reformed Church) has been found in New Netherland.

Pinkster, Pentecost, or Whitsuntide, the third most important holiday in the Christian calendar, which occurs fifty days after Easter, was celebrated in the Netherlands as well as in New Netherland. In the Old World, the secular festivities associated with Pinksteren, as it is now called, were a kind of combined May Day and fertility celebration. To foster a good harvest, a young girl was chosen as the Pinksterblom (Pinkster flower) and was carried around bedecked with flowers by the children of the town, who collected coins to buy treats. New Netherland diaries relate how the Dutch settlers gave their slaves the day off and everyone frolicked and ate large quantities of eggs. After the Revolution and in the beginning of the nineteenth century, the holiday tended to be more and more a celebration for African Americans. New York City, where freed slaves had arrived in large numbers, was especially known for its lavish Pinkster festivals, and in Albany Pinkster is said to have lasted a whole week. As an interesting aside, in his article “Pinkster Carnival: Africanisms in the Hudson River Valley,” Professor A. J. Williams-Myers of SUNY New Paltz, NY, asserts that as a result of the Pinkster festivals “for almost two hundred years some forms of Africanisms were able to survive within the institution of slavery in New York… These were passed on from generation to generation, from Old World African to New World African, so that by the nineteenth century Pinkster carnival had become an African celebration.”

In both the Netherlands and New Netherland, there were many additional events associated with special foods. These include yearly fairs, where waffles, wafers, and olie-koecken were sold; the birth of a child, with its special drink of kandeel (wine with eggs and spices; see recipes); and weddings, where guests feasted on the best the household had to offer. That even funerals were part of the well-defined culinary customs of the colony may be gleaned from the recipes for doot coeckjes (funeral cookies) and spiced wine of Maria Sanders van Rensselaer (1749–1830). At all festivities the Dutch proved to be truly hearty eaters. For example, a typical three-course feast to mark the accession to office of two Groningen professors featured turkey, hare, haunch of mutton, ham, veal, and half a lamb, all served with bread, butter, cheese, mustard, anchovies, lemons, and wine. It is telling, therefore, that Adriaen van der Donck, who served as sheriff in Rensselaerswijck, (now Albany) specifically noted that Native Americans “have no excessive eaters or gluttons among them” (1968).


For more information on New Netherland, please visit the New Netherland Research Center at the NYS Library in Albany, or go to:

www.newnetherlandinstitute.org.

 

Mushroom Quiche without a Crust

The recipe was adapted from Traktaet van de Kampernoeljes, Genaamd Duivelsbrood (Treatise of Mushrooms, Named “Devil’s Bread”) (1668) by Franciscus van Sterbeeck. You’ll find it is remarkably easy to make.

  • 10 ounces white mushrooms, wiped clean
  • 1 clove garlic, minced, or 2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
  • ¼ teaspoon EACH freshly ground pepper, salt, and dried marjoram
  • 2 tablespoons minced parsley
  • 1 cup grated aged Gouda cheese
  • 3 eggs, beaten with ⅓ cup of milk

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Break off mushroom stems and chop. In a large bowl, combine stems, garlic or chives, seasoning, cheese, and eggs. Place mushroom caps, opening up, in a 9-inch pie plate in an even layer and pour the egg mixture over the caps. Bake for 10 minutes at 375°F and reduce the heat to 325°F and bake for 30 minutes until set. Cut into wedges and serve.

For a modern meal: serve with a large mixed salad and crusty rolls or whole grain bread to make a light but delicious lunch. This dish might also be added as a vegetarian option to Thanksgiving dinner.

“If you build it, they will come”

In the fall of 2016, I participated in an ARCGIS project through New York University’s Department of Food Studies to map various “ethnic” neighborhoods around New York City. As a resident since 1977 of what is now known as NoHo, I chose the East Village’s sub-neighborhood of Little Tokyo: I was curious about how and why this area had changed before my eyes, from a neighborhood that mixed a druggy, punk art scene with vestiges of Eastern European and Italian food shops, with only a minuscule number of Japanese establishments in the late ’70s, to one where the predominant flavor was Japanese. The following essay is an updated version of my original 2016 investigation; it notes several very recent closings and relocations of some of the Japanese-inflected businesses, proving the constant flux of New York. Nonetheless, Little Tokyo remains culinarily marked, even as it defies the logic of so many “ethnic” neighborhoods, having neither a significant resident Japanese population nor an exclusively Japanese workforce in the Japanese-inflected shops: many of the Asians working in the shops are Mandarin-speaking Chinese. Perhaps this should be expected, given the 2010 census data showing that there were six times as many Mainland Chinese living in the neighborhood as Japanese.


Sometime in the early twenty-first century newspapers, magazines, and tourist guides started buzzing about “Little Tokyo,” a trendy enclave in New York City’s East Village. The neighborhood’s heart occupies, from south to north, St. Marks Place, Stuyvesant Street, and 9th and 10th Streets, and stretches from Third Avenue to First Avenue. Japanese and Japanese-inflected restaurants, bars, shops, hair salons, medical offices, and massage studios dominate these blocks nearly to the exclusion of other businesses. Spreading out from this core into the surrounding streets in the 10003 and 10009 ZIP codes are many other Japanese businesses, but no other blocks are as densely and visually Japanese.

One can be forgiven for thinking that Little Tokyo must serve an affluent mix of local Japanese immigrants and sojourners homesick for the familiar, an urban version of the suburban Edgewater, New Jersey, located less than three miles away in Bergen County. The town of Edgewater is home to nearly 6,000 Japanese and is a place where “company men” settle in with their families for extended professional stays and whose culinary needs for a taste of home are amply satisfied by the large Mitsuwa Marketplace superstore.1 But while Edgewater and its environs have a sizable number of Japanese residents, Little Tokyo does not. It is not a traditional live/work ethnic neighborhood, and its Japanese population is one-fifth that of Bergen County’s. Nor does business explain the high concentration of Japanese shops and services: like most foreign corporations with New York offices, Japanese corporations tend to center in midtown’s business hub.

Little Tokyo is an odd duck for what appears, on the surface, to be an “ethnic” neighborhood. Its Japanese-inflected businesses are patronized by an ethnically mixed clientele. The Japanese and Japanese-Americans who patronize Little Tokyo’s businesses tend to live outside the neighborhood and travel to the East Village, often from Brooklyn, Queens, or other Manhattan neighborhoods, even though Japanese markets, restaurants, hair salons, and shops are scattered throughout New York City.

But Little Tokyo is a Japanese food-lover’s paradise, a cornucopia of dining options from cheap to high end. In the first ten months of 2016 alone, 61 Japanese restaurants were registered to do business in the 10003 ZIP code. With a total of 639 public eateries in the entire 10003 zip code, nearly 1 in 10 was Japanese; if we exclude alcohol-only bars, coffee bars such as Starbucks, and chocolate and ice-cream shops, and the percentage of Japanese food and drink venues was even greater.2

These percentages are stunning given the tiny Japanese population. Census data identified the year 2000 as the official height of Japanese residence in ZIP codes 10003 and 10009 when the Japanese comprised slightly less than 1.6% of the area’s population. By 2010, it had slipped to 0.98%, ranking fourth among the Asian populations in these ZIP codes. And uniquely, unlike any other Asian immigrant group, the absolute number of Japanese residing in the neighborhood declined from 2000 to 2010.3 How did this neighborhood become such a magnet for Japanese businesses?

Little Tokyo can be seen as the culinary analog of the 1989 motion picture Field of Dreams, with its famous tagline, “If you build it, they will come.” In Field of Dreams, the protagonist Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, hears voices encouraging him to build a professional baseball stadium in the middle of an isolated cornfield in his money-losing farm. Magically appearing in the cornfield are the ghosts of famous baseball players, visible only to Kinsella (and the theater audience, of course), but once the stadium is built, the ghosts become visible to everyone. Fans from far and wide join a caravan to watch them play, saving Kinsella from financial ruin and fulfilling his “every boy’s dream” of tossing a ball with baseball greats. Like Kinsella’s stadium, Little Tokyo is largely the product of the imagination and efforts of one man, a Japanese immigrant who, in the 1980s, opened Japanese restaurants that eventually, if unpredictably, acted as a magnet for many other Japanese businesses, creating an ethnic-feeling neighborhood utterly divorced from a resident ethnic population.

Before there was a Little Tokyo

CGBG, 1973-2006
315 Bowery
Cynthia MacAdams
1986

Time-travel back to New York City in the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s. The East Village air is pungent with cheap marijuana, its streets glisten with used hypodermics in the morning light. Graffitied buildings punctuate every block, their window glass smashed into ragged incisors. On October 30, 1975, the Daily News headline screamed, “Drop Dead,” a reference to President Gerald Ford’s notoriously shunning aid to the city teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. St. Marks Place, the icon of East Village street life, boasted a raw, counterculture art scene. Andy Warhol and his punk-ish light shows played at the Velvet Underground, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat joined the circle of Warhol protégés and became famed denizens of the neighborhood. Legends of rock ‘n roll charged stages at the Fillmore East and CBGBs.4 Rents were cheap and the East Village still retained vestiges of the Eastern European, Jewish, and Ukrainian immigrant populations that had lived in these tenement blocks for generations, along with a healthy dollop of Italian businesses clustered at the East Village’s northern boundary. But as the last of these first-generation immigrants were dying off and their children moving up, the shops, restaurants, and theaters catering to these tastes were vanishing.5 Our story opens against this tattered backdrop when two young and scrappy Japanese men, Tadao “Tony” Yoshida and Shuji “Bon” Yagi, started small food businesses in the late 1960s. Yoshida’s Ice Cream Connection on St. Marks expanded into the inexpensive Japanese healthy food restaurant Dojo, which became a New York University standard on West 4th Street (recently closed after a more than 40-year run), while Yagi opened a fruit and vegetable stand on Second Avenue at 6th Street.6 Yagi will become the Ray Kinsella of Little Tokyo.

Yagi-san and the T.I.C. Group: the engine of Little Tokyo

Yagi painting the sign for his Second Avenue fruit and vegetable store. Credit: Discover Nikkei | Nancy Matsumoto

In the early 1980s, Yagi had saved enough to graduate his fruit and vegetable business into a 24-hour diner/coffee shop on Second Avenue, just south of St. Marks Place. With its expensive (for the era) 75-cent cup of coffee, the eponymous 103 Second Avenue was a hip place to linger: Yagi boasts that Madonna, Basquiat, and Haring all were patrons in the early days. Yagi designed 103 Second Avenue to be deliberately generic in feel, hesitant to draw attention to his Japanese ethnicity. Basquiat and Haring regularly graffitied the bathroom, which Yagi just as regularly painted over, ruefully not predicting the art world’s future embrace.7

During the1970s and early ’80s, Yagi made regular trips back to Japan, but eventually adopted New York as his home. Determined to allow others to “experience Japan here in the East Village, without paying expensive airfare,”8 in 1984 he opened his first Japanese restaurant, Hasaki, a sushi bar at the bend of Stuyvesant Place and East 9th Street. It was a groundbreaking step in creating Little Tokyo.9 Still open, Hasaki was the first entity in what would become the T.I.C. Group. T.I.C. is a conglomerate of restaurants and the T.I.C. Washlet Service owned by Yagi and his family.10 T.I.C. stands for “Total Information Center,” but Yagi’s daughter Sakura, who is the chief operating officer of T.I.C. Group, prefers to think of it as “Tokyo in Change.”11

T.I.C. Group has owned a dozen Japanese restaurants, snack bars, and sake bars, with all but two located in Little Tokyo. When asked why he continues to open new food venues, Yagi explained that each showcases a different aspect of Japanese culinary culture, whether the Zen-like tea house Cha’an the raucous izakaya Sakebar Decibel, the (now superseded) storefront for street food Yoneburger, which served your choice of protein sandwiched between two moist rice cakes and now has been transformed into a take-out shop for Japanese confectionary, or the coffee connoisseur’s Hi-Collar. Yagi and the T.I.C. Group now have considerable (and welcome) competition, allowing those who find themselves in the East Village to choose from a cornucopia of Japanese and Japanese-inflected business.

Why the East Village?

Photograph of Yagi in a 2011 New York Times article.
Josh Haner/The New York Times

Affordable real estate drives business ventures in New York City, but when Yagi launched his empire, the East Village was just one of several neighborhoods where commercial spaces and rents were well within reach of fledgling entrepreneurs. I return to the Field of Dreams analogy: Yagi claims nineteenth-century ghostly inspiration to open his first Japanese restaurant within a block of St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery. The church, located just where Stuyvesant Street merges into 10th Street, is New York’s oldest site of continuous religious observances, dating back to the 1660s. The current building, started in 1799, has no obvious significance for Little Tokyo but for the special meaning Yagi ascribes to one of graveyard’s temporary inhabitants: Commodore Matthew C. Perry, the naval officer responsible for the opening of Japan to America and the West in 1854, was interred in Vault 95 for eight years before his remains were relocated to a family grave in Rhode Island. Yagi, a Buddhist, feels spiritually connected to the site, to Perry’s role in Sino-American relations, and to his own reciprocal gesture of bringing something of Japan to New York. He honored this heritage by opening Hasaki in the shadow of St. Mark’s.12

To make explicit this “Japan-in-New York” connection, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Yagi organized annual matsuri street festivals along Stuyvesant Street. Matsuri festivals offered thanks to nature and “beautify the spirit”; they included carrying a ritually purified shrine that held the spirit of ancestors along the two narrow blocks of Stuyvesant Street to the church door. According to Yagi, these matsuri festivals brought thousands of people—Japanese living throughout the region and others—to the neighborhood to witness different expressions of Japanese culture, including dancing, singing, martial arts, and food, much of which he provided. The matsuri festival has outgrown tiny Stuyvesant Street and now is run by the Japan Society along broader, uptown avenues.13 Nonetheless, Yagi may have sensed something in the church’s gestalt, for he was not the first to perform Buddhist rites at St Mark’s: in the early twentieth century, the rector of St. Mark’s, William Guthrie, controversially incorporated Buddhist observances (as well as other non-Christian elements) in some of the church services, generating national (often horrified) press attention.14

Whether one believes in Yagi’s magical thinking or simply sees a clever capitalist who recognizes the value in a good story, the Little Tokyo that Yagi launched carries an undeniable mantle of Japanese-ness.

A gastronomic flâneur’s tour of Little Tokyo 

© Zack DeZon / Culture Trip

Morning coffee at Hi-Collar (214 East 10th St.) (a T.I.C. Group establishment)

The large part that coffee plays in Japanese culinary culture often surprises those who associate Japan with tea and chado. While the Way of Tea epitomizes traditional, inward-looking Japan, coffee represents modernity and Japan’s flirtation with the West in the early twentieth century. Japan’s better coffeehouses, known as kissatens, are independently owned, and each has a distinctive atmosphere, with many being venues to hear Western jazz.15 The name Hi-Collar is meant to evoke Japan’s interpretation of the Jazz Age, when men sported Western dress featuring heavily starched, high collars.16 Appropriately, period jazz plays softly in the background.

By day, Hi-collar focuses on high-quality coffee, brewed by one of three techniques: siphon, flash brewed, or over ice. Customers select their beans from a menu listing regions and roasts; the same attention to details of technology, terroir, and processing is found in Japan’s kissaten. One must be patient, as each coffee is handmade, mimicking the attention given to coffee in the best Japanese kissaten.

Hi-Collar’s kissaten menu is a melding of Japanese and Western cuisines. A signature dish is the omurice, or rice omelet, prepared in a French, tender baveuse style and torpedo-shaped, rather than the firmer Japanese style, tough enough to be cut into dominoes and found as part of inexpensive sushi platters. Filled with tomatoey rice, the omelet is garnished with ketchup. Other daytime fare includes fried pork katsu, sandwiches with crusts neatly trimmed from the bread, spaghetti dishes, and thick, sweet pancakes, all an overlay of Western culinary influences on a Japanese substrate. As afternoon slips into evening, Hi-Collar transforms into a sake bar, and the stylish night manager, recognizable by his exaggerated Elvis Presley pompadour, saddles up to the bar, chatting in Japanese with the barista. The clientele is mixed Asian and Western, and Japanese is often heard being spoken by patrons.

Ramen for lunch: Ippudo (65 Fourth Avenue) (non-T.I.C. Group)

There are many outlets for ramen, including Yagi’s Rai Rai Ken, adjacent to Hi-Collar. Rai Rai Ken (the name pays homage to a shop in Tokyo that some consider the first shop to serve ramen in its contemporary guise) opened in 2000 and was Little Tokyo’s first ramen shop.17 But many consider Ippudo, located on the western fringe of Little Tokyo, as the place to slurp Little Tokyo’s best ramen, notwithstanding stiff neighborhood competition from celebrity chef David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar and many others with the less well-known proprietors. The lists of “best ramen” are updated regularly, always with more than a dozen contenders.18

The line starts to form shortly before Ippudo’s 11 am opening and continues through its peak service hours, with the crowd heavily skewed toward Asian and Asian-American students attending any of the neighborhood’s universities: the New School, the Cooper Union, New York University, and a branch of St. John’s. Service is quick and loud, echoing the rapid pace of Japan’s ramen shops.

Until its folding in 2017, the magazine Lucky Peach was the hipster’s arbiter of culinary fashion and offered mixed views on the cultural meaning and importance of ramen. According to Peter Meehan, one of Lucky Peach’s founders, ramen is no longer just a fast, convenience food designed to sate culinary homesickness in ex-pat Japanese: it is now a gastronomic tour de force.19 His colleague and co-founder of Lucky Peach, David Chang, begs to differ, albeit not so politely, arguing with his trademark vulgarity that through overexposure, ramen has lost its cultural connection.20

Ippudo prides itself on authenticity. Best known for murkily rich tonkotsu, an unctuous pork broth that lubricates the copious bowls of noodles, the eater at Ippudo garnishes her order with as many à la carte add-ons as appetite and purse allow. Ippudo’s ramen attracts an almost reverential deference from both employees and patrons. YouTube is saturated with videos of happy diners closing their eyes in sensual pleasure as they savor the heady aromatics.21 It is as if these millennial reviewers have never seen the ultimate ramen movie, Tampopo, whose opening scene brilliantly satirizes over-the-top foodie-ism in pursuit of the ideal way to eat ramen. Master and disciple stare intently into the bowl, delicately caress the three slices of pork with their chopsticks, and continue in their efforts to appreciate ramen’s “gestalt.”22

An alternative to ramen: Sushi on Jones, 348 Bowery at the corner of Great Jones Street (a kiosk with a serving bar and stools at the Bowery Market, built on the former site of an auto repair shop) (non-T.I.C. Group)

Sushi on Jones is an alfresco sushi bar serving omakase meals for $50,23 with a 30- minute seating limit. Aficionados of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, profiling the chef of one of Tokyo’s finest sushi restaurants, will recognize both the speed and unlikely location that these establishments share: Jiro’s restaurant is in the corridors of a train station, and patrons similarly consume their much higher-priced meal in 30 minutes.

Shopping for dinner, part 1: Japan Premium Beef (formerly at 57 Great Jones St., relocated in the summer of 2019 to Brooklyn) (non-T.I.C. Group)

Japan Premium Beef (JPB) is a luxury shop catering to the very well-heeled with its washugyu beef, an American-bred version of Japan’s vaunted Kobe, and mugifugi pork. Opened in 2009 by Eiichi Yamamoto, the shop relocated to Brooklyn in 2019 (likely a victim of Manhattan’s nine-year commercial lease cycle, with dizzying rent demands). The shop also stocked expensive condiments that flattered the super-premium meats. Among the shop’s distinctive equipment is a specialty slicer imported from Japan that slices raw beef thinly enough for shabu-shabu, eliminating the need to freeze the meat before slicing. JPB was the first Japanese butcher shop in the United States and at first, employed only Japanese butchers; American butchers now work behind the case.24

Adjacent to the JPB space lies the “secret” entrance to Bohemian; it is one of a series of sister restaurants to a famous Tokyo cocktail bar. Starting as a Members Only spot, the restaurant now extends invitations on receipt of an email; the cuisine is a blend of American, French, and Japanese small plates, served in a room with a Zen aesthetic: white walls and tatami mats. The building has a storied history, as it was once owned by Andy Warhol; to reach the restaurant, you pass through a hallway nicknamed “Basquiat Road,” in honor of the artist who died in the loft provided to him by Warhol.25

The gastronomic flâneur notes, but passes by, most of the cacophony of St. Marks student-priced haunts.

St. Marks Place is home to Little Tokyo’s cheaper student haunts; none are part of the T.I.C. Group. Among the spots are Ramen Setayaga (34 St. Marks), Hakata Hot Pot (31 St. Marks), Kung Fu Tea (28 St. Marks), and the thrill seeker’s Taishu Izakaya Kenka (25 St. Marks), with its fabulously graphic entrance, Jebon Sushi and Noodle (15 St. Marks), Udon West (11 St. Marks), Nohohon Tea Room (9 St. Marks, upstairs) Oh! Taisho (9 St Marks, downstairs), its sister restaurant, Yakitori Taisho (5 St. Marks), and St. Marks Karaoke (6 St. Marks). But one retail establishment deserves investigation:

Shopping for snacks and beauty aides: Chi Snack Shop (22 St. Marks Place) (non-T.I.C. Group) 

A September 2016 addition to Little Tokyo, Chi Snack Shop replaced Mamoun’s, the venerable Middle Eastern institution turning out falafel and classic stuffed pitas for decades (it relocated down the block). “Chi” is impossible to translate confidently here, with multiple meanings in Japanese, depending on the surrounding characters: it could mean “thousand” or “wisdom” or “scattered” or “flower.” In Chinese, “chi” refers to energy or life force. Whichever the intended meaning, the shop sells chocolates, cookies, candies, and packaged snack foods, mainly from Japan, although Korean and Japanese cosmetics geared to teens and young women increasingly dominate the shelves. Asian ex-pats are thrilled to find these products: one Yelp reviewer gushed enthusiastically, “They sell Tokyo Banana in NYC!!!” Most reviews are written in the slightly stilted language of proficient, but not idiomatically fluent, English, suggesting that the shop successfully targets the sojourner university crowd. 26

Shopping for dinner, part 2: Sunrise Mart (4 Stuyvesant St.) (non-T.I.C. Group)

Leave the hurly-burly of St. Marks Place and return to the relative calm of Stuyvesant Street, continuing east from Fourth Avenue until you reach a wide, open vestibule with a stainless steel elevator. The sluggish elevator leads to the second-floor emporium, opened in 1995, when the Japanese ex-pat population of Little Tokyo was estimated at 3,000, including folks who were under the radar because of visa issues. According to Sunrise’s manager, when Sunrise opened, virtually all its customers were Japanese; by 2013, more than half the clientele was American.27 Sunrise’s website, sunrisemart-ny.com, defaults to Japanese: a small button at the top allows the user to switch to English. Sunrise is the sole surviving Japanese grocery store in Little Tokyo: in recent years, JAS (on St. Marks Place) and M2M (on Second Avenue) have shuttered.

Sunrise functions as a community center for Japanese life in Little Tokyo. The bulletin board next to the elevator holds flyers, half of which are in Japanese; there is a small charge for the privilege of posting a notice for one month. English and bilingual flyers tend to advertise language and music lessons. Japanese newspapers and copies of ChopsticksNY, an advertorial for all things Japanese in New York, were free for the taking, although ChopsticksNY ceased print publication as of June 2019, a victim of the trend to online news sources.28

Enter the store and turn left to find an array of Japanese produce: several grades of fresh shiitake mushrooms, shiso, skinny Japanese eggplants, and cucurbits greet the visitor. A refrigerator case of prepared foods, bento lunches, pickles, onigiri, and prefab sushi and sashimi packs stand ready for the grab/go diner. Meticulously trimmed tuna, salmon, and other fishes and seafood glisten, delicately sliced beef and pork are ready for shabu-shabu, and Jidori chicken awaits the grill; can be purchased for cooking at home. The assortment of dry and canned goods, especially beverages, is impressive: many packages lack English translations, making shopping daunting for the shy Anglophone. At the back of the shop, a lackluster selection of kitchen and tablewares can serve in a pinch; of more interest to the Japanese-speaking audience is the selection of DVDs filling a small wall.

Continue down Stuyvesant Street, passing Village Yokocho (an izakaya, upstairs at 8 Stuyvesant), Panya Bakery (downstairs at 8 Stuyvesant), the empty shell of Autre Kyo Ya (an elegant French-Japanese fusion restaurant, at 10 Stuyvesant, that sadly closed in 2019), and Sharaku (14 Stuyvesant), before bearing right onto Ninth Street. None of the Stuyvesant Street establishments are part of the T.I.C. Group.

On the south side on the street, you will pass several restaurants: T.I.C.’s original Hasaki, Hisae, a self-described “Asian Gastro Pub,” Yakiniku West (non-T.I.C. Group that is currently undergoing renovations; whether it will reopen as a Japanese restaurant is unclear at present), and another T.I.C. outpost, Otafuku x Medetai, a hipster storefront serving fried street snacks such as takoyaki (fried octopus balls), okonomiyaki (pancakes stuffed with shrimp or pork), or medetai, whimsical red snapper-shaped pastries stuffed with bean paste or Nutella. Medetai is the goddess of mirth; it is another example of Yagi’s deliberate and meticulous references to Japanese culinary history and culture in choosing names for T.I.C. Group restaurants.

Afternoon tea and sweets: Cha’an Tea House (232 East 9th St., 2nd fl.) (a T.I.C. Group establishment)

The serene atmosphere evokes an authentic teahouse where chado, the Way of Tea, is performed. Dark wood and bamboo plants behind artificial windows give the effect of overlooking a garden, and a separate, tatami-matted room all were designed by an architect whom Yagi employed from Japan.29 More than a dozen exquisite teas are served (the menu boasts that specially alkalinized water is responsible for the superior flavor), along with mochi, Japanese sweets, and light meals based on salmon, eel, rice, and pickles.

Cha’an will arrange special tea ceremonies on request. The bar separating the kitchen from the dining area displays the ladle, whisk, and water jar used in a formal tea ceremony. These implements are not used for a quotidian bowl of tea, but beckon one to surrender to the ritual of chado.

The importance of chado to Japan’s ex-pat community is unclear; many Japanese in New York appreciate the unbounded cultural freedom that New York provides, which runs counter to the highly choreographed tea ceremony that allows no deviation. The Japanese tea master Souheki Mori, proprietor of Tea-Whisk Inc., splits her time between New York and Tokyo. She offers classes in teaism and performs chado throughout Manhattan. I attended one class with the three other participants; all were Japanese women working or studying in New York. According to Mori, only a small percentage of women in Japan, perhaps 2 to 3%, participate in chado.30 For Mori, chado becomes an important statement of identity for migrants and expats. In her words, “my kimono feels tight in Japan, but is comfortable in New York.” When I asked Hiroko Furukawa, the Japanese-born proprietor of Sakaya sake shop whom we will meet shortly, about her experience with chado, she admitted no interest in this very Japanese marker of identity; she has never attended a chado, whether in Japan or New York.

After a bowl of tea, descend to Ninth Street and head east, passing on the south side the storefront where T.I.C. Group’s Yonekichi snack stand operated until the spring of 2019. It specialized in assorted proteins wedged between burger “buns” made of glutinous rice grains held together. It has now been transformed into a take-out shop for aesthetically styled Japanese confections. As he does with all of the T.I.C. eateries, Yagi wants to showcase different aspects of Japanese culinary culture; starting with the iconic sushi, he has moved through cooked fare, different noodle cuisines, to the more casual street grub that is unfamiliar to most New Yorkers. On the north side, pass Keisy Shiatsu (229 East 9th St., 2nd fl.) and T.I.C. Group’s Soba-ya, specializing in handmade buckwheat noodles (229 East 9th St.). The restaurant space at 231 East 9th St. has been home to several Japanese kitchens, first Robataya, formerly a T.I.C. Group restaurant, but sold to the Ootoya restaurant group, and is now home to Sakagura East Village, specializing in traditional and regional cooking.

Robataya captured the distinctive Japanese grill-restaurant. Patrons sat at a wooden bar, facing a team of cooks separated by a wide counter. Nestled on ice or in woven baskets set into the counter were raw fishes, meats, and vegetables enticing the diner. Selections made, the food was skewered and grilled in front of the diner and presented by the cook on the blade of a long-handled paddle, stretching over the raw ingredients. Sakagura East Village offers grand tasting menus that focus on sake, rice, and miso.31

The last Japanese spot on the block is T.I.C.Group’s Sakebar Decibel (240 East 9th St.), a basement hideaway identified by a small wooden sign.

Shopping for sake: Sakaya (324 East 9th St) (non-T.I.C. Group)

Proprietor Hiroko Furukawa, along with her American husband, Rick Smith, opened Sakaya in 2007; it claims to be New York’s first sake shop. The large assortment is displayed on tranquil, blond wood shelves, and Hiroko and Rick stand ready to educate the neophyte about different styles of sake, as well as conducting scheduled tastings. Both credit Yagi with advice and support while they were opening Sakaya.

Hiroko followed the path of many Japanese migrants, coming to New York as a student in the 1990s to learn English. She had no plans to stay in the city permanently, although she acknowledges that she and her friends fit the pattern of “self-reinvention,” when many young, artistically inclined Japanese left economically stagnant and culturally straight-laced Japan to pursue studies or artistic and design careers in New York. They sought individualism and the caché of professional success abroad, with the intention of returning to Japan, flush with the triumph of having “made it” in New York.32

Hiroko studied journalism at Hunter College and landed a prized job with Tokyo Broadcasting Company upon graduation. She has never lived in Little Tokyo, rooming on the Upper East Side while a Hunter student, and then in more budget-friendly Astoria, where other Japanese migrants also lived, although she did not specifically seek out a Japanese community. She is not interested in traditional markers of Japanese culture, such as the tea ceremony or kimonos, and only became interested in sake when she met Rick, a passionate oenophile. Together they explored Japanese restaurants and learned about sake, and Hiroko made New York her home.

Hiroko estimates that about 20% of Sakaya’s clientele is Japanese or Japanese-American, traveling from throughout the metropolitan area to take advantage of their unparalleled selection. In recent years she has noted an increase in the number of Chinese purchasing sake, but she is frequently unsure of the nationality of her Asian customers. During a 45-minute interview in the shop, three different groups, each with Asian ancestry, came in; all started by speaking English to Hiroko, although they spoke other languages among themselves. One man with dyed blond hair asked, in American English, if Hiroko spoke Japanese; they then chatted in Japanese. He paid by credit card, and after he left, Hiroko told me that, while he spoke fluent Japanese, his last name was Korean. She speculated that his family had left Korea and immigrated to Japan, perhaps during the active shooting of the Korean War.

The luxe of Little Tokyo: sushi omakase at Cagen (414 East 9th St.) (non-T.I.C. Group)

Cagen, Japanese for “just right,” is one of several high-end modern Japanese restaurants in the East Village (Kyo Ya, Jewel Bako, Kura, Secchu Yokota, and Momofuko Ko are others). One could easily walk past its unassuming entrance; although awarded a Michelin star, no sign boasts the accolade. Specializing in sushi, the omakase (“leave it to the chef”) menu (seatings at the sushi bar at 6:00 or 8:30, is pricey, if delicious, while à la carte options are available at the few small tables adjacent to the bar.

Cagen is a destination. Women in black dresses flashing décolletage would seem out of place at most restaurants near Avenue A but glide seamlessly into Cagen. Chef Toshio Tomita imports his fish from Tokyo’s Tsukiji market. He keeps laminated flashcards of the different species and varieties behind the bar, which he places in front of the diner to identify each piece of sashimi as it is served, one by one, from his hand. Tomita spent years at restaurants in Japan before coming to the United States. in 1987. His résumé includes more than a decade at Nobu before opening Cagen in 2013, where a large stone mortar sits behind the sushi counter: it is where Tomita used to grind buckwheat for his ethereal handmade soba; it seems to have fallen off the menu on recent visits. His son, Rei, was born in New York and manages the sake list; he previously worked the hot kitchen, as Cagen offers New Japanese cuisine, such as lightly seared washugyu beef.

Rei comfortably navigates American culture and the culture of being Japanese in New York; his first language is English, and he learned Japanese as a childhood second language to speak to his father, whose English is proficient, but not fluent. Rei also speaks Japanese to patrons at Cagen, at least those who want to practice a limited, school-learned vocabulary. Most ultimately default to English as the conversation strains their skills. According to Rei, Hi-Collar, where we started our gastronomic stroll, is a center of gravity for the young Japanese community. While many options for Japanese food and drink exist in Little Tokyo, Rei believes that Hi-Collar is a favorite because of the status associated with drinking high quality, expensive coffee, and its very hip vibe. He recommends returning to Hi-Collar after dinner for a sake nightcap to see the “authentic” Japanese enclave.

Practicing “Japanese-ness” in New York

Japanese food is unquestionably in vogue, but that alone cannot explain the growth and success of Little Tokyo as a densely packed culinary mecca. Part of its vitality and the continually increasing concentration of Japanese-inflected businesses may be related to the desire of Japanese migrants, Japanese-Americans, and people interested in Japanese culture to perform or experience “Japanese-ness” in changing ways. Current

Japanese students and migrants seem to have a different approach to Japanese-ness than did the previous generation as exemplified by Hiroko Furukawa. Japanese migrants in the latter twentieth century—indeed, as recently as 2011—commented that their countrymen were not interested in creating a Japanese enclave in New York.33 While not flocking to a residential enclave, Japanese migrants nowadays seem eager to perform aspects of Japanese-ness as part of their New York identity, something that can be “worn” when desired and just as easily shed. This contrasts with the desire of earlier migrants to perform cosmopolitanism.34

No demographic reason justifies situating a Little Tokyo in the East Village; indeed, the spread of Japanese businesses in the area has grown inversely to the Japanese population. Like Disneyland, Little Tokyo was artificially and arbitrarily founded, largely through the vision of Shuji “Bon” Yagi, whose successful establishments opened in the 1980s and ’90s attracted other Japanese-inflected businesses. Yagi insists that his purpose was to introduce Americans to Japanese culinary culture, rather than to provide refuge to homesick migrants and Japanese tourists, although they, too, take advantage of Little Tokyo’s familiar products. As the T.I.C. Group website proclaims, “Enjoy Japan without the airfare.” Little Tokyo is a place largely for outsiders to sample a constructed, concentrated Japanese culinary culture, one that appears more authentic by the fillip of pan-Asian sojourners that stroll Little Tokyo’s streets.


Bibliography 

Personal interviews and communications:

Hiroko Furukawa, 26 October and 4 December, 2016

Souheki Mori, 23 September 2016

Bon Yagi, 25 October 2016

Sakura Yagi, 25 October 2016

Rei Tomita, 29 October 2016 and 11 March 2017

Elizabeth Andoh, 10 December 2016

Books, articles, and selected online journalism:

Arizona Republic, January 12, 1924 https://www.newspapers.com/clip/4822220/william_guthrie_of_st_marks_in_the/ , accessed March 16, 2017.

Besonen, Julie. “Big Taste of Japan, From Katsu to Kitsch.” New York Times, November 27, 2016, MB4.

Calhoun, Ada. St. Marks is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street. New York: W.W. Norton (2016).

Chang, David. “And now, a public service announcement: RAMEN IS DEAD.” Lucky Peach, January 12, 2015, http://luckypeach.com/the-state-of-ramen-david-chang/, accessed 18 November 2016.

Dolnick, Sam, and Kirk Semple. “For New York’s Japanese, A Desire to Meld into the Mainstream.” New York Times, March 16, 2011, A23.

Lombardi, Linda. “The Social History of Ramen.” https://www.tofugu.com/japan/history-of-ramen/, accessed 3 December, 2016.

Meehan, Peter. “Long Live Ramen.” Lucky Peach, January 12, 2015, http://luckypeach.com/the-state-of-ramen-peter-meehan/, accessed 18 November, 2016.

Schuhmacher, Clara Inés. “Market Tours: Sunrise Mart, a Japanese Market Hidden in the East Village.” Serious Eats. http://newyork.seriouseats.com/2013/01/sunrise-mart-japanese-market-east-village.html, January 15, 2013.

Solares, Nick. “An Eater’s Guide to the East Village.” Eater NY, November 28, 2016. https://ny.eater.com/2016/11/28/12063332/nyc-east-village-best-restaurant-italian-japanese-burgers-pizza-thai

Sooudi, Olga Kanzaki. Japanese New York: Migrant Artists and Self-reinvention on the World Stage. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press (2014).

Surak, Kristan. Making Tea, Making Japan. Stanford: Stanford University Press (2013).

“The 15 Best Places for Ramen in the East Village, New York.” https://foursquare.com/top-places/east-village-new-york/best-places-ramen, published September 4, 2019, accessed 8 September, 2019.

White, Merry. Coffee Life in Japan. Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press (2012).

YouTube Videos:

“This is some of the best ramen in NYC,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZmzIxBrnJ8, published 13 September, 2016.

“How to Eat Ramen,” from Tampopo, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2blfrQBH1g last accessed 7 September, 2019.

Databases:

NYC Open Data, https://data.cityofnewyork.us/Health/Japanese-in-10003-10009/8rr3-zfnv/data, accessed 3 December 2016.

Wu, Sen-Yuan. “New Jersey’s Asian Population by Asian Group.” New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, n.p., February 17, 2012. https://lwd.state.nj.us/labor/lpa/pub/lmv/lmv_18.pdf.


Appendix

 

Population Breakdown by Asian Ethnicity in Zip Codes 10003 and 10009

1980-2010

Year 2010 2000 1990 1980
Total Population of zip codes 124,691 112,268 109,042 105,205
Mainland Chinese 7,541 5,883 3,886 2,544
Indian 2,767 1,783 593 823
Korean 2,395 1,197 474 468
Japanese 1,227 1,783 1,295 439

 

Source: InfoShare Online, accessed 3 Dec 2016, compiled from multiple searches via http://infoshare.org/mod1/main.aspx.

Several of my sources believe that the number of Japanese is underreported for the 1990s and very early 2000s, due to a hidden population that lacked current visas or work permits. All agree that the Japanese population in the area has declined over the past decade.


 

Housewives Riot in the Streets

East Side women discussing price of meat N.Y.C. [during N.Y.C. Meat Boycott. Apr. 1910] From the Library of Congress
In 1902, Manhattan’s Jewish enclave of the Lower East Side was among the most densely populated neighborhoods in the world.1 The most crowded blocks housed well over twelve hundred people. Buildings that house fifteen people today might have been home to sixty-six in the early 1900s.2 There was barely enough room to sleep and eat. The first tenement laws requiring, for example, that one bathroom be provided for every twenty people, had only been passed a few decades earlier.3 New immigrants worked over fourteen hours a day in sweatshops sewing buttons or stitching clothing in dark rooms where their eyes would get too tired to thread a needle. On top of that, the price of food for the many who kept kosher was higher than it was for gentile immigrants. Yet, somehow, a majority of the two million Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1924 managed to make a life for themselves in these hard conditions. It was a delicate equilibrium. One severe illness, an increase in rent, or loss of a job could turn an entire family and their belongings out into the streets.

Throughout May of that year a storm had been brewing between the city’s kosher butchers and the housewives whose delicately balanced food budgets kept their families from starvation. On April 19, 350,000 Lower East Side tenement dwellers began to protest the high price of meat. This started quietly. As the New York Tribune wrote, “The people are too used to oppression to be deeply moved.”4 But people were beginning to weary of the constant struggle. Most of the city’s new Jewish immigrants felt lucky to find work in garment industry sweatshops or in one of the city’s factories. They’d signed up for the cramped quarters and the hard work, but hunger wasn’t supposed to be part of the bargain. Women were finding that the price of even the most basic cuts of kosher beef had increased by four or more cents a pound. A cut of kosher steak that formerly cost 14 cents now cost over 20.5 Many women only had a food budget of 30 or 40 cents a day to feed an entire family.6 That 6-cent increase may as well have been 6 dollars—it felt equally impossible.

Newspapers reported scenes of women scrounging through their local butcher shop to find the cheapest, most undesirable cuts of meat. Housewives complained to their butchers, who could only shake their heads and say that they too were barely making ends meet. It was the Beef Trust—they were the ones raising prices. Kosher butchers sincerely wanted to help their customers (else risk losing them entirely) but they were forced to close on Sundays thanks to local regulation and then another day for the Sabbath as well. That left them only five days a week to make a living; the city’s non-kosher butchers had six. Add to that the higher price of kosher meat and it was no wonder that the city’s kosher eaters were being hit so hard.

A whisper spread through the bitter people of the tenements as fast as wildfire—rumors that the newly made Beef Trust was the source of their misery. As early as 1896, the Hebrew Retail Butcher’s Association had worried about the presence of a trust. The president of the Butcher’s Association, Moses Kovner, said that in one week the trust had raised the price of beef by more than a cent per pound, and when the butchers asked for an explanation, the trust told them that if the butchers didn’t want to pay their prices, they could go without meat.7 Those who refused to pay, or tried to clandestinely telephone other firms to inquire whether they might be more willing to lower their prices, had their names added to a blacklist. Now no company would sell meat to them at any price.

The entire country, not just the kosher market, was under the spectral thumb of a growing Beef Trust. The “Big Six,” as they were eventually known, only slaughtered 45 percent of the nation’s cattle but controlled 98 percent of the “dressed beef” market. The latter described animals that had already been partially butchered and were, therefore, easier to ship in new refrigerated train cars. Yet this dressed beef was the stuff sold to gentiles, not to the kosher market. As late as 1929, a third of all beef eaten in New York was slaughtered in the city, thanks largely to the kosher market.8

Missouri’s Senator George Graham Vest, who as early as 1888 was part of a Senate committee that investigated the existence and machinations of this Beef Trust, said, “It is no doubt true that the scarcity of cattle has had something to do with the increase in the price of beef. But it appears to me to be equally true that the [Beef Trust] has taken advantage of the opportunity afforded by the decrease in cattle to run the prices up on the consumer.”9 He worried that without further laws enacted by the State and Federal governments, the Beef Trust would continue to exploit consumers. Two years later, the government passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Then, in 1902, outcry against the puppet masters of the beef industry prompted the government to act. US Attorney General Philander Knox launched an investigation into the Beef Trust’s actions, and newspaper reports about the inquiry fueled the simmering anger against it.

Bain News Service Crowd gathered in front of butcher shop during meat riot, New York From the Library of Congress

 

On May 11, over fifteen hundred retailers of kosher meat gathered in the New Irving Hall,10 a large building located near Broome and Essex Streets that hosted everything from political events to dances and weddings. Attendees decried the price of meat, which was so high that the poor—a majority of the customers in that neighborhood—couldn’t afford to buy it. If the retailers couldn’t sell their meat, they too would be forced into bankruptcy. They couldn’t reach the Beef Trust directly but unanimously agreed to declare a boycott. For two days they would refuse to buy any meat from the city’s wholesale dealers. For two days, Lower East Siders would go without meat on their tables. Those retailers who had already placed orders for their next deliveries of meat rushed out of the hall after the meeting and cancelled. If the wholesalers tried to deliver it, they would send it right back. Even their customers were initially sympathetic to the shop owners’ mission. It wasn’t as though buyers could afford meat at these prices anyway.

Later that night, a similar meeting took place in Brooklyn. One thousand members of the Kosher Butchers Association stuffed themselves into New Suffolk Hall, which had a capacity of only six hundred. Voices in the crowd shouted out, “Down with the wholesalers!” and “Down with the Beef Trust!” Retailers decided to take the beef that had already been purchased and sell it to people out of town. If it had to be sold, it would not be to people in the community; doing so would risk diluting the boycott. A speaker announced that, in Brooklyn and Manhattan, they would sell only kosher poultry until the boycott was over. The crowd roared its approval. This meeting, like the other, broke up noisily and hopefully. Kosher sellers were eager to band together to change the beef economy. They might be downtrodden, but as a consumer force, they were impossible to ignore. Or so they hoped.

They’d assumed that a two-day boycott would be enough to bring the wholesalers to their knees, but by Wednesday, May 14, the retailers, not the meat dealers, were hurting. The retailers announced that they would resume selling meat the following day. Thursdays were one of the biggest selling days of the week for kosher retailers. Since the Sabbath began at sundown on Friday, all cooking for the weekend had to be done beforehand. To make up for the money they’d lost, the retailers raised prices even higher.11

Mrs. Levy, the wife of a cloak maker, didn’t think much of this so-called boycott. “This is their strike?” she yelled. “Look at the good it has brought. Now if we women make a strike, then it will be a strike.”12 She and Sarah Edelson, the owner of a small neighborhood restaurant, decided to organize a meeting.13 Nineteen women, all housewives from the Lower East Side, met and planned. One said, “Our husbands work hard. They try their best to bring a few cents into the house. We must manage to spend as little as possible. We will not give away our last few cents to the butcher and let our children go barefoot.”14 She seemed to speak for all the women there.

Another woman responded, “We will not be silent; we will overturn the world.”15

That very night, a notice went out to all five Jewish newspapers asking women to come to an assembly early the next morning at New Monroe Hall.16 Five hundred women filled the room where a few particularly incensed individuals stood in front of the crowd and denounced the retail butchers and the extortionate prices of kosher meat in the quarter. Attendees were assigned to picket locations throughout the city. The protestors would surround roughly one hundred retail stores and persuade women not to purchase meat. If a woman tried to break the picket line, the protestors were told to snatch the meat right out her arms and render it inedible.17 Women streamed out of the quarter, ready to use dirty looks, righteous indignation, and violence if necessary to stop customers from purchasing any meat. The match had been lit.

Meat Boycott “Some Vegetables, Please”
From the Library of Congress

It seemed as though every woman on the Lower East Side knew of the protest. Word moved through the tenements. Crowds grew in the streets. Scuffles broke out—small at first and then growing larger as tensions between the women and meat sellers or buyers grew. Police called to the scene found it difficult to push through the throngs of protestors to find the source of the trouble. By the evening, over twenty arrests had been made.18 If the protests seemed like wild and violent affairs—especially for a demonstration led by women—they were nothing compared to what followed later in the day.

As nightfall came and men and women returned home from work, they headed toward New Irving Hall, where the kosher butchers had congregated to call for their ill-fated boycott just four days earlier. Five to six thousand people filled the hall and spilled over into the street, where the calmer messages from inside echoed into the waiting crowd outside and, like a game of mob telephone became louder, more energetic, and fuller of anger and frustration. By some accounts, twenty thousand people amassed on the streets outside the hall.19 Inside, speakers insisted that protest be peaceful. Stop buying meat, they all said, but don’t let the boycott devolve into violence.20 The labor leader Joseph Barondess told the crowd, “Don’t buy beef. A man can live on bread and water and if not, he is not fit to live.” The plan he outlined involved readying themselves to forgo meat for a month—perhaps more—in an effort to bring prices down.

This message clearly did not make it far outside the doors. Police reserves from three stations were called in to contain the tumultuous masses.21 They set up lines in the streets surrounding the hall—down Norfolk, Essex, and Ludlow Streets, as well as between Delancey and Grand. Despite attempts to clear the streets, the protestors only got rowdier as the night wore on. When someone pushed a nearby policeman and he raised his club in warning, the mob immediately set upon him.22 A handful of lawmen rushed to his aid but were overwhelmed by the masses. When the police bashed one man out of the way, hundreds more rushed in from side streets to take his place.23 The protestors took to striking policemen down on neighboring blocks like dominoes. Within a few hours, witnesses later said, the streets were packed with people for half a mile in every direction.24 The only time the crowd dispersed even slightly was to inflict its particular brand of justice on some retailer who thought he could quietly sell meat under the twitching nose of the mob. Early on, the protestors learned that some bakers on Division Street were cooking meat and selling it out of their shops. Before the police knew where the danger was, a group of rioters bludgeoned their way into a bakery and cleaned it out—meat and bread and all. The bakers fled. There would be no reasoning with the crowd.25

Mrs. Perlmutter and others outside store arguing price of meat, Brooklyn, N.Y.
From the Library of Congress

Some marched directly to butcher shops in the neighborhood. Any shop with a kosher sign and meat hanging in the window had its displays smashed. Protestors broke down doors and hurled meat through open windows into the streets.26 Even the tenement dwellers weren’t safe from the protestors, who went through a row of tenement houses on the south side of Broome Street between Ludlow and Essex, taking meat right off of people’s tables and throwing it onto the streets below.27

Though men were mixed into the crowd, the main protestors were women, a fact that stymied police efforts. At one point, the police attempted to charge the crowd and push it back in line but were met with only women—their men had flanked them. The police didn’t want to club women, and protestors used this to hold their ground. Reportedly it was Police Captain Walsh who found a solution to this particular dilemma. “He twisted the obstreperous woman around and struck her sharply with his club a foot below her waist,” the New York Times reported.28 The captain’s men followed suit and the women broke ranks.

Three additional reserves were called in to deal with the mob over the next hours, bringing the total number of police attempting to corral the people of the Lower East Side to as many as five hundred.29 Every so often, the mob would rush at the police line, hoping to break it apart with a battering ram of bodies. The same pattern emerged on the streets around New Irving Hall. The crowd would advance, first slowly, then with a rush. Women’s screams could be heard as the police beat them back. Both sides shouted curses. Then there was silence as the people and sound moved on, repeating again on another street a block or two away.30

The jails of the lower precincts were stuffed with rioters hauled in by the policemen that night. Among those arrested for their crimes were two young girls who, along with some accomplices, had set up near the line and begun cursing at the police. That wasn’t so bad. But then, when the mood of the crowd swept over them, the girls leapt up onto an unfortunate policeman, tearing the coat sleeves right off his jacket.31 With their combined weight—and likely an element of surprise—they managed to throw him down into the gutter. When he was able to escape their precocious clutches long enough to place them under arrest, the girls reportedly wept the whole way down to the station.32

Eventually the mob dispersed just long enough to go home and rest, but the next day the riots started again. It was as though the evening’s respite had served only to refresh the mob’s resolve for violence. At daybreak they were out again. Those fools who attempted to purchase meat were beaten regardless of whether they were men or women. Their beef or poultry was thrown into the dirt or rendered otherwise inedible.33

The wife of one Abraham Schwartz tried to surreptitiously purchase a chicken and smuggle it out of the shop.34 She was quickly swarmed by women, but somehow managed to get past them and run to her apartment building and up the stairs into her home. But the women followed close on her heels. They pushed their way into Mrs. Schwartz’s living room and surrounded her, shouting threats until the beleaguered woman surrendered the chicken. As quickly as they’d come, the protestors vanished back into the streets. One woman held up the liberated chicken as though it were a mascot for their very cause. She marched through the street, waving it back and forth until a policeman caught up to her, arrested her and gave her a hefty fine. (No word on what happened to the chicken.)

Blame for the riots flew in all directions. Some pointed their fingers at the housewives for stirring up trouble. Others blamed the butchers or the wholesalers or the ever-present specter of the Beef Trust. Joseph Goldman, president of the Hebrew Retail Butchers Association, whose own life was threatened during the riots, said that meat speculators had instigated the riot out of nothing more than sheer greed.35

But the unspoken instigator for the riots was the growing separation between the people who sold kosher foods and the communities who purchased it. Rabbi Asher, who wrote one of the earliest codifications of Jewish law in the early fourteenth century, specified that there should be separation between the shohet who slaughtered animals and the butcher who sold the meat.[36.  Harold P. Gastwirt, Fraud, Corruption, and Holiness (National University Publications, 1974), 18.] Rabbinic authorities in Western European cities appointed inspectors to visit the urban butcher shops to ensure their goods were truly kosher.36 Until 1825, the Jewish population of New York was small enough that those in charge were content to allow one synagogue—Congregation Shearith Israel—to regulate kosher law. Things were easier then. There was a communal shohet that slaughtered food for the entire kosher-eating community. The centralized nature of kosher food and the relatively small population of Jews in the early 1800s made oversight easy.

It wasn’t until just before the mass Jewish migration to New York began in 1880 that there were any problems at all. In 1872, a West Twentieth street butcher brazenly began to act as both shohet and meat dealer. He even publicized this combination in advertisements placed in Jewish newspapers.37 Abuses of the system grew from there and those overseeing the industry couldn’t keep up. As Russian Jews began to make their lives in New York, they were shocked by the state of the kosher market. Where they came from, slaughtering and selling kosher meat was a holy task, not a business where the shohet was a position suited only for the unambitious or the unqualified. By 1887 the Russian Jews had grown to such numbers that they had eighteen congregations spread throughout the city. They started talking about creating a kehillah, a group of community leaders, and bringing in a chief rabbi to preside over it.38

They found Rabbi Jacob Joseph to take the position. He agreed to come all the way to the United States despite his reservations about the lack of religious conviction among many of the country’s Jews. Once arrived, he discovered that “the kosher industry” was in fact fifteen small butcher shops owned mostly by German Jews. Most of the shohetim had less than satisfactory educations and competence; rabbinical supervision of the slaughterhouses was nearly nonexistent.

Rabbi Joseph began to change all that. He replaced unqualified shohetim, hired additional ones as needed, and started requiring that a lead seal or a plombe be added to all kosher-killed meat. The plombe would not only signify that the animal was truly kosher but also show the date of slaughter to assure customers about the freshness of their meat.39 But these changes came at a cost—specifically one cent a fowl in the case of chicken.40 Rabbi Joseph hoped eventually to create a centralized slaughterhouse for the city’s kosher chicken. No more factionalized kosher food with varying standards. No more shohetim paid not by the congregation but the butcher. Poultry dealers who had been happy with the previous low standards of the kosher industry used these higher prices to wage a campaign against the Chief Rabbi. The stress of his job combined with the growing disapproval of the community was disastrous for the Rabbi’s health. In 1895 he suffered a paralyzing stroke. His family didn’t tell him how quickly the standards of kosher slipped back to their original state. The Associated Congregation he’d built likewise dissolved. He was mostly forgotten by the city’s Jews until the riots brought the problems of the kosher market back into the public’s consciousness. When Rabbi Joseph died in July 1902, as many as fifty thousand mourners marched in the funeral procession.41

Had Rabbi Joseph’s tenure been longer, perhaps the riots and the problems that continued to plague the kosher industry for decades could have been avoided. Instead, the protests grew and spread from the Lower East Side to other areas of the city where Jewish immigrants had made their homes.

East side women discussing price of meat N.Y.C.
From the Library of Congress

What the police had been unable to accomplish with clubs and threats of fines or jail time, the setting sun managed simply by virtue of its being Friday, the beginning of the Sabbath.42 And the city—at least for a day—was quiet. Shop owners closed their stores, nailed boards over the windows, and disappeared into their homes.43

But in the synagogues, the protestors were still stirring up sympathy and support within their communities. Women interrupted Torah readings to call on men to encourage their wives not to purchase meat, and they asked the rabbis to endorse their efforts.44 Those rabbis with ties to the meat industry spoke out against the women, but most were supportive. Many rabbis made sure that synagogue members knew of the boycott.45 When police were brought in to arrest Mrs. Silver at one of the synagogues she visited, a man rose and compared her to the prophet Zachariah so persuasively that the police released her without charges.46

For the next three weeks, the papers were full of stories about life on the Lower East Side, and tales of wild riots that continued almost unabated. Many reporters cast the protestors in an unsympathetic light. The women, they claimed, were unruly and hypocritical, without even the honor to stick to the boycott they were forcing on others. The New York Tribune told of a “somewhat stout and important looking matron with a brown shawl carelessly thrown over her head and shoulders” who gave an impassioned speech in front of a Ludlow Street butcher shop. In Yiddish she yelled, “The wealthy meat dealers have decided to keep their clutch on our throats so that we can’t utter a word in our behalf. We need food. They know it and keep it from us. They are soulless murderers and show us no mercy. . . . Our children are starving for want of meat; our babes are languishing without a taste of chicken. See these notices?” she implored the crowd. “Listen to what they say: Boycott! Don’t eat meat!” It was a rousing address and moved the crowd until a small girl elbowed her way into the crowd, grabbed the speaker by the apron, and implored her mother to come back inside the house. “Mamma!” the reporter said the girl yelled. “Quick, come upstairs! You left the house all alone and now the meat is being burned up!”47

Even the American Israelite, a Jewish weekly with subscribers in nearly every state, published articles lambasting the “disgraceful scenes” of New York’s East Side Jews.48 A column by Rabbi Maurice Harris of Temple Israel of Harlem compared the “deplorable incident[s]” of the riots to a “smoldering fire that may at any time burst into an anti-Semitic conflagration.”

Yet others, like the editor in chief of the Jewish Daily Forward, came out in support of the women. Abraham Cahan was more prescient about the impact of the riot than most when he wrote:

This protest movement of the women of the Quarter is such that no Jew ever need be ashamed. Whether or not these women’s fight succeeds, the Jewish people can be proud of it forever. We’ll always be able to point to this fight in the Quarter as evidence that despite the centuries and thousands of years of Jewish subjugation under foreign despots, and despite generation after generation of Jews being yoked, enslaved and trampled under the feet of all types of tyrants and oppressors, despite all this, enough spirit and striving for freedom and justice remains, such that when injustice occurs, when cruelty is enacted against them or others, they are first to lead others in protest to fight against the injustice, against such cruelty.49

More sympathetic writers attempted to arouse public sympathy by telling of the noble struggles of the “East Side Wife.” She is “the most thoroughly misunderstood and misrepresented of women,” a reporter for the Courier-Journal wrote in June.50 He drew a picture of the East Side Wife as a woman of modest means, who brought in lodgers to make ends meet and had to fight with the trusts and haggle with unscrupulous cart peddlers. Yet she educated her children, kept her home as neat as she could with so many people living in so little space, and continued her fight against the worst abuses the city might try to heap upon her.

On May 22, weeks of butcher shop blockades and riots, and the support of an increasing number of Lower East Siders finally made the Retail Butchers Association side, once more, with the boycotters. A notice went out from the Butchers Association that all the shops had agreed to suspend business until they’d reached a settlement with the wholesale dealers that would allow them to sell meat at lower prices.51 Finally, on June 5, nearly a month after the first riots, the boycott ended.

No political party or group organized the people who took to the streets and held fast to their wallets. The win against unscrupulous merchants was entirely thanks to women who were tired of being unable to feed their families. They were fed up. These women realized that they were the main buyers of a product and, therefore, could exert control over the prices. They were pioneers of community organizing, using the advantage of living in such close quarters to spread the word to women throughout the city. Rent strikes during the following decade used tactics similar to the meat protests, and their organizers were clear that they looked to the previous protests as a model for their own. The women of the Lower East Side remained a political powerhouse for generations to come. Daughters of the beef protestors grew up to strike out against the abuses of the garment industry and became major voices in the larger labor movement. And they never forgot the lessons of their strike against the Beef Trust.


Webmaster’s Note: All of the images posted with this article are from the Library of Congress’ George Grantham Bain Collection — the photographic files of one of America’s earliest news picture agencies. Furthermore, Barbara Orbach Natanson’s 2014 blog post pointed me to this collection’s relevant photographs.

Segregating Restaurants

Woman eating in a restaurant

In April 1868, the journalist Jane Cunningham Croly (writing under the pen name of Jennie June), tired of being excluded, compelled a group of women to join her at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City. Before this could happen, Croly had to ask the restaurant’s owner to defy social expectations and allow the women to lunch without men. They were the first to break gender barriers, but nearly a century later, women were still being excluded from some NYC bars and restaurants. It was not until 1970 that women were finally welcome. One of the most well-known battles for acceptance was at McSorley’s Old Ale House.

In 2015, the New York Times featured the memories of Barbara Shaum, the first woman allowed into McSorley’s Old Ale House after a 1970 New York City ordinance banned discrimination against women in public places. (Prior to the 1970 ruling, the bar’s motto was “Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies.”) Knowing that women would have to be let in for the first time in the bar’s 116-year history, the alehouse’s manager, Daniel O’Connell-Kirwan, called Shaum and invited her to the bar. She was known to the neighborhood because her leather goods shop was located down the street. “I put on a big straw hat and I walked in on Danny’s arm,” she recalled. “It was a big milestone.”1 McSorley’s was not unique in excluding women. Many New York City restaurants—including Whyte’s, the Russian Tea Room, and Sardi’s—banned women during lunch hours, restricted them to isolated sections, or kept them from the bar area.2  These policies were not subtle. Signs prominently noted “men only,” “no unescorted ladies will be served,” or “ladies entrance at the rear.”3

Racial discrimination at lunch counters was once a common problem, especially in the American South. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned whites-only lunch counters and discrimination in restaurants and other “places of public accommodation.” Several historical projects have documented the fight to desegregate the lunch counters. But there was another sort of discrimination in restaurants and bars that lasted long after the civil rights movement: the exclusion of women.

There were two common reasons for women to be banned. First, excluding women from restaurants, or at least from sections of restaurants, was a regular practice in the many places where men held lunch meetings. The justification for their exclusion was that men had a limited time to eat lunch and women would monopolize tables as they gossiped and ate slowly. It was assumed that men would have a working lunch, which demanded efficiency. Having women in the room would slow down the process.

Second, an unaccompanied woman at a bar was often considered a prostitute. Bar and restaurant owners claimed to be afraid that the men would become victims of these women, sometimes known as bar girls or b-girls who were “deceptive, professional barroom exploitresses.”4 Thus, worried that inebriated men would be preyed upon, restaurants were excluded women. This was done officially through restaurant policy, and also by law in some places. In Louisville, Kentucky, for example, an ordinance specifically forbade women from drinking alcohol at restaurant bars. One woman who protested the exclusion of women in bars did so by marching with a sign that read “Women Who Drink Cocktails Are Not All Prostitutes.”5

To provide a broader view of the discrimination in the 1960s, women, even when accompanied by men, could be excluded from a restaurant for simply wearing pants. An August 1966 New York Times story began, “Pants, tailored or formal, and the women in them, are being greeted with less than enthusiasm by the men who run many of the city’s leading hotels and restaurants.” For example, La Côte Basque declared that pants were no more appropriate than swimsuits for women in the restaurant.

One woman noted that it was easier to get into a restaurant wearing lingerie than pants. She said that she was turned away wearing a pin-striped pantsuit but allowed in when she wore a lacy black slip. A manager of the Plaza Hotel was quoted saying, “Pants are pants, and if women wear them, they’ll be asked to leave.”6

Change, however, was inevitable. Along with the protests and lawsuits, some restaurant managers were beginning to realize they were turning away profits. “One night I turned away eight parties, some of my best customers, and some of these women in pants looked beautiful,” one manager recalled. “I went home that night and I said, ‘what am I doing?’ and the next day I changed the policy.”7 A mix of social change and business interest eventually led to more restaurants allowing women in wearing pantsuits.

By the late 1960s, questions about race and gender roles were being openly questioned—in ways big and small.  In 1969, the National Organization for Women (NOW) declared February 9 to 15 as Public Accommodations Week. Members organized dozens of “eat-ins” and “drink-ins” in cities across the United States. The most widely covered was the visit of The Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan and about thirty other  NOW activists to the Oak Club of the Plaza Hotel, where women were excluded before 3 p.m. on days the stock exchange was open.8 The NOW members argued that important business was conducted at the Oak Club. Women’s exclusion from restaurants was, therefore, a form of employment discrimination.

“Now Stages a Protest,” February 12th, 1969
From ThePlazaNY.com

 

While NOW members were targeting bars and eateries across the country with sit-ins and protests, NOW attorneys came up with a new legal strategy. In a shift away from a focus on employment discrimination, they argued that excluding women was a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. After the first two legal attempts failed, lawyer Faith Seidenberg and plaintiff Karen DeCrow filed a lawsuit against McSorley’s Old Ale House. In Seidenberg v. McSorley’s Old Ale House (1970, United States District Court, S. D. New York), the court ruled  that, as a public place, a bar could not be in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. In other words, women could not be excluded.9 This was a significant ruling as civil rights lawyers had been unsuccessful in using this argument for public accommodation discrimination in the early 1960s.10 The opening of McSorley’s to women was so newsworthy that it made the front page of the New York Times.11

A year after the plaintiffs won in federal court, New York City Mayor John Lindsay signed a bill prohibiting gender discrimination in public places, thus requiring restaurants and bars to allow entrance to women.

Even after the courts ruled in the women’s favor and the legislation clarified that women could not be discriminated against in public establishments, change was not automatic. A New York Times article noted that women initially “drank peaceably” after being admitted at McSorley’s, but according to a former owner of the bar, “It was an awkward time—we had a donnybrook every night. It took a long time for the dust to settle.” Of course, this wasn’t limited to McSorley’s. Lucy Komisar, a NOW vice president, was rebuffed by a bartender who refused to accept her driver’s license as proof that she was over the drinking age of eighteen. He demanded her birth certificate instead. The two engaged in a short wrestling match before the manager allowed her in to a chorus of “boos” from regular patrons. Later, an angry man poured his stein of ale over her head.

It took a century for a mix of activism and legal change to allow women to exist in New York City public bars and restaurants on the same level as men. Jane Cunningham Croly would have been shocked that it took one hundred years after her pioneering lunch at Delmonico’s for women to be able to eat in restaurants without men, and to enter bars, as a matter of policy. But she would also have been pleased that it finally happened.