Lower Manhattan is an excellent place to explore the melting pot history of New York City. Neighbourhoods such as the Lower East Side, Little Italy, Chinatown and Nolita are all an easy walking distance from each other. And, the best part? This historical exploration involves lots of food!
On our April trip to New York City, I signed my family up for the Enthusiastic Gourmet food tours of lower Manhattan. Lead by Susan Rosenbaum, my kids immediately decided they liked her when our first stop of the day was Economy Candy, an Aladdin’s Cave of candy, gum and other sweets.
We took her Melting Pot Tour from the Lower East Side through Chinatown and ending up in Little Italy. Along the way, we sampled lots of different food and learned about the culture. She did such a good job of keeping the kids’ attention, they didn’t even realise they were learning all about the history of the area.
The Jewish Immigrants
The German and Eastern European Jews settled on the Lower East Side. What did we sample?
Everyone knows about the bagel but there is also the bialys which are a relative of the bagel. Bialys originated in Bialystok in Poland. Although both bagels and bialys are made from unbleached white flour with yeast, bialys have roasted onions in the middle where there would be a hole for the bagel.
Susan was such a thorough tour guide she made us try a bialy as well as a bagel so that we could taste the difference. The bialys are delicious especially if you are a fan of roasted onions like I am.
Another stop on the Jewish food tour was The Pickle Guys on Essex Street. They are an entire store devoted to pickled food. My son was in heaven because he loves pickles. The items are pickled the old-fashioned way by setting them in large barrels in salt for months. It’s not only pickles that are pickled but also garlic, celery, mushrooms, turnips, olives etc.
The Chinese Immigrants
In 1859, there were barely a couple of dozen men in New York City’s Chinatown. At its height though there were 150,000 Chinese people living over an area of 50 city blocks. Now, the Chinese population is about a 100,000 people.
Chinatown in Manhattan is an assault on the senses – the smell of food, the crowded streets, the chatter of people – all make this neighbourhood seem intensely alive. There are more than 300 Chinese restaurants in the area! Everywhere you look there are street stalls selling fruit and vegetables, restaurants with ducks hanging in the window and signs for bubble tea.
The Italian Immigrants
The Italians that showed up in New York City actually self- segregated themselves by their destination of origin. For example, the immigrants from Sicily lived on Elizabeth Street and those from Naples lived on Mulberry Street. You have to remember these immigrants arrived in the days before Italy was a unified country. As far as someone from Sicily was concerned, a person from Naples was from a different country.
Although the Italians from different regions originally didn’t talk or do business with each other, These prejudices eventually broke down. Frankly, they had to. By 1900 there were 100,000 Italians living in the 18-20 blocks that comprised of Little Italy. Not talking to your neighbour was not an option in such crowded conditions.
Nowadays there are only a couple of hundred Italians who live in the neighbourhood even though there are still many Italian businesses. Of course, we stopped by Di Palo, the Italian specialty food delicatessen and Ferrara Bakery and Cafe for their delicious cannolis.
The Podcast Episode with Dish Our Town
On a recent Just Go Places Podcast episode, Andrew Tolentino from the food and travel blog, Dish Our Town, mentioned many of the places that he would rate highly in these neighbourhoods. In case you missed the podcast, here’s an overview of some of the highlights in video form.