An Ongoing Conversation about the American Dream

August 4, 2011

I would like to start a conversation on my blog about the American Dream and our immigrant parents/grandparents.

I would like you, my relatives, my old friends, new friends, acquaintances, even strangers, to saunter into this conversation with your stories and vignettes and comments.

I will soon be publishing my first novel, THE PROVIDER. It is my parents’ story. It is not the classical rags-to-riches story. In fact, it is the “other” story. A Russian Jewish immigrant woman arrives in 1922 with high expectations only to fall in love with another immigrant who proves to be a poor provider. She marries for love, only to see her husband fail and fail and fail.

In this sense, it is the Jewish Willy Loman story.  I wrote a blog, in fact, about Willy Loman titled, “If Willy Loman Were Jewish.” (July 29)

In order to get the conversation rolling, I want to share with you part of a delightful article I read in the New York Times newspaper on August 4. (Then, how it relates to me.) It’s about the pickle.

No immigrant food was more reviled than the garlicky, vinegary pickle. Pungent beyond all civilized standards, toxic to both the stomach and the psyche, the pickle was seen as morally suspect. As Dr. Susanna Way Dodds wrote in the late 19th century, “the spices in it are bad, the vinegar is a seething mass of rottenness … and the poor little innocent cucumber … if it had very little ‘character’ in the beginning, must now fall into the ranks of the ‘totally depraved.’”

Consumption of pickles was highest in Jewish neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, where Eastern European peddlers sold them from pushcarts. Their merchandise included whole pickled cabbages, string beans, green tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, eggplant, apples, watermelon and, of course, cucumbers. All of these goods were produced within the tenements, just a few hundred yards from the carts that dispensed them.

Their cheap price tag made pickles enormously popular with the working class. Immigrant mothers gave them to babies to gnaw on, a kind of edible teething ring. Every weekday, when the neighborhood schools let out for lunch, Lower East Side children raced to the nearest pushcart or deli for a meal of penny pickles and a handful of candy.

Downtown charity workers, visiting nurses and other well-intentioned New Yorkers saw what children were eating and were appalled.

Attempts were made to tear the children away from their pickles. As part of a larger effort to Americanize the immigrant kitchen, culinary crusaders established cooking classes in settlement houses so homemakers could learn to make pies and chowders. They issued bilingual cookbooks that sang the praises of simple American cooking.

During the 1919-20 school year, New York City’s Board of Education assumed responsibility for feeding Manhattan’s students, and began to offer lunch. In place of their pickles and halvah, immigrant children could now enjoy a proper meal of creamed fish and applesauce.

Of course, New Yorkers didn’t give up the pickle. By the mid-1920s, immigration quotas had restricted entry to newcomers from Eastern and Southern Europe. Americans became less worried about the “alien hordes,” as they were known, and diet reform efforts subsided. Today, New Yorkers can proudly claim the pickle as a regional specialty.

My comment: When my husband was a little boy in Detroit, his mother packed school lunch sandwiches for him and his three siblings. The sandwiches were cream cheese and pickles.

And when I came into my husband’s family, I noticed that his mother snacked on sourkraut.

Now it’s your turn in the conversation to speak your mind on my blog at EvelynMarshall.com.