Burt Wolf's Table: Ellis Island - #205

BURT WOLF:  Ellis Island, in New York City's harbor:  where millions of immigrants got their first taste of American food, and in return, introduced their own cuisines to America.  We'll trace the gastronomic contributions of some of the groups that arrived here, and cook up some of their recipes ... from Irish lamb stew to Russian stuffed chicken.  So join me on Ellis Island, at Burt Wolf's Table.

For over fifty years, starting in 1892, Ellis Island in New York Harbor was the primary immigration center for the United States government.  During its peak years, 1900 to 1924, some 12 million people came through the Ellis Island facility.  They were common people who made an uncommon decision:  they wanted to be free ... free of the poverty, free of the persecution, and free of the despair which dominated their lives in their home countries.  And so they packed up everything that they could carry, which really wasn't very much, and headed to the United States of America.

Steamship companies saw the immigrants as profitable cargo ... cargo that actually loaded itself.  And that's the way these passengers were treated.  They traveled in a class of service called steerage, because the part of the boat where this human cargo was stored was the place that held the steering equipment on the old ocean liners.  Packed together in appalling conditions that were breeding grounds for disease, thousands of people died during the voyages.  But for those that made it, there was the Statue of Liberty and New York City.

The ships docked in the piers that lined Manhattan's shore.  If you were a first- or second-class passenger, officials from the U.S. Immigration Service would clear you while you were on board in your cabin, and you were free to begin your new life.  But if you had come over in steerage, you were loaded onto ferries and taken across New York Harbor to Ellis Island.  The staff at Ellis was charged with the responsibility to make sure that no one was granted entrance to the U.S. who had a contagious disease, or who could not earn a living and thereby might become a burden to the government.

In spite of the fact that Ellis Island was processing twice as many people as it was designed to handle, the staff here did a remarkable job.  The average immigrant was in and out of Ellis Island within five hours.  Medical exams were completed, stability interviews conducted; there was a place to change your old-country money into U.S. dollars, and a spot to buy railroad tickets if you were going on to some other part of the country.  If you were staying in the neighborhood, you went through a door marked "Push to New York."  On the other side was a ferry that would take you the last mile and a quarter of your journey to Manhattan.

Today over 100 million Americans, almost half the population of our country, can trace their heritage to someone who came through Ellis Island.

The Registry Room on Ellis Island was the primary inspection area for the millions of people who passed through this facility on their way to a new life in America.  In 1909, my grandmother stood in this room, holding my mother in her arms.  My mother was only a year old at the time.  It was here that my grandmother, and many other immigrants, had their first taste of American food.

There were soups and stews, breads, and for some reason, an enormous amount of stewed fruit, particularly prunes.  Breakfast offered coffee and bread and butter, and crackers and milk, but the crackers and milk were only for women and children.  Dinner was beef stew, potatoes, and rye bread.  There was herring, and supper was baked beans, stewed prunes, and more rye bread.  Obviously, this place was not planning on building its reputation based on its food.  Yet in comparison to what most of the immigrants had been eating on the voyage over, Ellis was a gastronomic paradise.

There were also a number of immigrant aid societies with full-time staff on the island, and their job was to help the people adjust to the New World.  Part of that adjustment was getting used to the new food.  This was where my grandmother had her first banana.  Unfortunately, nobody told her not to eat the skin.  Nothing's perfect.

The end of the 1800s found most of Eastern Europe in a losing battle with overpopulation.  An unworkable system of land division, and their antiquated farm technology, could not feed the exploding populace.  Austria, Hungary, Poland and Romania were in chaos.  Steamship companies made a special effort in these areas.  Posters were displayed in the towns; agents went from house to house.  The message was continually sent:  America was the promised land.  Catch the next boat for wealth beyond your wildest dreams.

In many cases, the men came over first, got jobs, and saved enough money to send tickets back for their family.  That's what my grandfather did.  And like many people who came here from Middle and Eastern Europe, he brought with him a great love of the foods of his native country.

Pastries and great desserts from Austria with whipped cream on everything; sweet pancakes; coffee throughout the day, not just at breakfast.  And along with his Russian friends, a passion for yogurt.  Cookies in dozens of shapes and sizes, and each with their own folkloric story.  Each of those foodways was either introduced to America, or developed here in some important way, by people who came through Ellis Island from Middle or Eastern Europe.

Lidia Bastianich was born in a part of the world known as Istria.  It's in the northeast corner of Italy, and at various times it's been part of Italy or Austria or Germany or Yugoslavia, depending on who had the biggest army at the time.  At the end of the Second World War, her family moved to the New York City district known as Queens.  Today, Lidia and her husband Felice own and run one of New York's finest restaurants.  It's called Felidia, which is the joining together of the names of Felice and Lidia.

The restaurant was recently chosen by a group of national food editors as one of the best Italian restaurants in America.  The place has a warm, country feeling, with Tuscan tiles and lots of wood paneling.  Lidia not only runs the restaurant, but also manages to lecture on cooking and write cookbooks.  La Cucina di Lidia takes you on a tour of northern Italian food and family life, and feeds you all along the way.  Today she's preparing a chicken dish which was a family favorite when she was a kid.

A little vegetable oil goes into a hot saute pan.  A chicken cut into eight pieces is cooked for about five minutes on each side, then drained on some toweling.  A little more vegetable oil goes into a pan; a minced onion; some chopped bacon; a few bay leaves; rosemary; chopped chicken livers; a few mushrooms; cloves; tomato paste; some chicken stock.  Ten minutes of cooking.  The sauce is strained over the chicken and served with a cornmeal porridge called polenta.

LIDIA BASTIANICH:  It's really a wonderful, intense dish, and the flavors that permeate this dish, that makes this dish really interesting, is the herbs, the sort of indigenous ... the rosemary and the bay leaf, which really sort of notes this Mediterranean area.  Of course, in here we have also cloves, and that is from the Venetian influence and their travels to the East ... the cloves were imported in.  And of course the polenta was the travels to the New World, that came back and that became such a great part, really a big part of the table of this area.

WOLF:  So it's a real family recipe.

BASTIANICH:  It's a family recipe.  You could do it in advance, because the stewing process of the chicken, it could stay there, you could reheat it when guests come and it's perfectly fine.  And, you know, you can just put it in the center of the table or plate it out, whatever you'd like.  It's really ...

WOLF:  I’m hungry!  (LAUGHS)

BASTIANICH:  Yeah.  It's really, really warm, a warm dish, a family dish.

WOLF:  Another simple dish with a warm, family feeling is Lidia's pasta with shrimp and leeks.  A little vegetable oil goes into a hot saute pan; then a half-pound of shrimp that have been shelled and cleaned.  One minute of cooking, then off the heat.  A new pan comes in.  Vegetable oil is added.  A few chopped shallots; a cup of sliced leeks.  Chicken stock.  Shrimps back in.  Fresh Italian parsley.  Pasta is cooked, drained, and added to the shrimp sauce.  Some freshly grated pecorino romano cheese and you're set.

New York City's Central Park was put together during the middle of the 1800s.  It's two and a half miles long and a half-mile wide.  The designers wanted to give visitors a sense of nature, but in a very controlled way.  They installed lengthy carriage drives, but they placed the turns in a pattern that prevented racing.  Looks natural enough, but the whole place is very carefully thought out.  Each year, some 13 million people and an assortment of animals pay the park a visit.  On the west side of the grounds, near 67th Street, stands an old building originally called the Sheepfold.  When it was constructed in the 1870s, it was home to a sheep herder and his 200 sheep.  The sheep mowed and fertilized the nearby lawn known today as the Sheep Meadow.  The sheep were shipped off to Brooklyn in the 1930s, and the Sheepfold buildings became the core of a restaurant called Tavern on the Green.

Designed by Warner LeRoy, Tavern is quite a place:  chandeliers with parts made for Indian princes; an extensive collection of gold and copper weathervanes; and great architectural details.  But in spite of this new and valuable exterior, the management of Tavern never forgets this building's humble beginnings.  They always have a lamb recipe or cheesecake on the menu.

Cooks in Europe have been preparing cheesecakes for thousands of years, but it took a group of dairymen of German ancestry, working in New York, to come up with cream cheese, the essential ingredient in New York cheesecake.  Here's how it's made by chef Mark Poidevin at Tavern on the Green.

A two-inch-deep, eight-inch-in-diameter baking pan gets buttered.  The inside is coated with crushed Oreo cookies with the icing removed.  Two pounds of cream cheese go into a bowl and is mixed together with a cup and a half of sugar.  In a second bowl, four eggs are beaten; a cup of sour cream goes in, plus three cups of heavy cream.  This is going to be the kind of recipe that is served in very small portions.

The cream mixture is blended together with the cream cheese.  The seeds of two vanilla beans go in, or you can use a half-teaspoon of vanilla extract.  As soon as that's smooth, it's poured into the baking pan and into a water bath in a 300-degree-Fahrenheit oven for 45 minutes.  Out of the oven, unmold onto a plate, and decorate with a light coating of sour cream and all the fresh strawberries that fit.

Next, Mark is going to show us another Tavern on the Green specialty:  a veal chop with a breading of grated pecorino romano cheese.  A center-cut veal chop is cut almost in half, opened up, and pounded between two sheets of plastic wrap until it's thin and roughly the size of the plate it will be served on.  First the textured side of the mallet is used to break up the muscles and make the meat even more tender than it already is; and then the flat side is used to give the meat a smooth finish.

A light seasoning of salt and pepper, a thin coat of flour, into a few beaten eggs, and finally a coating of a mixture that is half grated pecorino romano cheese and half bread crumbs.  Into a pan with some hot vegetable oil; three minutes of cooking on one side, then a flip and three minutes of cooking on the other.  Onto a serving plate with a garnish of lemon and both green and white asparagus.  This is a recipe that will also work perfectly well with chicken.

As the 1880s came to an end, Russia found itself in constant turmoil:  crops failing, agonizing poverty throughout a majority of the population, religious persecution.  No surprise that during the 50-year period starting in 1875, over two million Russians left their homeland and took passage to New York City.

When you talk about the food of Russia, you're actually talking about the food of more than 170 different ethnic groups, each clinging to their own individual food habits.  But there are a number of gastronomic traits that are accepted by all of those groups, and those were the traits that were brought here to the United States by immigrating Russians at the turn of the 20th century.

They all loved rich whole-grain breads, which were much healthier than the overly- processed white breads.  They chose water as their favorite drink, and liked to have it infused with bubbles; they were responsible for the development of the New York seltzer business.  They called it “the worker's champagne.”  They were masters at smoking fish and meat, and responsible for the introduction of pastrami to East Coast delicatessens.  They loved cooked fruits, and they also did a lot to repopularize the drinking of tea, which had fallen out of fashion with many groups out of the American Revolution -- remember the Boston Tea Party?

There's some really great cooking going on in Russian restaurants, but unfortunately those Russian restaurants aren't in Russia.  These days the best Russian cooking takes place in restaurants outside of Russia, like the Russian Tea Room in New York City.

For example, their stuffed chicken breasts with a bread-cube crust.  First a little vegetable oil goes into a pan.  A sliced onion, a few sliced mushrooms, a tablespoon of flour to help thicken things up.  A little red wine to make a sauce.  A few minutes of cooking, and you have the stuffing.

Chicken breasts with the skin off and the bone removed are sliced almost in half, opened, and pounded thin.  Dipping the pounder in a little cold water every few hits will keep the chicken from sticking to it.  The chicken is stuffed, rolled up, given a light coating of flour, dipped into a wash of eggs and milk, pressed into cubes of bread until there's a pretty complete coating, and cooked in a little vegetable oil to brown.  Then into a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes to finish off.  It's served over thin strips of vegetables.

When we hear about the English coming to the New World, we usually hear about the Pilgrims on the Mayflower searching for religious freedom.  But the first English to set sail for the New World were actually sent here by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1500s, and they had a very clear set of instructions:  Find Gold!  And even the Pilgrims were not opposed to a little wealth.

So many English came to the east coast of North America that by the year 1700, 90% of the people in the colonies were English.  None of them would have survived the early years, had the Native Americans not taken the trouble to teach them to fish and hunt properly in the local areas, and to use pumpkins, beans, and corn; though as soon as the English could plant their traditional English foods or import them from England, they went back to their original English foodways ... foodways that have become a basic part of the way we eat in North America.

When you see roast beef, a pie that has a top crust, a cup of tea, steamed puddings, marmalade, oatmeal, and most of the foods around our traditional celebration of Christmas, you are looking at foods that were brought here by the English.  Our laws are English, our language is English, and even today our most common food ways come from our English heritage.

There were no Native American apples growing when the first Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts in the 1620s.  But within a few years, English colonists were planting apple trees wherever they could.  We often hear the phrase "as American as apple pie."  It would be much more accurate to say "as English as apple pie," or in this case apple tart, which just happens to be the dish that pastry chef George McCurdy is working on at New York City's Tribeca Grill.

Three apples are peeled, cored, and thinly sliced.  Some butter goes into a large non-stick saucepan, then the apples, and some sugar.  That cooks for five minute.  Meanwhile, pastry dough is given a coating of confectioner's sugar and rolled out.  Some ground hazelnuts are sprinkled on top and rolled in, and the dough is cut into triangles.  Onto a parchment-covered baking pan; an hour of refrigeration, then 20 minutes of baking at 375.  Half of the apple mixture is pureed, then spread out on the pastry.  Finally, the apples go on top.  A scoop of ice cream or frozen yogurt, and some decorations.

Along with the first apples in North America, the English introduced the first European hogs; and successive migrations of English continued to promote ham cookery.  In 1608, three sows and a boar were brought from Great Britain to Jamestown, Virginia.  Within two years, the pork population had increased to over 60 pigs.  By 1625, Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas had become famous for their hams.  Soon pork was the most popular meat in the colonies.

The American Festival Cafe in New York City has a collection of great American ham recipes.    One of my favorites is an old Southern recipe that uses cola as the basting liquid.

Start with a ten-pound ham, pre-cooked, with the skin removed.  Place the ham fat-side-down in a roasting pan.  Pour about an inch of cola into the pan.  Then into a 350-degree oven for two and a half hours.  Baste the ham frequently with the cola.  The next step is to take a bowl and mix together a cup of brown sugar, a cup of bread crumbs, two teaspoons of dry mustard, and a little fresh pepper.  Press that mixture onto the ham to make a nice coating.  Baste with the cola and the pan drippings, and return it to the oven for a half-hour to give it a golden coating.  Fabulous!

The spice we call a clove is actually the unopened flower bud of the clove tree, and the buds must be picked by hand just before they open.  That means that each tree is picked over and over and over again for weeks at a time, until they get all the buds.  After that, a couple of dozen other hand operations that are labor-intensive, like drying them in the sun in small batches and turning them by hand, and you'll see why cloves are one of our more pricey spices.  And they've been that way for thousands of years.

Cloves are native to a group of small islands near Australia.  The Portuguese traders of the 1500s knew about these islands, and were making great fortunes by bringing spices from them to Europe.  They were so protective about the location of the islands that they actually made maps of the area that were incorrect and would lead the sailors of other nations into the rocks.  The Dutch eventually took control of the area, which came to be known as the Dutch West Indies, and the islands came to be known, quite descriptively, as the Spice Islands.

The best clove flavor always comes from the whole clove bud.  Stick them into something before they go in the pot, so you can remove them from the dish before you serve.  They're not fun to chew on; like bay leaves, you want the flavor and then you want them out of the dish.


The next largest group of immigrants to arrive at Ellis Island were the Irish.  And the Irish hold a very special honor in terms of Ellis.  On New Year's Day of 1892, a 15-year-old girl named Annie Moore became the first immigrant to pass through the government station on Ellis Island in New York Harbor.  She'd come from County Cork in Ireland.

Annie Moore was welcomed to her new country by millions of Irish men and women who had come here during the 1800s to avoid the famine that was caused by the repeated failure of the potato crop in Ireland.  Potatoes had become a basic part of virtually every meal in the Irish peasant home, and those Irish peasant cooks had come up with an extraordinary collection of potato recipes.  Probably the most famous are colcannon, boxty, haggerty, and Dublin coddle.  Colcannon is mashed potatoes and vegetables, usually cabbage.  Boxty bread is potato pastry filled with bacon.  Haggerty is crisp cakes of onions and potatoes.  Dublin coddle is a casserole of bacon, sausages, onions, and potatoes.

When the Irish arrived in North America, they immediately planted potatoes, and singlehandedly made them as popular as they are today.  And it looks like they may become even more popular, as people begin to use the simple baked potato as a snack food.  They're low in sodium, low in calories, high in fiber, and high in potassium.

The Irish peasant farmers of the 1800s led an extremely difficult life.  The recurrent crop failures kept them on the edge.  As a result, they developed many techniques for getting the most for the least, especially when it came to cooking.  John Doherty, the executive chef at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel, learned about Irish cooking in his mother's kitchen; and today he's preparing a home-style recipe for Irish lamb stew.

Five pounds of leg of lamb are trimmed of fat, cut into one-inch cubes, and put into a saucepan.  A quart of cold water goes on top.  It's brought to a boil, at which point the water is drained away from the meat.  The meat stays in the pot and goes back on the heat.  Four cups of sliced onion go in; a cup of sliced leeks; four cloves of sliced garlic; a bay leaf; some thyme; and enough water to cover the meat.

JOHN DOHERTY:  Burt, I've covered just the meat with the water, and then all the water comes out of the leeks and the onions once it starts to cook, to give it just the right amount of liquid ... perfect.

WOLF:  Finally, five large potatoes that have been thinly sliced go in.  20 minutes more cooking, then into a bowl; a garnish of chopped parsley; and the Irish lamb stew is ready to serve.

The Irish were not only responsible for North America's love affair with the potato, but they were also the popularizer of the leek.  The leek is a member of the lily family with an onion-like bulb at its base.  The ancient Assyrians believed that leeks had considerable medical value; they recommended that you eat them in order to prevent your hair from turning white.  Now, there's a piece of information I could have used about 25 years ago.

One thing you gotta remember about leeks is they are often packed with sand between the leaves, and you need to clean them very carefully before you cook them.  Trim off any damaged ends at the top of the leek, and the roots from the bottom.  And the best technique for getting out all of the soil and grit is to cut two slices down the center of the leaves.  Cut one, then give it a half turn and cut the other; you've actually quartered the leeks.  Then open the leaves with your hands and hold them open while you place the leek under running water.  Let that water come down and get out all of the grit and the soil.  Slice them into the sizes called for in your recipe, and you are ready to cook.

We are a nation of immigrants, and the children and grandchildren of immigrants, and we love the idea of equality of opportunity.  We may not end up with what we want, but we at least like to have the feeling that we had a shot at it.  Equality of opportunity was extremely important to the people who came through Ellis Island, and it's even more important to their descendants.  And that desire to have equal opportunity has had an enormous impact on the way we eat in this country.

In past centuries, you could always tell who the most important people were at a dinner table, because they were eating the most important parts of the meat, fish, or poultry.  The life-giving protein in the flesh was the most valued part of a meal, and that food was usually cooked whole and brought to the table in one piece.  As it was carved, the most valued parts went to the most valued people:  the person who got the breast was more important than the person who got the neck.  And that system was unacceptable to our equality-loving hearts.  We are attracted to systems that appear to be free of hierarchy.

One result of that is that more and more of our food is pre-cut, pre-measured, and pre-processed into shapes where one piece is totally indistinguishable from the next.  To a great extent, the success of the hamburger, the fish stick, and the chicken nugget, is the result of our love of democracy.

Well, that's all from Ellis Island.  Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for good things to eat and drink at Burt Wolf's Table.