LES: The Bites of an Immigrant Past

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By Katie Ambrosini

It’s bland, flavorless and only half as good as a saltine cracker- however, Streit’s matzo is different. It tastes like cardboard, but mixed into the flour and water there is a rich history of emigration, culture and timelessness. 

Located in the East Village on Rivington Street, Streit’s Matzo Factory is an icon of the past. Shelves on the wall of the factory store held everything from Matzoh ball soup mix to matzoh pancake mix. In addition to a lot of Matzo. Streit’s was actually the first company to introduce flavored Matzo, (they have three popular flavors: Mediterranean, 5-grain, and lightly salted). 

A little window in the store allowed visitors steal a glimpse of the factory. I peered through the window with fascination as a conveyor belt oven pushed out giant sheets of matzo. Two men in denim Streit’s jackets and thick bee-catching-like gloves stood at the end of the machine, catching the matzo and breaking it into even squares and placing them on to a maze of wire baskets which hovered overhead. The baskets of matzo floated along a curvy and zigzag path, up to the second floor where they were boxed and packaged by an assembly of men. 

The machines and the ovens run about 24 hours a day in most of the seasons but winter, however the most important part of the factory is human labor. “Labor is the factory’s biggest expense,” said Alan Adler, one of three family members now running the business. 

Unlike most factories today,  Streit’s survival relies on human hands. Each man knows his job to a level of expert precision. “It’s more of an art, than a science,” said Adler, in regards to Streit’s way of making Matzo. It’s just flour, water, and 15-18 minutes of cooking time, yet from the mixing to the final packaging, Streit’s has been able to maintain a consistency that keeps the same customers coming back. 

It’s simple food with a complex and unique history, and visiting the factory brings it all to life. Standing in the factory amidst the burnt toast smell and the sound of churning 50 year old machines, brings the history to life. 

In the mid to late 19th century, Jewish, Italian, Irish, and Eastern European immigrants were flowing into Ellis Island – some were escaping persecution or famine, while other were seeking a fresh start. In the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the presence of an immigrant past still remains.

It’s salty, juicy, and bursting with flavor. The pastrami at Katz Delicatessen may be more salivating than the Matzoh at Streits, however it is equally rich with history and culture. Although flavorful, the pastrami sandwich began as an immigrant sandwich. It was the working man’s food. Like Matzah, corned beef and pastrami were nothing particularly special, but they represent and maintain a story of the immigrant past in the Lower East Side. 

Celebrating it’s 125th birthday this year, with only a few adjustments, Katz has remained largely the same. “I’m actually a little scared of change,” said the 25 year old owner, Jake Dell. Besides from a few adjustment, the biggest one being in 1926, when the restaurant moved from Ludwig Street to Houston, due to the subway expansion, the restaurant is mostly the same as it was eight decades ago. “There are two very important components to this place, the food, and the nostalgia,” said Dell. Unlike many restaurants now, Katz functions on timelessness, not modernity. The meat is still sliced by hand, the ticket system is still in place, and the food still tastes the same. These factors have kept the restaurant running smoothly for 125 years.

Walking into Katz, whiffs of fresh cut pastrami, pickles and bread brings to each a certain experience and emotion. The 750 photographs on the wall, featuring important icons from comedian Soupy Sales to the pre-vegan President Bill Clinton (apparently quite the “pig” at the time, said Dell), are a signal to the deli’s relevance in modern culture. The restaurant is famous for it’s “Send a Salami to your Boy in the Army” campaign, which started in WWII when the owners sons were overseas and they sent them gifts of salami. Funny enough, this tradition is still in place. However, Katz became a national and international icon once the film When Harry Met Sally (1989) hit theaters and people started to recognize Katz deli in the famous orgasm scene. “People still come here looking to recreate that scene…. and believe me they do,” said Dell. “There are some that make every guy in the store uncomfortable.”

Katz will serve up to 4,000 people a day go through nearly 15,00 pounds of pastrami a week. Managing the deli hasn’t phased the Tufts graduate and once-aspiring medical student. Running Katz is second nature; it’s in his blood. Jake Dell practically grew up in the store: After countless birthday parties and even a  bartmitzvah. 

 Crunchy, creamy, and decadent, the cannoli at Veiniero’s, located on 2nd ave and 11th street, are the best in the city (in my opinion).  The scents of fresh baked biscotti, butter cookies, and classic Italian cakes attracts such large crowds that a line will often snake out the door. 

“Ciao! How’s your dad?” asked Robert Zirelli, owner of the shop as I walked in. The Italian pastry shop is a landmark in the city, but my family ties make Veniero’s even more special (The Zirelli’s are cousins on my father’s side). And no matter how distant, to Italians, family is family. Robert makes this obvious whenever I come in: I’m welcomed with the warmest greeting and a kiss on the cheek. He is a jolly guy in his 50s and with a Roman nose and a full head of hair. 

No matter how many times you visit, you’ll still lose your self in the sight and smell of tempting and ornate desserts that tease you behind the glass display case. The design of the shop has a classical Italian feel. The polished wood walls, the marble floor, and the stamped metal ceiling make you feel as if transported back to the early 20th century. Veniero’s was originally a caffe, established in 1894 by Antonio Veniero. His decadent desserts became the talk of the town, and won even international recognition in Rome and Bolognia. Once you see that bright red neon vertical sign, it’s hard to stop your feet from walking towards the shop.  

From delis to pastry shops, and even a factory, it is the immigrant that has shaped much of Lower Manhattan. Streit’s, Katz’ and Veniero’s  are reminders of the country’s immigrant roots. By maintaining tradition, they have marvelously preserved the past and kept history alive.  

 

 

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