July 11, 2012
It’s fascinating to watch the focus of interest move from one gentrifying neighborhood to another in greater metropolitan New York. Once upon a time it was SoHo and Park Slope, Brooklyn; today it’s DUMBO, which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, and the Lower East Side, where hip shops, stylish new hotels and restaurants have replaced garment workshops and pushcarts selling fruit and vegetables.
Days gone by in that neighborhood—east of the Bowery and south of Houston Street—come alive at the Tenement Museum in an Orchard Street apartment house where a long chain of German Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants tried to make good in America. Tours of the building reveal how they lived from 1863 to 1935 with no electric lights, heating or indoor plumbing. Some made it out of the Lower East Side, while others who couldn’t manage to pay the rent moved to even worse neighborhoods.
The Tenement Museum also offers walking tours, one of which I recently joined. The first question I asked the guide on the pavement outside was what exactly is a tenement? I wanted to know because I live in what I assume was a West Village tenement building, characterized by its layout—two apartments in back, two in the front, on each floor—a fire escape climbing the facade and a tight, narrow internal staircase. The guide elaborated on the definition, describing a tenement as a building housing three or more unrelated families, originally with exterior wooden steps linking the floors, where housewives dried the laundry.
In the 1860s the Lower East Side was deluged by a wave of immigrants from Germany; known as Klein Deutschland, it had the fifth-largest German-speaking population among cities in the world at the time. The garment industry provided jobs, along with cigar factories and pushcarts. At 86 Orchard Street, a sign that says Max Feinberg identifies a brick building that now hosts a chichi Mexican restaurant as the former home of Majestic Hosiery.
Around the corner at 133 Allen Street, where there was once an elevated train and the city is building a bike lane—back to the future, as they say—we stopped in front of the Church of Grace to Fujianese. It’s a Christian worship place for fairly recent immigrants from China’s Fujian Province, but before that the building served as a bathhouse for the district’s great unwashed.
More characteristic of the Lower East Side in the late 19th century are the myriad synagogues tucked between storefronts like the Kehila Kedosha Janina temple at 280 Broome Street, home to a small, obscure sect of Judaism that grew up in Greece during the Roman era, and the former Congregation Poel Zedek Anshe Ileya, now a Seventh-Day Adventist church at the corner of Forsyth and Delancey streets, which actually began its long life as a German Presbyterian Church complete with a rose window around 1890.
Across the street Sara Roosevelt Park, named for FDR’s mother and opened in 1934, runs in a narrow strip between East Houston and Canal streets. The city established the park at a time when it hoped to provide one acre of green space for every 600 people. Now the ratio is more like one acre for every 12,000 in the densely packed neighborhood, and the park has welcomed serendipitous new enterprises like the Wah Mei bird garden and the M’Finda Kalunga community garden, opened in 1982 partly to commemorate an abandoned nearby African cemetery and partly to stem drug dealing that was rampant in the area.
Just east of the park at the intersection of Rivington and Eldridge streets, we stood in front of the University Settlement, a welfare organization founded by wealthy, educated New Yorkers in 1886 to aid immigrants by providing education and social services. It continues to do so now, though the clientele has changed since the neighborhood’s German immigrant days.
The Tenement Museum walking tour lasts for two hours and covers much more ground than this. I was exhausted by the time I finished. Fortunately, places for refreshment abound in the neighborhood, from cool cafés like 88 Orchard to Yonah Schimmel’s knishery at 137 East Houston, which has been baking authentic knishes filled with potato, cabbage and spinach since 1910.
May 9, 2012
Heads up: On May 28, HBO will air a made-for-television movie that should fascinate travelers: “Hemingway & Gellhorn.”
With Clive Owen as Papa and Nicole Kidman as the daring and beautiful war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, it is being billed as one of the greatest romances of the 20th century. OK. The star-crossed couple met and made love in steamy Key West in 1936, traveled to exotic places together and married four years later. But the network is going to have to sprinkle plenty of love dust on the true story of their relationship to make viewers’ hearts palpitate.
That’s because they divorced acrimoniously after a brief five years of wedded bliss, during which time both had affairs and cohabitated only intermittently. Eventually Hemingway gave her an ultimatum and she read the tea lives about her future as a “footnote in someone else’s life.” After they divorced in 1945, Gellhorn granted interviews on the proviso that Hemingway’s name would not be mentioned.
We all know what happened to him, but Gellhorn’s story is seldom remembered even though she wrote a dozen books based on her adventures before taking her own life in 1998 while suffering from cancer. My favorite is “Travels with Myself and Another,” published in 1978, a book about colossally bad trips in which she wrote, “The only aspect of our travels that is guaranteed to hold an audience is disaster.”
One of the essays therein, “Mr. Ma’s Tigers,” is a travel classic that recounts the agonies of a 1941 trip to China to cover the Sino-Japanese War with Hemingway, coyly identified only as U.C., which stands for unwilling companion. Along the way she got to meet the unsavory head of the Republic of China Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, fly over the Himalayan “hump” in a shuddering DC-3 operated by China National Aviation Company, the strappy outfit that kept lines of communication open to the free Chinese capital of Chungking, and witness at firsthand hapless, ill-equipped Chinese soldiers attempting to fend off the Japanese, soon to join forces with Hitler as an Axis power.
Gellhorn was a sharp observer and terse, evocative writer as able to describe a dress dinner with the king and queen of Hawaii as Hong Kong brothels and opium dens. And honest. Throughout “Mr. Ma’s Tigers” she never tries to hide her private schoolgirl horror of filthy customs like spitting and squalid conditions she encountered in the Orient causing her to shriek, whine and occasionally vomit. Her reactions are set in stark, self-aware contrast to those of Hemingway, who only had to take a drink to live and let live. At one point she reports him telling her, “The trouble with you is that you think everybody is exactly like you. What you can’t stand, they can’t stand. What’s hell for you has to be hell for them. How do you know what they feel about their lives? If it was as bad as you think they’d kill themselves instead of having more kids and setting off firecrackers.“
Both responses inevitably coexist in the hearts of travelers, engendering the internal edginess we feel on extreme trips to places like India and Africa. That’s what I’d like to see in the HBO movie because—never mind Hemingway—few writers have depicted it better than Gellhorn.
May 7, 2012
Just around the corner from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York a much smaller suite of galleries is showing something special: “Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan,” an exhibition mounted by New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Founded half a dozen years ago and occupying a dignified building just off upper Fifth Avenue, the ISAW is a research and education center devoted to the study of ancient cultures that grew up beyond the Mediterranean basin in some of the most far-flung corners of the globe.
“Nomads and Networks” (open through June 3) focuses on Central Asia’s four corners region where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet. For travelers, it is a storied place of ever-frozen mountains and steppes where it’s thought horses were first domesticated sometime around 3500 B.C. Bridled and saddled, they became not just a means of transportation but a cultural icon for the nomadic people of eastern Kazakhstan’s Altai and Tianshan regions, who left no written record, though they were mentioned in “The Histories” of Herodotus.
It’s a small exhibition composed of just two rooms of 250 objects borrowed from four museums in Kazakhstan, displayed for the first time in the U.S. They come from single finds and archaeological digs into burial mounds known as kurgans now being excavated in Kazakhstan. One gallery is devoted to a kurgan that is thought to have held the remains of a chieftain, buried with 13 horses, sacrificed in formal regalia. The animals’ tack, carved of deer horn, ornamented with gold foil and cinnabar, testifies to the artistic sophistication of the nomads. A piece of a saddle made of felt and wood occupies a showcase nearby, preserved across millennia by permafrost, which served as a sort of refrigerator for organic material that would have otherwise decayed. The analysis of human remains also preserved by permafrost has revealed that nomads of the Asian four corners region wore full-body tattoos and knew the secrets of embalming, carrying mummified corpses with them through frozen winters until the ice melted and the bodies of the dead could be interred.
A second room displays a collection of 23-karat gold ornaments, highlighted by what is known as the Kurgan Diadem, a hammered gold band with imagery common in neighboring China, suggesting the reach of nomadic contact and trading. Just as stunning are four tray-like objects, mounted on conical stands, bearing creatures out of an ancient box of Animal Crackers: horses, deer, ravens, two-humped Bactrian camels and snow leopards.
Though the function of many of these objects remains unknown, the exhibition’s objective—to show that the nomadic people of the Central Asian steppe were anything but the biker guys of the ancient world, that they lived in coherent communities and had their own understanding of this life, as well as the next—is evocatively fulfilled. Only, now I’ve got to add another place to my travel list: Kazakhstan, hopefully on horseback.
April 6, 2012
Procida is less well-known than Capri and other islands in the glorious Bay of Naples, chiefly favored by Italians, a scant 30-minute ferry ride from the mainland and barely a half square mile in size. On Easter weekend, though, the ferries are full because Procida’s Mysteries of the Dead Christ processional—begun in 1754 as a macabre march of flagellants—is one of the most colorful in Italy.
I was there to see it a few years ago and brought back pictures:
April 5, 2012
Take a very big pile of shelled, skinned, finely ground almonds and an almost equal amount of sugar. Ecco fatto! There you go! The principle ingredients for Sicilian marzipan cunningly shaped and painted to look like cherries, oranges, plums, prickly pears, tomatoes and the delicate Paschal lambs that fill Sicilian pastry cases at Easter.
The recipes for these and other intensely sweet, almond flour-based Sicilian confections like cassata cakes, lemon-flavored cuscinetti, buccellati twists and egg white-inflated sospiri (which means sighs) aren’t that complicated.
But the fabrication takes a master schooled in a culinary tradition born in the island’s convents, passed down in the hands of nuns who raise it to high art, not unlike the plaster saints and putti that decorate Sicilian Baroque churches.
For over 50 years Grammatico has been giving Erice Paschal lambs for the Good Friday I Misteri procession, when scenes from the Crucifixion are carried around town, ossa dei morti (bones of the dead) biscuits for All Souls’ Day and mini di Virgini spongecake and ricotta custard mounds topped with a cherry so that they look for all the world like bosoms, thus commemorating the February feast day of St. Agatha, martyred in the third century A.D. after having her breasts cut off by Romans.
In Sicily, it seems, there’s always something dark behind even the most colorful traditions.
Grammatico’s own story is a case in point. Forced to enter a Catholic orphanage at age 11, she was taught by nuns how to make pastry, which was sold to townspeople through a revolving portal in the convent door. The rest of her childhood was spent reading her missal and walking behind coffins in a long row of little girls clad in black veils and dresses. When she left the convent in 1962 she took little more than her pastry-making skills with her.
But eventually her pasticceria became a landmark in Erice thanks in part to Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood, by Sicilian-American writer Mary Taylor Simeti, also the author of the exquisite On Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journal.
Now Grammatico has two pastry shops in Erice and a coffeehouse, Caffe Maria, where thick, dark espresso further elevates the Sicilian pastry sugar high.