On Fridays and Saturdays, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum runs a fantastic tour: Foods of the Lower East Side. It’s an exploration of immigration history through taste and flavor.
I am one of the many guides for this tour; my favorite part is when I get to show visitors this school lunch menu from c. 1920:
Source: 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, by Jane Ziegelman.
So what do you think of this menu? How would you describe it? What stands out to you? In comparison, what do you remember eating at lunch in school, or what are you children’s favorite school lunch meals today?
The school lunch program started in schools in the Lower East Side. At its inception, the program had two purposes. Primarily, the school board wanted to provide children a healthy, balanced meal for a few cents. Up until the lunch program was initiated, children were given money by their parents to buy their own lunch from the shops and pushcarts on the Lower East Side. If you were a kid with money to burn, what would you buy? Candy.
However, critics believed the school lunch was designed to Americanize the children of immigrants The thought was if we Americanize the dinner table, we’ll Americanize the immigrant. The kids will like the “American” lunches and start asking for the same foods at home.
When I present this menu on my tour, the menu item that visitors comment on the most is Tuesday’s “Peanut and Cottage Cheese Sandwich.” It strikes guests as so bizarre, particularly on a menu that’s supposed to be American. So I promised everyone that I would give it a try.
I checked my early 20th century cookbooks for “peanut and cottage cheese sandwiches” without any luck. I couldn’t decide if it was chopped peanuts, or peanut butter, mixed with the cottage cheese. And then I found this:
This recipe comes from Money Saving Main Dishes published in 1948 by the Bureau of Human Nutrition and Home Economics. T his recipe was taste-tested on the adorable blog The Mid-Century Menu. You can read her full pickle-peanut butter post here.
I figured this mid-century recipe would be a good guide for me, so I mixed it up, sans pickles. I mashed together peanut butter and cottage cheese, spread it over bread, and fried it like a grilled cheese. The result? A warm peanut butter sandwich. It didn’t taste like much of anything, not even peanut butter. Even the texture was unassuming: cottage cheese doesn’t melt, so it didn’t add anything. The sandwich was Beige Food, going into my mouth, giving me calories. Non-threatening and neutral.
I know there was some concern at the turn of the century that spicy, highly flavored food prevented proper assimilation to American culture. I’m not sure if that was widely believed, or a theory presented by a loud-mouthed few. I certainly don’t feel more American after eating that sandwich.