Dinner on Ellis Island (Molly O’Neill’s “One Big Table” Event)

November 8, 2010 | By | COMMENTS

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In college (at Emory Univeristy in Atlanta), I took a class called “The Modernization of Judaism.” The class was taught by a lesbian rabbi and, over the course of the semester, we studied the various divergent branches of the Jewish community (I attended an Orthodox Shabbat service, the women separate from the men) and learned how Reformed Jews (the Jews I was raised amongst) were a dying breed since they reproduced the least (Hasidic Jews have us significantly beat).

We also studied the two large waves of Jews that emigrated to America in both the 19th and 20th centuries. The first wave came mostly from Western Europe (predominantly from Germany); the second wave, a much larger wave, came from Eastern Europe as Russian Jews fled the pogroms. And if you were to study that second wave you’d see, splashing somewhere in the water, the ancestors whose crossing set cosmic forces in motion that led to the creation of this food blog. One of those ancestors was my mother’s father’s mother, Netty Rosenblum.

That’s my great-grandmother Netty, who we called “Nana,” on the Gong Show in the 1970s. This woman, who was (as Chuck Lorre intones) from Minsk, Russia, went from persecuted impoverishment to being kissed on the cheek by the likes of Milton Berle, Soupy Sales and Ruth Buzzie. The first half of her life was spent struggling to find enough food to eat; the second half was spent in comfortable, sunny splendor in Santa Monica, California (with a several-decade-long detour in Brighton Beach.) What stood between a life of despair and a life of comfort was Ellis Island.

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The spirit of Netty was with us last Thursday night when, with my parents and various celebrated food writers (including my all time favorite, Calvin Trillin) we attended Molly O’Neill’s “One Big Table” event on Ellis Island.

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“One Big Table” is Molly O’Neill’s latest cookbook; a massive tome that seeks to dismantle the notion that Americans don’t cook. “From the birth of the nation until quite recently,” Molly writes, “Europeans and those Americans who measure culture in relationship to European society claimed that Americans can’t cook….but in more than 300,000 miles, I found that my fellow citizens can and do cook. Some cook badly, some cook well, all cook to say who they are and where they come from.”

The event began in Battery Park, where attendees congregated at a place called Castle Clinton:

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We collected our tickets and then boarded a boat for Ellis Island. First, there was intense security, then a short wait:

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At last, the boat:

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The ride over was a bit rocky (it was a rainy night) but not too bad. (Even my mom, who gets nervous on boats, looks calm.)

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Then there was that magic moment when we walked off the boat onto the island itself:

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We walked in and saw the suitcases you saw in one of the photos above; then up a flight a stairs where we beheld this:

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It was rather breathtaking. That room, where so many immigrants passed through, was now converted into an event space. Waiters served glasses of white and red wine and soon we cued up for samples of food from Molly’s book.

Almost universally, everyone said this bite was the best; Dan Huntley’s Pulled Pork and Red Slaw Sliders:

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(Dan Huntley’s slaw–which has cabbage, dark brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, ketchup, BBQ sauce, cayenne and hot sauce–is featured in the book, along with his baby back ribs.)

There was also Sue Wespy Ceravolo’s Wood-Fired Spicy Oysters:

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Norma Naranjo’s Tamales:

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And Susmita Sharma’s Shami Sliders:

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Now’s the time to mention the reason I was invited to this event at all. My friend Amy, who’s the head of musical theater at Pace University, was approached by Molly to have her students perform at this event. When they met, Amy mentioned that she was my friend and Molly said “tell him to e-mail me, he should come!” So this is me and Amy:

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And after everyone was finished eating, her students did a tremendous job both singing (they opened with “The New World” from Jason Robert Brown’s “Songs from a New World”) and then performing monologues based on real accounts of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. One account had the speaker talking about eating their first banana on Ellis Island; my mom said that Nana used to tell the same story.

Eventually, there was a panel moderated by Sam Roberts from The New York Times and featuring Iliana de la Vega from the Culinary Institute of America, Calvin Trillin, Molly O’Neill herself, Federal judge George Chew and Aarti Sequeira the winner of “The Next Food Network Star”:

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But it wasn’t until the night was over and we were on the boat back–sitting on the top deck, looking at lady liberty as we circled Ellis and returned back to Manhattan–that the true significance of the evening really sank in. Amy and one of her students serenaded my mom with her favorite duet from “Glee” (the one based on Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand singing “Happy Days Are Here Again”) and I thought about the journey my great-grandparents made (including Nana), why they made that journey and how that journey led me to where I am today.

Stepping off the boat, I felt like I’d made a journey of my own; suddenly, I thought of my life as the reward for the bravery of all those who came before me. They didn’t know what awaited them when they crossed over, oh so many years ago. But their great-grandson gets to support himself doing what he loves, a dream most of them would never have fathomed for themselves and one that’s only possible in a country like America.

So thank you, Molly O’Neill, for writing your book and having me at your event. As you say in your book, you helped me remember where I come from.

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