What We Are Learning:  Field Trips in Food; Immigrant New York

In Field Trips in Food:  Immigrant New York, students tour and taste the city’s ethnic culture and cuisine.

Our walking tour of Coney Island begins with Nathan’s Famous hotdogs. (Photo: Tekako Eharo)

We meet outside Nathan’s Famous on Surf Avenue in Brooklyn.  It’s a crisp October Day, and, in Jennifer Berg’s Field Trips in Food:  Immigrant New York, we are taking an ethnographic and historical walking tour of Coney Island and Brighton Beach.

The goal of Field Trips in Food, Berg says is to “understand communities not as outsiders looking in, but rather through the eyes of its people and through their perspective.”

Students walk the boardwalk in Coney Island and learn about its history.

Berg, who serves as director of Steinhardt’s Graduate Food Studies Program, begins with the history of the Nathan’s Famous, a chain that started as a Jewish immigrant-owned hotdog stand.  Nathan’s annual hot dog eating competition – created in 1916 by four immigrants – still draws immigrant contestants today.

As we walk the Boardwalk, Berg tells us bit of Coney Island history:  how the Dutch purchased the Coney Island peninsula in 1654, and how that strip of land evolved to earn an illustrious reputation for its sideshow attractions and parades.

Jennifer Berg discusses Brighton Beach architecture with her students.

We walk to Brighton Beach and see the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy on the neighboring economically fragile community.  We learn how the neighborhood has changed overtime; how waves of Jewish immigrants were displaced by Soviet immigrants, and nursing homes residents replaced immigrants.

It’s getting close to lunchtime and the conversation turns to food.  Berg points out the ever-popular, Cafés Volna and Tatiana, restaurants that have renovated frequently due to “suspicious” fires.  Then we walk into town, passing food carts and storefront displays of fish, meats, and cheese.

Photos, left to right:  Smoked mackerel, kvas, borsch (in quart containers), and picked vegetable slaws were among the foods students sampled in Fields Trips in Food: Immigrant, New York.

At this point in Berg’s class, we are deeply engrossed in our experiential learning experience and we are hungry.  So we visit two supermarkets to compare their demographic differences and then we are off to the prepared food bar where we heap Berg’s grocery cart with sour cherry blintzes, sweet and sour cabbage, blinis, eggplant with sweet and chili garlic sauce, four types of Kvas, pickles, herring, golubsky, dumplings, pitozhok, kasha varniska, and black bread…so we can experience Russian immigrant culture through its traditional fare.

In Field Trips in Food, students shop for food and sample it in the park.

We take our food to the park, and soon enough our lunch is done, and we are back on the street to sample desert from a bakery window and cheesy bread from Berikoni Brick Oven Bread.

This is Field Trips in Food; each week Berg and her students tour and taste the food culture of immigrant New York.  Offered in the fall semester, the class also includes tours of Latino New York, South Asian communities in Jackson Heights, Dominican pride on the tip of Manhattan, Chinese diaspora in Flushing, and immigrant communities on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.