Sharing Food and Memories with Friends and Family

September 26, 2010
Irene Saiger


White Bean Soup (Arbas un Kliskelach)

I just began reading a book about five immigrant families who lived in a tenement on the Lower East Side of New York at the turn of the century.   97 Orchard details the hardships that each group faced upon their arrival to the New World, and goes on to talk about the culinary influences that they had on the New York food scene.

The Lower East Side was one of the places that my mother took us shopping.  The streets were teeming with people going through tables piled high with merchandise, strategically placed outside of the merchants’ storefronts.  You could buy anything and everything in this relatively small area.  There were stores selling undergarments and socks, bags and luggage, silver stores filled with Kiddush cups and candelabras, and, of course, food vendors and restaurants.  Many of the signs were in Yiddish, the language of the Eastern European Jews who frequented the area around Orchard Street.  I remember having an occasional meal at Ratners, a large dairy restaurant known for their onion rolls and Kasha Varnishkes.  There was Yonah Schimmel, the tiny shop that offered a variety of knishes, beyond potato and cheese.  The Streit’s Matzoh Factory (still working on a pulley system) was on the Lower East Side as were several pickle vendors that also offered delicious pickled green tomatoes.  Of course, Russ and Sons (now Russ and Daughters) offered all kinds of dairy and smoked fish. We called it an appetizing store.  What an exciting and colorful way to spend the day.

In 97 Orchard, there is the recurring theme of assimilation, something every immigrant family faced at some point.  For me, the differences were magnified by what was waiting inside my brown lunch bag.  My lunch looked nothing like those of the “American” kids.  There it was, the unsightly wax paper folded over a substantial sandwich made with hearty rye bread, filled with sliced salami, bologna, tuna or egg salad.  The Americans would open their lunch bags and the difference was startling.  Delicate white bread sandwiches filled with just one slice of meat or cheese, maybe peanut butter and jelly, cut on a diagonal and wrapped in plastic wrap.  No strong smells, and no mess.  It is hard to believe that I could have possibly preferred eating Wonder Bread, that generic loaf that formed a doughy mass and stuck to the roof of your mouth.  It stems from the need to belong, to be accepted and welcomed in to the larger society.  At some point I realized that rye bread was earthy and hearty and delicious and that garlicky salami is superior in every way to a square slice of orange cheese.

Next month I will be in New York City and my sister and I plan to go to 97 Orchard Street, now The Tenement Museum.  We may walk over to Yonah Schimmel and have a knish with mustard, stop by the Pickle man, go to Russ and Daughters, and embrace the wonderful foods of our childhood.

This simple soup was a staple in our home.

White Bean Soup

1 lb small lima beans, soaked overnight

2 quarts water or pareve chicken stock

1 brown onion, left whole

1/2 stick butter

salt and pepper to taste (should be very peppery)

1 package small square noodles, cooked according to directions on package.

Place beans,  onion and water in large pot.  Add salt and pepper.  Cover pot, bring to a boil and then lower heat.  Cook soup for about an hour and a half or till beans are tender.  Taste and adjust seasoning.  Remove onion, and add butter and noodles to soup.  Serve hot.  Serves 6



16 thoughts on “White Bean Soup (Arbas un Kliskelach)

  1. great story and a wonderful recipe, i love all the amazing places in new york, u will have a great time, take care

  2. Well, since Rachel now lives on the lower east side — maybe I’ll check out that museum next month when I’m there too!
    Thanks for another great story — not to mention recipe!

  3. I lived a couple of blocks from the LES and would often go to Russ and Daughters- I loved it. Before a visit to my parents in Boston, I would get them something from Russ or the Pickle Man. I miss it there. You bring back some nice memories.

  4. Haven’t read the book, but after years of hearing my mother rave about the Tenement Museum, I ended up with half a day last month to spend with my big kids in Manhattan (very, very rare).

    Not wanting to blow it (or all our money) on a big museum, I took them to the Tenement Museum. A little out of the way (a couple of subway transfers), and not cheap, but a VERY worthwhile hour. So happy I did – we’re not in the US, but so much Jewish history did happen there, and now all the books they read will come alive for them in a new way.

    Just a question – I don’t speak Yiddish, but my father always called chick peas “arbis.” Is this the same word? Is it a general term for all bean-type things?

    • I am looking forward to seeing it. I don’t know how old your children are but if they are young, there is a great series of books called All of a Kind Family. About a family on the Lower East Side.

      Arbas are beans, generic word as far as I know.

  5. I wish I had the recipes for all the wonderful foods my Mom made, she never wrote anything down and I married young and was not interested at that time of cooking Jewish foods -my very bad
    I will give Lori the book I mentioned – she can give it to y ou – I’m seeing her this Wed

  6. I have already added your book suggestion to my list and look forward to reading it.

    I grew up in the Bronx as did my husband. We have been in Houston for 27 years and we have raised three native Houstonians, one of whom was a classmate and close friend of Elizebeth. With our son living in NY now we get the occasional chance to visit and will now look forward to exploring LES with our son.

    Nice sharing some thoughts with you.

  7. Your blog was forwarded to my by your soon to be machatunim here in Houston. We are excitedly looking forward to the wedding of David and Elizabeth and sharing this simcha with your family.

    Nancy sent your blog to me because my son just moved to the Lower East Side and I was sharing my thoughts with her about how different it was when I was growing up in New York. Your descriptions remind me of my own childhood days when my parents would “schlep” me shopping on the LES. Today it seems the youngsters are moving there once again but despite some of the old holdovers, it is a very different neighborhood. We plan to visit him next month and look forward to retracing our steps.

    A good year to you and your family and we will look forward to meeting everyone.

    • Hi Elayne,

      I would love to know more. Where did you grow up in New York? Thank you so much for contacting me!!! I have been to the Lower East Side and it is gentrified but here and there you can still spot some “old” remnants of what once was. I highly recommend the book, you would enjoy it. Chag Sameach and I look forward to meeting you soon!!


  8. Your trip to New York sounds wonderful – I’d love to take that trip sometime. I have the book “Up From Orchard street” by Eleanor Widmer – sounds very similar to 97 Orchard street.
    Pareve chicken stock?
    My mother made the best knishes in the whole wide world I kid you not – Just ask Lori

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