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An Oral History Of New York Food: Dining Out Wasn't Always 'In'

As Marcel Proust so famously documented, it's often the simplest of foods that can carry us back to remembrances of things past.

And so perhaps it's not so surprising that, when freelance food writer Anne Noyes Saini began asking New York's elderly residents about their memories of the foods of the city during the early-to-mid 20th century, it was humble meals like baked beans and the fruits sold by old-timey wagons that most often came to mind.

Saini's project, an ongoing oral history called Forgotten Foods of New York City, is accessible via Soundcloud and was also featured last week on the storytelling site Narratively.

"It occurred to me to talk to these people who had lived in the city for a long time ... and try to get a sense from them about how restaurants changed, and how even just shopping for groceries has changed," Saini tells The Salt.

In one clip from the project, Paul J. Hintersteiner, of the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan, recalls shopping for food in the city long before supermarkets – and even before the days of modern refrigeration. Grocery shopping was a multi-stop affair: fruits from traveling produce carts, dairy from the milkman, and a giant block of ice from the "ice man" to keep perishables cold.

Today, New York is home to many of the finest restaurants in the world – and New Yorkers have become accustomed to regularly dining out. "It's just take-out all the time," Saini says. So she says she was surprised to discover that, among the people she interviewed, eating outside of the home wasn't always so commonplace.

People "who grew up in the '30s and '40s, and even the '50s and '60s — when things were more prosperous — people just didn't eat out" the way New Yorkers do today, she says.

In another audio clip, 90-year-old Hilda Baumol from Manhattan's Battery Park City neighborhood recalls that her family didn't eat at "elegant" restaurants, opting instead for cheap eats from the "automat" — an early fast-food dining experience. Customers would use coins to retrieve meals from vending machines. The compartments were replenished by workers behind the machine.

In his interview, Monte Malach, 85, recalls the mid-century disappearance of once-ubiquitous corner soda fountains, where people could duck in for a quick drink and listen to the Dodgers game.

Saini found participants for the project with the help of Elders Share The Arts – a non-profit that helps older people express themselves through art. In addition to accounts from lifelong New Yorkers, the nine files Saini has posted so far also include the food memories of immigrants adjusting to life in mid-20th century New York.

You don't hear enough from older people in the mainstream media, Saini says. "Some of them are very savvy, but I don't think you'll find them on Twitter."

For Saini, the important part of this audio archive is continuing to preserve the voices of the past.

"You hear the texture of someone's voice, you hear their accent, you hear the way they get excited about some particular thing they're talking about. You can't really get that with a print piece," she says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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