Yelling for an Egg: Filipino Food in Brooklyn


The Manila Restaurant on 47 Sands St, Brooklyn, NY, 1938. This photo used to be available for licensing through, but I can no longer locate it. So here it is in all its watermarked glory.

This article is one of a series I’m writing as a Visiting Artist at BLDG92 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

I’ve always found that immigrated cuisines are best eaten at hole-in-the-wall type restaurants, for the most authentic experience.  But in my attempts to try authentic Filipino food, the hole-in-the-wall my husband and I found ourselves standing in front of was closed–permanently.  So a quick Google search for other restaurants in the area led us to not another Filipino restaurant, but a Filipino Gastropub.

It was fancier than I had wanted, but when my husband and I cozied up to the bar, I noticed that the menu included a dish that four people had insisted I try: balut.

“What is it?” I asked the bartender. After he explained it, I ashamedly admitted “I don’t have the strength.”

But that wasn’t true of the gentleman sitting next to me.  A Filipino immigrant, sitting with his wife and grown son, he ordered his balut and the staff let out a loud whoop! of celebration.

“All this yelling for an egg??” his wife asked in laughing disbelief.  Balut is a fertilized duck egg: you crack the egg to find a half-developed bird fetus, swimming in briny broth.

“It’s a special dish,” the bartender replied, smiling.  Then, to the husband: “Do you remember it from the Philippines?”

“Yes, I miss it!” he replied, in a way that nearly pained him, pressing his hand over his heart.  “I ate it all the time.  I sip the broth first, then eat the meat–such delicate bird meat!”

Food gives comfort when we long for home.  It’s all the good parts of where we come from and none of the reasons why we left.  This is as true today as it was in the 1930s, when a thriving Filipino population found their home just outside of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The Phillipines fell under American occupation shortly after the Spanish-American war.  The result was an increased American military population on the islands, but also an increase in Filipino immigration to the United States.  Many young Filipino men joined the Navy, for economic opportunity as well as adventure, particularly as the nation geared up for World War II. Many of these recruits ended up at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; by the 1940s, The Navy Yard had over 70,000 employees, and was a key military base and constructed such infamous ships as the USS Missouri.


Washington Street & Sands Street, 1930. Source.

With so many employees in the yard, the population of the Brooklyn neighborhoods surrounding the Yard exploded.  At the end of a workday, or over a weekend of leave, A Filipino sailor could stroll out the Sands St. exit; he’d bypass the American lunchrooms and bars and head for the intersection of Sands and Washington Streets, where he could find Brooklyn’s Filipino community and a taste of home.

In 1939, WPA writers produced a guide book to every nook and cranny of New York City’s five boroughs; one intrepid writer recorded the area around the Navy Yard and its Filipino community:

Around Sands and Washington Streets is a colony of Filipinos; native food, extremely rare in the eastern part of the United States, is served in a Filipino restaurant at 47 Sands Street. Among the favorite dishes are adabong gaboy (pork fried in soy sauce and garlic); sinigang isda and sinigang visaya (fish soups); mixta (beans and rice), and such tropical fruits as mangoes and pomelos, the latter a kind of orange as large as a grapefruit.

A photo from 1938 lets us peak inside and glimpse a night filled with familiar food, music and friends. The Manila restaurant was probablly the first Filipino eatery in the city, having been established since at least 1927. It looks like a good place, the customers are relaxed, and you can just barely make out a menu hanging on the back wall.  An ad for the restaurant, uncovered by Purple Yam and Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, Assistant Professor of the History Dept at the San Francisco State University, says the restaurant serves “Philippine, American, Chinese, and Spanish dishes.”  A sign of creeping Americanization, or of the diversity of Filipino culture?

No mention of balut, though. I bet those in the know could ask for it.

Today, immigrants from the Philippines account for 4% of the foreign-born population in the United States; only Mexico, China, and India send more of their sons and daughters to make a new life in this country.  There are easily a dozen Filipino restaurant in the city now, and probably many more, tucked away in the right neighborhoods, offering a little bit of comfort to those far from home.

Living History: Tea and Two Slices


In the late 1920s, George Orwell compiled his first full-length book. Although Down And Out In Paris And London wasn’t an epic novel about a dystopian future, the origins of his later works could be found in this semi-documentarian, semi-autobiographical look at the criminalization of the poor.

In the first half of Down and Out…, Orwell gives a grueling account of the French food industry; he worked in Paris as one of the lowliest kitchen staff buried in the basement scullery of a hotel. But even more fascinating was when Orwell’s main character returns to his hometown of London, and through a series of misfortunes ends up living life as a penniless “tramp” for a period of several months. Orwell, too, lived amongst the homeless while he was a young journalist: he wandered in and out of shelters with the permanently poor, and became critical of the housing and diet of these men, the latter being “tea-and-two-slices.”

Ironically, just off the boat from France, Orwell”s main character orders tea-and-two-slices with a sort of welcome nostalgia.  Standard 1920s British diner fair, it’s a mug of tea with milk and sugar, and two slices of toast spread with margarine. But as he gets caught up in the system of cheap lodging houses, work houses, and prison-like shelters called “spikes,” it is the only food offered to the homeless.  “Food..had come to mean simply bread and margarine, which will cheat hunger for an hour or two,” Orwell writes.

“It follows that the ‘Serves them damned well right’ attitude that is normally taken towards tramps is no fairer that it would be towards cripples or invalids. When one has realized that, one begins to put oneself in a tramp’s place and understand what his life is like. It is an extraordinarily futile, acutely unpleasant life…hunger, which is almost the general fate of tramps.  The casual ward [a sort of shelter] gives them a ration which is probably not even meant to be sufficient, and anything beyond that must be got by begging–that is, by breaking the law. The result is that nearly every tramp is rotted by malnutrition; for proof of which we need only look at the men lining up outside any casual ward.”

Orwell’s book goes so deeply, and personally, into societal views of poverty that I can’t even scratch the surface in this post. Go on and read it, it will fascinate you.  But in an odd sort of tribute, I’m going to reenact the part that fascinated me the most: the ongoing march of tea-and-two-slices, this very British meal that was the insufficient fuel for an army of homeless men. Four meals today: 8am, 12pm, 4pm, and 8pm–tea, bread and margarine only.  I’ll update this post with thoughts throughout the day.

Update 12pm: A few words on margarine: I hate it.  I hate the mouth-feel and greasy taste. My future husband & my temporary roommate LOVE it. That’s part of the reason I’m doing this experiment now, because there’s an economy sized tub of it in the fridge.  I haven’t been able to figure out why margarine was so incredibly popular in England – maybe someone out there can clue me in – but this line from Down and Out is particularly telling:

“An ordinary London coffee shop, like a thousand others…’Can I have some tea and bread and butter?’ I said to the girl.

She stared. ‘No butter, only marg,” she said, surprised. And she repeated the order in the phrase that is to London what the eternal coup de rouge is to Paris: ‘Large tea and two slices!’

Daily Mail UK online has some things to say about margarine.

Black tea with milk and sugar is one of my favorite things in the world, however. And sipped slowly over many hours, it does stave off hunger, as many an Irish domestic knew.

Update 4pm: I get really hungry about two hours after eating.  The tea always helps–I’m very happy when I’m filled with sugar and caffeine.  Tea is a drug, that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, helped the poor get through their day and functioned as a substitute for food when there was none.  The “lower classes” were also constantly criticized for spending what little money they had on frivolities like tea and sugar; or so it was perceived, in England and on this side of the ocean. Perhaps today’s replacement is coffee or Mountain Dew.

Update 8pm: I had my last tea-and-two-slices an hour early.  What I ate at 4pm didn’t satisfy me at all.  I was having trouble thinking and remembering by 5pm, and by 6 I had to go have a lay down. I feel weak, sick and confused.  When I ate my final meal at 7, I felt full, but gross. I really thought today would be a cakewalk–who doesn’t love tea and toast? But I cannot imagine eating this, and only this, day after day.  It would destroy you.

I think I might have a banana and some peanut butter before I go to bed.  Don’t judge.

Origin of a Dish: What Was So Great About Sliced Bread Anyway?

We’ve got a guest blogger on FPF this week: Aaron Bobrow-Strain the author of the new book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.  Below, Aaron gives us a little teaser history of sliced bread and the reactions it garnered when it was first released.


When Frank Bench, the owner of a nearly bankrupt bakery, and his friend Otto Rohwedder, an equally down-at-the-heels inventor, successfully ran the world’s first automatic bread slicer in Chillicothe, Missouri, they accomplished something nearly every member of the American baking establishment thought impossible—and utterly stupid.

By July 1928, when Bench and Rohwedder’s surprising product debuted, retail bakers had used machines to slice loaves at the point of sale for years, but few in the industry believed that bread should be automatically sliced as it came off the assembly line. Bread was too unruly. What would hold the sliced loaves together? How would slicing affect the chemistry of taste? What would prevent sliced bread from rapidly molding or staling?

Rohwedder’s designs for the automatic slicer dated back to 1917, but he found no takers for the idea and had almost given up hope. For Bench, installing the machine was a favor to his friend and a last shot in the dark. What did he have to lose?

The results astounded all observers. Sales of sliced bread soared 2000 percent within weeks, and a beaming Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune reporter described housewives’ “thrill of pleasure” upon “first see[ing] a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows…indefinitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand.” News spread rapidly. Sliced bread took off first in Missouri,Iowa, and Illinois, then spread throughout the Midwest by late summer 1928. By fall 1928, mechanical slicing had hit New York, New Jersey, and the West Coast. By 1930, 90 percent of all store-bought bread in the country was automatically sliced.

Some bakers dismissed sliced bread as a fad, comparing it to other Roaring Twenties crazes like barnstorming and jazz dancing. Nevertheless, as bakers wrote in frantic trade magazine articles, anyone who resisted the new technology would be crushed by the competition.

An automatic bread slicer. source:

While awaiting deliveries of mechanical slicers from hopelessly backordered manufacturers, bakers asked themselves a logical question: What’s so great about sliced bread? “Why does anyone want sliced bread anyway?” one baker wrote. “The housewife is saved one operation in the preparation of a meal. Yet, try as one will,the reasons do not seem valid enough to make demand for the new product.”

He had a point. How much extra work is it really to slice your own bread? And what about housewives’ “thrill of pleasure”? A little saved labor couldn’t explain a reaction like that. Why did so many people care so much about perfectly neat slices? What had sliced bread come to symbolize?


Aaron tracks down the answers to these questions in his new book, and the answers will surprise you.  He says “…It may get you thinking twice about our own confident visions of what counts as ‘good food.'”  Ok, my interest is piqued.

But I want to throw this question out to you, readers: What do you think was/is so great about sliced bread?


The History Dish: Peanut and Cottage Cheese Sandwiches

Peanut Butter and Cottage Cheese: a non-threatening sandwich.

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.