What Immigrants Ate After Arriving on Ellis Island in the Early 20th Century

Max Miller of Tasting History prepared a typical meal of what European immigrants at the turn of the 20th Century would eat when they finally landed on Ellis Island.

From much of the early 20th century Ellis Island  is where the ancestors of 40% of US citizens entered the country looking to start a new life. And while most people only spent a few hours on the island, there were some who had to stay longer. And so they would have been eating meals like this one of beef and barley soup, tapioca pudding, bread and coffee.

Miller decided upon beef stew and tapioca pudding, which he prepared while explaining what the immigration experience was like for people of different classes. The classism and bigotry, mixed with the corruption and politics that governed the process, meant that the meals were less than appetizing for those who could not afford first or even second class travel.

See when the island first opened there was a lot of corruption, and so the contractors who were in charge of distributing the food would often skim off the top… In these early years the menu often consisted of stewed prunes spooned right out of a can on top of some dry bread. Add to that the fact that there was never enough kitchen staff so the bowls and cups were often used and reused used without washing.

When these conditions were made known, President Teddy Roosevelt formed a committee to improve the food and experience of incoming immigrants.

In 1903 president Teddy Roosevelt visited the island to learn about its operations, and he was not impressed and so he created a committee to look into the island, and to solve the issues that he saw and shockingly it worked. By 1906 we see menus that include beef stew, baked beans,and even taking into account dietary restrictions of the Jewish immigrants.

The first decade of the 1900s was the busiest time for Ellis Island, and it was very difficult for the facility staff to keep it clean. Another investigation uncovered that rotten food was being served to immigrants, and eventually it was improved again with the termination of the catering company.

So in 1913…it was the brand new Department of Labor who started an investigation and they found that moldy bread and rotten fish were being served and they got some pies that were apple pies opened them up and found just apple cores. … It wasn’t until 1916 when the contract was up that the new commissioner of the island just decided not to renew.

Miller tasted the food he made from these early recipes and found that it wasn’t bad, just not particularly tasty by modern standards.

I mean there’s a lot of broth to  it, so it is definitely more like a soup than a stew, but there is a lot of flavor in there…. it has this unctuous kind of greasy mouth feel to it. Not unpleasantly so but it makes it so it feels much more substantial than than I feel like it actually is…And now the pudding.  … It’s not as sweet as a modern-day tapioca pudding would be.  It’s not as- it’s just a lot more firm.

Lori Dorn
Lori Dorn

Lori is a Laughing Squid Contributing Editor based in New York City who has been writing blog posts for over a decade. She also enjoys making jewelry, playing guitar, taking photos and mixing craft cocktails.