What People Ate While They Were Held At Ellis Island

ellis island

For many of the immigrants who entered America in the late 19th century, Ellis Island provided a portal to a new life. Sure, the Statue of Liberty was impressive. But it was in the imposing redbrick Immigration Building, with its high-ceilinged Registry Room, that immigrants learned whether they would be welcomed to America or sent back home.

It’s estimated that 40 percent of Americans today are related to someone who came through the island. That’s 100 million people! The immigration station opened on January 1, 1892. That very first year, 450,000 people hoped to make it into America. The station’s peak years occurred between 1900 to 1914; they processed as many 5,000 to 10,000 people a day.

Not every immigrant had to set foot on the island, though.

If they traveled in their ship’s first or second class, they received documentation on board. Then they headed straight to their destination. Meanwhile, passengers who already spent weeks crammed into the steerage quarters had to wait for ferries to shuttle them from the ship to the island to begin the immigration process.

While History.com estimates that 80 percent of people only spent a few hours on the island for their medical and legal checks, anyone who failed could be detained. It sometimes took weeks. While waiting for the immigration services to determine their final destinations, the people lived and ate on the island — so close to the land they traveled so far to reach.

Here’s what those detainees ate and drank until they learned their fate at Ellis Island.

1. Mustasole 

Not the delicious kind of cookie.

As passengers disembarked onto the island, they may have had some of the food they packed for the voyage to tide them over before their next meal. But ship food was no picnic! The first and second-class passengers enjoyed table service in their lavish dining rooms.

But the passengers below deck often brought provisions to bolster their meager meals.

According to the Smithsonian, the travelers ate black bread, boiled potatoes, and stringy beef. But many of the Italians made their own mustasole, a very dry cookie that softens when damp. It lasts for years and gets stuck in your teeth!

2. Prunes Over Dried Bread

Straight from the pail.

Faced with the daunting task of catering to people from so many different countries, the staff at Ellis Island often gave up. They resorted to the universally unappetizing combination of prunes on rye bread.

Workers brought pails of prunes and slices of bread into the mess hall, attempting to communicate that it was supper time.

For beverages, the immigrants could have tea with milk and sugar. Although Edward Corsi, Ellis Island’s Commissioner of Immigration from 1931, once commented impatiently, “No one can make tea for an Englishman.”

3. Baked Beans

An old New England dish.

Ellis Island employees satisfied the hunger of large numbers of people with baked beans. But back then, they didn’t come from a can. Americans made the most of beans’ high protein content since before the USA even existed. Settlers picked up the idea from Native Americans.

In the 18th century, everyone took their pots of beans to the village baker at the end of the day.

All of the beans were loaded into the oven to bake overnight. They became a weekend meal. They could be prepared on Saturday and left in the oven for the Sabbath on Sunday when many people refrained from cooking.

The beans sound quite filling.

However, the Ellis Island staff apparently served them alongside prunes and bread — not our favorite combination!

4. Hard-Boiled Eggs

People flocked to Ellis Island from all over the world.

Consequently, catering to the religious beliefs of the incoming immigrants could prove challenging. One particular group of Islamic men refused to eat any food that was caught in the shadows of people they believed to be infidels.

Unfortunately, that included all the staff and cooks on the island.

To get around this, the staff gave them hard-boiled eggs. The men could remove the shells and enjoy the unsullied egg inside. Now that’s egg-ceptional service!

5. Ice Cream

A sweet welcome to America.

They say the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach. The officials at Ellis Island seemed to decide that ice cream would endear the new arrivals. There’s a record of people trying ice cream for the first time that dates back to 1906. And in 1921, a newspaper ran the headline, “Ellis Island Authorities Gently Lead Immigrants to Appreciation of Good Points of America by Introducing Them to the Pleasures of Ice Cream Sandwiches.”

Ice cream was perceived as a classic American food.

But iced desserts existed around the world for centuries! Supposedly, the first people to enjoy icy treats were members of the Tang Dynasty in China, who ruled between 617-908 AD.

6. Kosher Food

But it took a while.

Of the 12 million immigrants who entered the U.S. through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954 (when it closed), three million were Jewish. Many fled anti-Semitic persecution that was rampant in the Russian Empire and other parts of Eastern Europe, including Poland, Belorussia, Lithuania, Rostov, and Yekaterinoslav, especially after 1881.

However, after disembarking from their long voyages, the Jewish passengers found the island didn’t have any kosher food.

In 1911, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which was created in 1902 by recently arrived Russian Jewish immigrants, set up a kosher kitchen on the island to make sure Jewish arrivals could get something to eat.

7. Coffee

America’s patriotic beverage.

According to a record from 1902, the center served coffee with milk and sugar for breakfast alongside bread and butter. Like ice cream, though, coffee predates America. But the caffeinated drink is an essential part of the country’s collective consciousness. (See: Friends, Gilmore Girls, the rise of Starbucks, and all the “But first, coffee” T-shirts for proof.)

It took a major historical event to get Americans to adopt coffee, though.

We’re talking about a little thing called the Boston Tea Party. In 1773, Americans dumped a shipment of English tea into Griffin’s Wharf in Boston, MA, to protest paying taxes without getting representation in the British Parliament. After that, colonialists drank coffee as a patriotic act, making it even more fitting way to welcome immigrants to America over a century later.

8. Bananas

A new experience.

Bananas grow in tropical climates. So many people from distinctly not-tropical European nations never encountered the fruit before reaching Ellis Island. Based on people’s stories, it seems that new migrants received a banana right before they left the island for their next destination.

Eating a banana for the first time, however, could be perplexing.

Some people learned from watching others, but some fell victim to pranksters who assured them that they were supposed to eat the skin…

9. Mutton With Gravy

What ewe want.

In July 1917, dinner at Ellis Island often involved boiled mutton served with brown gravy and peas. Interestingly, though, mutton may not be considered a very traditional American dish. Many people still enjoy it. Mutton really just refers to sheep meat that isn’t lamb, and the word originated in England in the Middle Ages. It was meant to distinguish the food eaten by the rich French invaders, who recently conquered the nation, from the animals the peasants looked after.

10. Box Lunches

Were they an act of charity or a money-making scheme?

While the dining hall catered to the people detained on the island, immigrants who passed the medical and legal checks had to find their own food (bananas aside). According to some sources, everyone received a free box lunch on their way off the island.

Other sources suggested the travelers had to pay for the boxed lunches with their own money.

Apparently, the food stands that sold wares to the newly arrived immigrants clued into the captive audience economy. History.com reported that a box lunch on Ellis Island cost $2 — nearly $30 today! It makes Coachella prices seem almost reasonable.

11. Apple-Core Pie

It wasn’t the American classic we all know and love.

Not everyone enjoyed the food on Ellis Island. In 1911, one recent arrival from Russia told The New York Times that many detainees nearly starved to death. And a 1913 Department of Labor investigation discovered something rather disturbing. Apparently, food contractors on the island sold pies made from apple cores. They also seemed to peddle rotten fish and tainted beef and lamb. The island’s poor culinary reputation continued into the ’20s. So it wasn’t all ice cream and roast dinners!

12. Crackers

Women and children only.

Crackers made up a large portion of the detainees’ diets, especially for women and children. According to an account from 1902, women and children received crackers and milk at breakfast and at a meal called dinner that may have been lunch. One Ellis Island arrival, Angela Maria Pirrone, who stayed at Ellis Island for 31 days in 1924 while her mother rested in the hospital, recalled that she and the other children had their graham crackers and milk at 3:30 P.M. every day.

13. Baked Potatoes

The taste of home.

Another filling staple, the potato appeared not just on travelers’ voyages but on their tables in the Ellis Island dining hall. It was baked rather than boiled, according to one menu. Many European immigrants were likely familiar with the root vegetable. For example, Irish people typically ate so many potatoes that when an organism known as P. infestans spread through the country in 1945 and killed off most of the potato crop, over a million people died as a result.

The loss devastated the country.

In fact, this disaster partly spurred a million Irish people to leave their native land for America. In fact, an Irish teenager named Annie Moore became the very first person to officially enter the U.S. via Ellis Island.

14. Milk

With every meal.

Milk was pretty common on Ellis Island. Adults drank it in their coffee and tea. Children had it with their crackers. By the time Ellis Island opened its doors, milk was already considered a health-boosting staple. For one thing, some people considered it pure, thanks in part to the misguided and horribly problematic belief that the color white signaled superiority.

People also knew the dairy product contained fat, carbs, and protein — all of the good stuff.

This love affair continued into the 20th century. American biochemist Elmer McCollum even praised milk as “our most important foodstuff” in 1918. And the first school milk programs started in the 1940s, ensuring generations of American children grew up thinking of cow’s milk as an essential part of a healthy diet.

15. Thanksgiving Dinner

An introduction to the most American holiday.

Sorry Halloween, but Thanksgiving really is the most American holiday on the calendar. Ellis Island made sure to give migrants a warm introduction to their new country’s national holiday. A newspaper article from 1894 reported that the 350 detainees on the island during Thanksgiving received turkey, vegetables, pies, and puddings. A great way to start a new life!

Would you have been satisfied with the food on Ellis Island?

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