cooking

Who’s Feeding the Immigrants?

We have all become accustomed to seeing pictures on our screens of the crowds of asylum seekers on America’s Southern border. We tend to focus on the woebegone faces of women and children who stare at the cameras and into our hearts. It’s easy to forget that this isn’t the first time the country has been coping with crowds of people trying to find safety within our borders. A hundred years ago we were facing a rush of people entering at several ports, the largest one was New York where Ellis Island was the entry point for immigrants. And somehow all of them were processed, fed, and sent on their way. The government contracted out restaurant services to people who found profit in the lucrative business. Here is a 1913 report.

Immigrant family at Ellis Island

“The contractors who feed the immigrants on Ellis Island in New York harbor run the largest restaurant in the world. Eight cents a meal is the regular price there; 8 cents for breakfast, 8 for luncheon, and 8 for dinner. American plan. The detained immigrants are entitled to three meals a day, and 40 nationalities pass through the portals of the land over which Miss Liberty stands in her green gown smiling down on all alike. One week last summer brought 30,000 immigrants to the Island–Dutch, Slav, Croation [sic], Pole Magyar, Greek, Russian, Italian–all with a liking for different cooking. It was the biggest reception of newcomers Miss Liberty has had in any week since 1907. Each one is taken into account in the enormous kitchens where more meals are prepared in a day than anywhere else in the country. ..A thousand at one meal is not unusual; 5,000 meals a day are only an incident of the rush season. The contract calls for 1,000,000 meals a year, and the price for supplying them is $80,000. At 8 cents apiece the profit for the contractors is less than a cent each–a matter of mills. Just how many depends somewhat on the prices asked by farmers–on the general supply and demand.”
—“Serve 8-Cent Meals: Ellis Island Contractors Run Largest Restaurant in the World,” from Leslie’s Magazine, Washington Post, October 28, 1913 (p. 6)

During the 19th century, and especially in the years after the Civil War, thousands of immigrants poured into cities and towns. These newcomers joined the thousands of farmers and other rural people who moved into cities. All of them added to the changes in America’s food habits. Housewives had to make do with store bought food instead of family-grown animals and plants. And soon teachers, news reporters and middle-class people in general were deploring the bad habits of working people in the cities when it came to food.  

Over the years, a number of reformers have tried to help Americans learn how to cook healthier, inexpensive food to feed their families. Back in 1883, when America was suffering through one of its worst depressions and many people were unemployed, a woman named Juliet Corson decided she could help people eat right by teaching them how and what to cook. Born in 1841, Juliet leaned to cope with poverty when her stepmother kicked her out of the house and told her to earn her own living. Juliet became a librarian at the Working Woman’s Library and discovered how difficult it was to feed a family on small wages. She started giving cooking lessons to women and then to children in New York City and soon began writing books about cooking and household management.

Her most successful book was called, believe it or not—Fifteen-Cent Dinners for Workingmen’s Families—and she gave away an edition of 50,000 copies. It was even reprinted in a daily newspaper. The menus she included were wholesome with easily available ingredients. The book suggested meals such as rice and milk for breakfast and corned beef and cabbage for dinner. It included tips for choosing meat and vegetables at the market. Many readers were delighted with the ideas and thanked Corson profusely, but, as always, not everyone was pleased. Some union leaders objected to the book’s distribution on the grounds that if the bosses thought workers could feed their families so cheaply, there was no need to raise wages. It seems as though you can’t win when you give advice about what people should eat.

Food may seem a steady, solid part of our lives, but it has been constantly changing and is still changing as Americans come from more varied backgrounds and cultures. I found much of the information I include here on a fascinating website about food history called Food Timeline. It includes articles and references to the food used by native Americans,  how food has been served and eaten through the centuries, and how it was distributed in various specific places like Ellis Island and on military bases.

What will you have for lunch?

In the New York Times recently, Bettina Elias Siegel reports on the state of school lunches in France as shown in Michael Moore’s new documentary film Where to Invade Next. To many of us who have watched children’s reactions to food over the years, it is surprising to learn that in a village in Normandy, French school children Juliet Corsonare served “scallops, lamb skewers and a cheese course” for lunch. That sounds like a gourmet’s dream, but of course if this meal were served in an American school there would have to be many other options—what about the vegetarian children? or the ones who are allergic to fish? Or cheese? Most American children have learned to be picky and opinionated about food before they even start school. Siegel (and the film) contrast the French school with a typical American high school where the students choose pizza, French fries, and other unhealthy meals for lunch, washed down with sugary soft drinks.

Siegel makes many good points in her article pointing out that Americans are unwilling to support the infrastructure that would allow children to be given healthy, locally-sourced food for their school lunches. Americans have opted out of paying any but the lowest taxes possible to support children’s needs, in the expectation that competition among corporations will somehow provide the best options for school meals. Are we really surprised that this hasn’t worked? Instead of an array of healthy foods, most school districts yield to the economic necessity of presenting children with the cheap, highly-processed foods they have learned to enjoy. Perhaps the time has come when we should teach our children to prepare their own school lunches. They might surprise us.

Over the years, a number of reformers have tried to help Americans learn how to cook healthier, inexpensive food to feed their families. Back in 1883, when America was suffering through one of its worst depressions and many people were unemployed, a woman named Juliet Corson decided she could help people cope with poor wages by teaching them to cook. Born in 1841, Juliet leaned to cope with poverty when her stepmother kicked her out of the house and told her to earn her own living. Juliet became a librarian at the Working Woman’s Library and found out how difficult it was to feed a family on small wages. She started giving cooking lessons to women and then to children in New York City and soon began writing books about cooking and household management.

Her most successful book was called, believe it or not—Fifteen-Cent Dinners for Workingmen’s Families—and she gave away an edition of 50,000 copies; it was even reprinted in a daily newspaper. The menus suggested were wholesome with easily available ingredients. The book suggested meals such as rice and milk for breakfast and corned beef and cabbage for dinner. It included tips for choosing meat and vegetables at the market. Many Juliet_15 cent dinnersreaders were delighted with the worked and thanked Corson profusely, but, as always, not everyone was pleased. Some union leaders objected to its distribution on the grounds that if the bosses thought workers could feed their families so cheaply, there was no need to raise wages. It seems as though you can’t win when you give advice about what people should eat.

Juliet Corson had a successful career as a writer and lecturer and she started the New York Cooking School, one of the first successful cooking schools in the country. Although she charged her middle-class students for their lessons, she always provided free lessons to those who could not afford to pay. She was a pioneer introducing the teaching of cooking into the public schools in America and Canada. Nonetheless, she died in poverty at the age of 57 in 1897, and the teaching of choosing food and cooking has almost disappeared from American schools. Perhaps it is time to revive the idea.