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.
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.