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The Foods That Passed Through Ellis Island

I have a co-worker who collects old cookbooks, and she recently lent me an interesting one: The Ellis Island Immigrant Cookbook by Tom Bernardin, a former National Park Service ranger who gave tours at Ellis Island before its renovation in the 1980s. The book, first printed in 1991, is a collection...

Immigrants arrive at Ellis Island. Courtesy of Library of Congress

I have a co-worker who collects old cookbooks, and she recently lent me an interesting one: The Ellis Island Immigrant Cookbook by Tom Bernardin, a former National Park Service ranger who gave tours at Ellis Island before its renovation in the 1980s. The book, first printed in 1991, is a collection of recipes and reminiscences from immigrants who passed through the historic New York entry point, and their children and grandchildren.

"In giving tours of Ellis and talking with the immigrants," Bernardin writes in the introduction, "I became aware of how important food was to their experience, not just on a nutritional level, but as a means of bringing with them, and preserving, this part of their earlier lives."

But first they had to make it here. For most immigrants who didn't travel first- or second-class, the sea voyage to the United States was far from a cruise ship with lavish buffets. Passengers in steerage survived on "lukewarm soups, black bread, boiled potatoes, herring or stringy beef," Bernardin writes. Josephine Orlando Saiia, of Greenfield, Wisconsin, contributed a recipe for an Italian cookie called mustasole that she says sustained many immigrants on the long voyage, because they "are very, very hard when dry and become chewy when damp—like an ocean voyage. They do not spoil, can be eaten for a year, keep well with no crumbs... I have one that's fifty years old."

The fare served to immigrants detained at Ellis Island wasn't much of an improvement over the steamships. In the early years, stewed prunes over dried bread was a standard meal. Later, ethnic and kosher meals were incorporated; during what must have been a disorienting and stressful experience, finding familiar foods was probably comforting—provided the immigrants showed up for the right seating for their ethnic group.

Those who made it through Ellis Island and onto the mainland still had to contend with strange new foods. Bananas, in particular, were a puzzle to many.

Carol M. Rapson of East Lansing, Michigan, recalls that her grandmother arrived by herself from Yugoslavia in 1901. She spoke no English, so the workers at Ellis Island put a sign around her neck that listed her destination, gave her a banana, and put her on a train. "She did not know what to do with it, as she had never seen a banana before," Rapson writes. "She watched, and when others peeled and ate the banana, she did the same."

But another contributor remembers that her husband, also from Yugoslavia, was told by some prankster that he should eat the skin and throw out the inside, a mistake he never made again.

Even as these immigrants learned to negotiate their adopted home, though, tastes of home remained important, as the numerous recipes for everything from orahnjaca (Croatian nut roll) to Finnish pulla bread attest. "Soon they would shed their old clothes, learn to speak some English and, reluctantly or not, become Americanized," Bermardin writes. "But their love for their foods from the old country was something they could not and, thankfully, did not give up."

As someone who still adores my late grandmother's mohn (poppy seed) cookies, passed down from her Russian-Jewish mother, I couldn't agree more.
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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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