Ellis Island Dining

I went to Ellis Island last weekend and happened upon a part of the museum where they talked about how meals were served and what the dining experience for someone who had just arrived to New York would have been like. They were required by law to provide food for anyone that had been detained and forced to stay on the Island so they needed to cook large meals for hundreds of people at a time.   At the exhibit they had pictures of the immigrants eating and accounts of what the food was like. They also had examples of the plates and the museum’s dining area actually had chairs and decor which resembled the ones that were there when it was still a functioning immigration center.

One of the dining areas on Ellis Island.

Because there was such an array of cultures arriving, there was no way to be able to serve them foods that were common and familiar to everyone there. Oreste Teglia an Italian immigrant that arrived in 1916, was interviewed in1985 about her experience while she was on Ellis Island. She said, “We got oatmeal for breakfast, and I didn’t know what it was, with the brown sugar on it, you know. I couldn’t get myself to eat it. So I put it on the windowsill, let the birds eat it.” Not all of the foods were unknown to them, but a large majority of them were.

There was also an example of a typical menu for the day, taken from a report from the Department of Commerce.

“Hon. Robert Watchorn,

Commissioner of Immigration

Ellis Island, N.Y.

Sir: I have the honor to report that on Monday, November 19, 1906, the bill of fare in the immigrants dining rooms was as follows:


Coffee with milk and sugar, and bread and butter.

Crackers and milk for the women and children.


Beef stew, boiled potatoes and bread.

Smoked or pickled herring for hebrews.

Crackers and milk for women and children


Bread Pudding, Stewed prunes, rye bread, with milk and sugar.

Crackers and milk for women and children.

The food was well prepared and each immigrant was served with a sufficient quantity. The waiters were attentive and the dining rooms were clean.


Signed Joseph E. Murray

Asst. Commissioner.”

I transcribed the report because unfortunately the picture that I took of it was too small to be read on this post. It’s interesting to see what their daily meals were like! In addition to the milk that was given to the women and children during regular meals, the children would have been delivered warm milk in the mornings and the afternoon as well. Brought around by a man in white, like this picture. He would bring milk to all of the kids that were lined up each day. There was something that stuck out in Donald Robert’s mind about this ritual. He was a Welsh immigrant who arrived in 1925 and in his interview, this is what he said stuck out as his most prevalent memory

 Shannon Bailey