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What makes a food "American"?
Nearly all of today's popular U.S.A foods (
apple pie, hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, tacos, chocolate, jelly beans, ice cream, steak, potato salad, watermelons) originated in other countries. Their ingredients and recipes were introduced to our shores by colonists, settlers, and immigrants. Native ingredients play a key role but they do not tell the entire story. In fact, many of the "new world" foods arrived to the USA via Europe.

"American foods" These generally fall into six categories:

1. Native foods
There are several varieties of vegetables, nuts, mammals and fish that are indigenous to North America, most notably beans, corn and squash (the "Three Sisters" upon which several Native American diets were based) and the American bison. Some of these foods also had "Old World" varieties (strawberries). Indigenous recipes included succotash, corncakes, and baked squash. Need a list of New World foods?

2. Hybrid dishes
---Old world recipes adapted to include new world ingredients. Example: cornbread.

3. Ethnic blends
---When diverse cultures/cuisines settle together in a region, foods mix. Example: Chop Suey

4. Regional specialties ---The American Melting Pot stirs up taste of place. Example: Tex-Mex

5. Generic traditions & food fads
---Caution: the history of these items can be traced to the Old World. Examples: corn dogs, Chex mix, & Rice Krispies Treats.

6. Manufactured goods (items foreigners typically associate with "United States")
---The sky's the limit here. Take your pick: Campbell's tomato soup, Moon Pies, Kool-Aid, Jell-O, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner, TV dinners, Coca Cola, McDonalds, Hershey Bars


USA culinary traditions & historic surveys


Native American foodways
Most sources oversimplify the topic of Native American foods, concentrating primarily on the Three Sisters: maize, squash and beans. Native American foodways is not one cuisine, but several. Foods, procurement methods, cooking techniques, dining customs, and religious observances varied greatly from tribe to tribe. Native Americans depended upon local foods. Peoples living in the northeast ate very different foods (maple syrup) from those living in the great plains (buffalo), southwest (cactus) and Pacific northwest (salmon). Agricultural communities had different food issues from nomadic peoples. Peoples living in cold climates employed different preservation techniques from those living in deserts.

Chumash.....Iroquois/Eastern Woodland..... Lenne Lenape/Delaware.....Ojibwe.

General observations
The earliest print descriptions we have of Native American foods were written by Europeans, who often had no clue what they were seeing and/or eating. They did their best to describe what they saw based on their own personal knowledge. Socio-cultura bias and subsequent translations/ references sometimes rendered inaccurate information. These early reports (from California mission fathers, French fur traders, English colonists) are being re-examined for accuracy. About California Mission foodways.

Native Americans ate the foods which were indigenous to their regions. Generally, the "Three Sisters," (corn, beans and squash) was known in some form in most parts of the future United States. Other foods generally consumed were nuts, berries, fruits, fish, and small game (rabbits, squirrels, etc.). Peoples living near oceans included shellfish in their diets; Peoples living in the northern regions tapped maple syrup; Plains Indians hunted buffalo etc. Some Native American peoples placed great emphasis on structured villages and agriculture; others lived a more nomadic life, following their food source.

Columbus and subsequent foreign settlers (most notably originating from Europe, Asia and Africa) had a tremendous impact (to a certain extent) on Native American foodways. Some of the primary impacts were:

  1. The introduction of "Old World" plants, animals, and spices to the "New World" This is often referred to as the "Columbian Exchange"--these included pigs, oranges, apples, cattle, grapes, onions, olives, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, watermelon, peas, etc.
  2. The introduction of "Old World" recipes and "white man's foods" to "New World" inhabitants Flan, paella, wine, whiskey, biscochos, apple pie, ice cream, sauerkraut, baking soda etc.
  3. Tools & techniques As the white man pushed deeper into Native American territory, goods (foods, horses, guns, farming tools, cooking utensils, etc.) were bartered and exchanged. Native Americans working in missions, forts, and other encampments were exposed to new ways to grow food. This ultimately impacted both the way Native Americans obtained food and the foods they ate.

The impact of European foodways on Native American cooking [1492-1850] differed greatly according to region and tribe. Native Americans encountering Spanish settlers were exposed to different foods than those exposed to French, English, and Dutch cuisines. In each case, the exchange of foods (this worked both ways) was unique. In places where Native Americans worked closely with the European settlers (Southern California missions) the impact was much greater than places where encounters were less friendly and regular (Sioux Nation). Some tribes eagerly embraced new foods and recipes; others shunned them.

"There were many nations of Native Americans living on the land that European settlers occupied, and they were the object of much curiosity. Something is known of their foodways at the time the Europeans came to America because explorers, naturalists, and travelers often commented on the Indians, describing what they ate, how they dressed, how they sheltered themselves, and what they hunted or grew for food. Native American tribes across the country lived in different ways, but most grew corn, beans, and squashes, and hunted both large and small animals. They gathered wild fruits, nuts, seeds, roots, and plants. Obviously, the wild foods they used depended a great deal on where they lived. The developed grinding and pounding technology to make flour from grains, seeds, and nuts, and to extract oil. They had cooking containers that allowed them to heat foods in liquid, and they had methods of roasting and baking. They also had food preservation techniques and developed portable foods for traveling... Their primary grain, corn, was cooked and eaten 'green' (ripe but not dry)...Dry corn kernels were also parched, roasted until the kernel swelled slightly and dried...The Native Americans also grew beans, which, like corn, were used, both fresh and dried, or sometimes combined with corn and other ingredients in stews. Beans were also cooked, mashed, formed into cakes, and dried for later use. Indians grew pumpkins and squashes, ate them fresh, and dried them. Wild roots, berries, groundnuts (not to be confused with peanuts), pokeweed, persimmons, strawberries, wild legumes, and many other foods were included in the Native American diet...Although there are no accounts written by the Native Americans themselves of what they ate before the arrival of Europeans, a few descriptions of Indian dishes were recorded by travelers and newcomers, and they make it possible to visualize the Native American dishes through white men's eyes."
---Food in Colonial and Federal America, Sandra L. Oliver [Greenwood Press:Westport CT] 2005 (p. 128-129)

There is much discussion and controversy regarding the effects European colonialism/foodways had on Native Americans. Some argue the the "Columbian Exchange" launched a new and interesting cuisine. Others think "white man's" foodways was a contributing factor to the erosion of Native American culture and society. Case in point: None of the ingredients of contemporary "Navaho Fry bread" are Native American ingredients. It is more closely related to the Spanish sopaipilla.

Recommend sources:

Iroquois/Eastern Woodland, general traditional observations, undated
"One regular meal per day seems to have been the rule, although early writers record the preparation of two meals among the Huron. An Onondaga informant remembers when some of the older people had no regular meal-time. Members of the family ate whenever they felt like it. A big bowl of soup, however, was cooked in the morning. They usually worked for a while, then came in an ate the soup or corn bread...The meal is usually announced by the woman of the house...The men, as a rule, are helped first, the women and children coming after. The serving in former times was done directly from the pot into bark or wooden dishes, chunks of meat being handed or tossed to those desiring a portion...Wooden spoons or ladles, come of considerable size, were used for dipping and eating liquid foods. These are mentioned frequently by early historians , also the fact that each guest,upon being invited to a feast, was expected to bring his own dish and spoon. Each one ate in silence, either sitting or standing...Anyone coming in at meal-time is invited to eat and is expected as a matter of etiquette to take something."
---
Iroquois Food and Food Preparation, F.W. Waugh, facsimile 1913 edition [University Press of the Pacific:Honolulu HI] 2003 (p. 46-47)

Ojibwe/Chippewa

"The people living along the north shore of Lake Huron were migratory except for certain seasons of the year when they remained in those locations most productive of fish or when they planted and harvested their crops. The Saulteaux, Mississauga, and Amikwa undertook some gardening, but because of adverse climatic conditions their corn did not always ripen...In any event, none was dependent their crops...During the summer, Indians, on a regular basis...traveled to Sault Sainte Marie. The rapids there supported an extensive fishery during September and October...Dexterity and strength were needed to be successful. An individual had to stand upright in a bark canoe among the rapids and thrust a dip net deep into the water to se cure the fish. The operation was repeated over and over again, six to seven large fish being taken each time, until a load was obtained...The Saulteaux, Mississauga, and Nikikouek left their gathering centers in June and dispersed along the shores of lake Huron. The Missisauga before doing so gathered at the mouth of the Mississagi River where they took sturgeon and other fish...The Amikwa secured trout, sturgeon, and whitefish. The Saulteaux and Amikwa during the fall gathered blueberries, which they preserved for the winter; the Saulteaux speared sturgeon. When the crops were nearly ripe, the people returned home. At the approach of winter, they again moved to the shores of Lake Huron where they killed beaver and moose.They did not return to their gathering centers until spring when they again planted their gardens."
---Handbook of North American Indians, William C. Sturtevant general editor, Volume 15: Northeast, Bruce G. Trigger volume editor [Smithsonian Institution:Washington DC] 1978 (p. 762)

"Little information exists about the way of life of the Southeastern Ojibwa during this period [1760-1830]. On many of the islands on the north shore of Lake Huron from the French River to the Missisagi River, they continued to raise limited quantities of corn. Some who resided during the summer at Sault Sainte Marie went to the west during the winter to hunt. The main animals taken were deer, raccoon, beaver, and marten. Each family had its own lands with the exclusive rights to hunt upon them...Apparently at this time 'family trapping territories' emerged in southern Ontario as a mechanism of resource allocation. A major subsistence activity of the Southeastern Ojibwa was fishing. On the borders of Lake Ontario, the Ojibwa speared salmon and other large fish by torchlight from a canoe. Along the north shore of Lake Huron, sturgeon fisheries were exploited during the summer...The Ojibwa who resided at Sault Sainte Marie and other from surrounding areas depended as formerly upon the productive whitefish fishery occurring in the Saint Mary's River. These fish, weighing between 6 and 15 pounds each, formed a large portion of the native people's winter provisions. Once caught, they were dried over a smoky fire...Where possible the Southeastern Ojibwa gathered wild rice, maple sap, and other vegetal products. The Ojibwa of Sault Sainte Marie often relied upon maple syrup for food, and its preparation was an important activity. In the spring, after the winter search for furs and during the final muskrat hunt the women left for the maple groves to make sugar, some of which they bartered to the traders. While the women collected the sap, boiled it, and completed the sugar, the men were busy cutting wood, making fires, and hunting and fishing, in part to supply food for the camps. Occasionally, Indians lived solely for a time upon maple sugar."
---ibid (p. 763-764)

"Farming, 1830-1930. As the occupation of southern Ontario and Michigan by Europe-Americans continued, the Ojibwa had to restrict their movements and utilization of the land more and more...The Ojibwa rapidly adopted farming in the extreme southern part of Ontario and Michigan between 1820 and 1840 and somewhat later to the north. For a time, farming appears to have been on a rather extensive scale. The people raised hay, wheat, oats, peas, Indian corn, potatoes, and other vegetables, and kept livestock; some families had small orchards...the Ojibwa also collected wild rice and maple sap, hunted and fished...wild rice was an important food, although maple sugar was probably more so...Hunting and fishing supplied the Southeastern Ojibwa with food...Undoubtedly, considerable variation existed from group to group depending upon the availability of game resources...To the north...the Indians wen fishing in the fall, during the winter took rabbits and partridge, and then in the spring planted their cops...The Indians hunted primarily deer, occasionally bear and duck, and most other forms of wildlife...Fishing may have been more important to the Indians of southern Ontario and Michigan than hunting or trapping during the nineteenth century. The Ojibwa around Sault Sainte Marie, as in the past, lived on whitefish summer and winter...Another form of economic activity engaged in by the Ojibwa was the sale or barter of food to non-Indians..."
---ibid (p. 764-765)

"The vast and eclogically varied region covered by the Plains Ojibwa created a cult rural canvas on which diverse connections were drawn to the plains as well as Eastern Woodlands...In the earliest mentions of their life on the plains, the Ojibwa were reported to hunt buffalo largely during the fall and winter in small groups under the direction of a buffalo dreamer or poundmaker, using surround and impounding techniques...In later years, buffalo were procured more often in two large annual hunts, one in the summer for meat and another in the fall for meat and robes...Since Plains Ojibwa lived much of the year either in the parklands proper or at parkland oases in the midst of the prairies, they also hunted and trapped a variety of other game, including moose, elk, white-tailed and black-tailed deer, rabbit, muskrat, and quail. Indeed, for those living closest to the parklands, some of these species probably remained important in local food supplies...The Plains Ojibwa also fished...those closest to the parklands continued their reliance on wild rice, maple sugar, and other woodlands plant resources, while the ones living on the plains became more dependent on vegetable foods such as wild turnips...In both prairie and parkland environments, Plains Ojibwa were reported to grow native and imported crops, from corn to potatoes."
---Handbook of North American Indians, William C. Sturtevant general editor, Volume 13: Plains, Raymond J. DeMallie volume editor [Smithsonian Institution:Washington DC] 2001 (p. 654-655)

Frances Densmore's Chippewa Customs [1929] offers the most details on Ojibwe foodways. She notes that "Chippewa" is a modern term, used by the US federal government to denote the Ojibwe (p. 5). Food section is on p. 39-44.

"Prior to European contact, the Ojibwa demonstrated a great deal of respect for the cycle of nature and did not exploit its resources....According to the Ojibwa spirituality, the Sun is father to the people and the Earth is aki, 'that which is sacred,' and mother of the people and other living things. The interaction between the Sun and the Earth is what provides all that is necessary to sustain life...For this reason, food gathering activities were taken very seriously, and the products of the Creation were viewed as gifts rather than as commodities...Ojibwa bands gathered in summer villages to fish and plant gardens of corn, beans, squash, and pumpkins. Bands divided in winter and moved to their hunting grounds. Hunting, trapping, and fishing were means of subsistence in the winter. Spring villages were located near rivers where large numbers of fish were spawning. Women gathered berries and nuts and maple sap to make maple syrup and sugar in the spring. Fall encampments were designed to prepare food stores of rice, which was harvested from nearby rivers and lakes; agriculture which was harvested from nearby rivers and lakes,; agriculture harvested in August; and meat, which was often smoked or dried into jerky. Nets, bone and wood hooks, and spears were used for fishing...Ojibwa used the bow and arrow, snares, and deadfalls for hunting deer, moose, bear, beaver, lynx, mink, marten, otter, rabbit, and caribou in the North...The Ojibwa were resourceful in finding items in nature for cleaning and careful in exposing of refuse. Stiff brushes were used for washing cooking utensils and the hands. Dishes were washed on a nearby beach or bank of a river with lye and sand. Refuse not eaten by dogs was burned. In Chippewa Customs Densmore [the author] described in great detail the food that was consumed by the Ojibwa. Vegetarian foodstuff included wild rice, corn, maple sugar and syrup, pumpkins and squash (fresh or dried for winter), corn silk, dried pumpkin blossoms (used to thicken and give a special flavor to broth), wild potatoes, acorns, milkweed flowers, bulrush root, basswood and aspen sap, sweet substance found under the outer bark of woodpine, and moss from white pine. The Ojibwa did not drink water until it was boiled, usually with wintergreen, raspberry, spruce, or snowberry leaves or wild cherry twigs. Dried berries, wild ginger, bearberry, and mountain mint were used as seasoning. Bread was made from flour, salt, and water; it was kneaded into round, flat loaves and cooked on a frying pan placed on the fire or fastened on sticks stuck into the ground before the fire. Fish eggs were eaten, boiled or fried. Fish were eaten fresh or stored for later consumption by being dried or frozen. Ducks and pigeons and other wild birds were boiled with rice or potatoes. Moose and deer meat was boiled, roasted, or dried. Bear meat was cut into strips and hung by a flame to dry or put on high racks to freeze. Especially delicious due to its high fat content, it was prepared boiled. The bear head and paws were boiled and eaten as a delicacy. Very fatty, the liver and intestines were fried until crispy. Bear tallow was used for seasoning, as a remedy for rheumatism, or as a hair and skin moisturizer. Rabbit meat was boiled or dried. The bones were cooked and pounded into a powder that was mixed with grease exhumed from the boiled meat and eaten. All trapped animals except the marten were eaten. Beaver tails were a delicacy due to their fatty content."
---"Ojibwa," Gale Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, Volume I, edited by Sharon Maliowski and Anna Sheets [Gale:Detroit] 1998 (p. 194)

"Native cuisine was closely influenced by the seasons, as the Ojibwa changed camps in seminomadic pattern to locate themselves closer to food sources. For example, because the Ojibwa used maple sugar or maple syrup as a seasoning, during the late spring they lived near maple sugar trees. each family or group of families returned to a traditional location where they had stored utensils and had marked with an ax cut the trees they would tap. A typical sugar camp or sugar bush encompassed an area of some 900 taps or cuttings, with up to three taps make per tree. The Ojibwa collected maple sap in birch bark containers and poured it into vats make of moose hide, wood, or bark, and later into brass kettles, where it was boiled until it became syrup. The syrup was strained, reheated, thickened, and stirred in shallow troughs until it formed granulated sugar. Birch bark cones were packed with sugar, tied together, and hung from the ceiling of the wigwam or storage building. The Ojibwa also poured the sap into wooden molds or directly into snow to form maple sugar candy. Camps were moved in the summer to be close to gardens and wild berry patches. The Ojibwa cultivated gardens of corn, pumpkins, and squash. Dried berries, vegetables, and seeds were stored in underground pits. They drank teas boiled from plants and herbs and sweetened with maple sugar. The Ojibwa fished throughout the year, using hooks, nets, spears, and traps. Fish and meat were dried and smoked so they could be stored. In late summer the Ojibwa moved again to be near wild rice fields. Wild rice (in Ojibwa, mahnomin, manomin, or manoomin) is a grain that grows on long grasses in shallow lakes or along streams. As the edible rice seeds began to mature, families marked the area they would harvest by tying the rice stalks together, using knots or dyed rope that would distinguish their claim. The rice harvest was a time of community celebration, starting with the announcement by an annually appointed rice chief or elder that the fields were ready. One team member stood in the canoe pushing a long forked pole to guide the canoe through the grasses. The other team member sat in the canoe, reaching to bend the grass over the canoe and hitting the grass with wooden stocks called beaters in order to shake the wild rice seeds from the grass without permanently injuring the plant. On sure, the rice was dried in the sun, and then parched in a kettle to open the hull. A person in clean moccasins then 'danced the rice' treading on it to remove the hull and then tossing it into the air to winnow the chaff. A medicine man blessed the first rice harvested, and each ricing pair donated rice to a communal fund to feed the poor. Rice was often boiled and sweetened with maple sugar or flavored with venison or duck broth. Up to one-third of the annual harvest was stored, usually in birch bark baskets. The rice season lasted from ten days to three weeks. Ricers often poled through their sections every few days as the rice seeds matured at differing rates. They were also deliberately inefficient, leaving plenty of rice to seed the beds for the following year."
---"Ojibwa," Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America, Robert Von Dassanowsky contributing editor, Jeffrey Lehman volume editor, Volume 2, end edition [Gale Group:Detroit] 2000 (p. 1342-1343)


Regional & ethnic cuisine
If you need something not yet added to our site (Germans in Texas? Scandinavian-American traditions? Pittsburgh Polish? Jewish-American foodways?)
Let us know! The list below is only the tip of the culinary iceberg...

America, the melting pot
Every group of people who settled in American contributed something special form their traditional cuisine to our national "melting pot." Native North American, England, the Netherlands, West Africa, Sweden, Russia, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Scandinavia, Japan, Central Europe, India, and the Caribbean. In short? The first explorers were English, Dutch, and Spanish. These were the first non-native cuisines to take root in our country.

The impact of ethnic foods on American cuisine is a study of:

  1. Original culture...traditional foods, recipes, dining customs, religion--people eat "what they know."
  2. Migration patterns...where did these folks settle?
  3. Economics & labor... where did they work? farms, fishermen?
  4. Social adaptation & assimilation...think: corn bread, hot dogs, bagels & California rolls. The "Americanization" of ethnic cuisine. Fusion cuisine, anyone?
  5. Business patterns...1920s speakeasies, contemporary specialty restaurants, fast food joints and 5 star restaurants.
  6. Consumer behavior...soldiers returning from WWII craved international foods they tasted abroad: pizza! 1960s Tex-Mex trend ushered in mainstream taco stands. 1990s Sushi bars &c.

Recommended reading:


Ellis Island
Food served to immigrants at Ellis Island came from a variety of sources. Some were government issue, others were contacted out to private concessionaires, still others were provided by charitable organizations. In 1913 Ellis Island foodservice was proclaimed the
world's largest restaurant.

"Food at Ellis Island. When the federal government took over the responsibility of inspecting the immigrants in 1890, the idea of moving the inspection process to an island was attractive to the officials. Castle Garden, located on the mainland, provided too easy a target for the thieves and criminals that would prey upon the unsuspecting immigrants. In addition, by the time Castle Garden closed, the corruption within the inspection process was bordering on a public scandal. The concession contracts were often awarded by patronage, not for the quality of services they offered the immigrants. Officials hoped for a clean sweep of those mistreating immigrants. On the steamships, passengers were provided with little to eat in steerage except lukewarm soups, black bread, boiled potatoes, herring or stringy beef. In the early years, any hopes the immigrants had in receiving better treatment at Ellis Island were futile. It did not take long for corruption to find its way to Ellis Island. Surely the first concessionaire made himself a rich man at the expense of the immigrants' stomachs. The detained immigrants were generally served stewed prunes over dried bread. Often there was no cutlery. Bowls were used and reused without washing; floors and tables often went unwashed. When they were washed, it was often by an intimidated immigrant. As time went on, the commissioners became more involved in the treatment of the immigrants and the situation improved. Food, including thick soups and stews, became plentiful. The facilities were better maintained and, in time, ethnic and kosher meals were provided. This both solved and created problems. An immigrant appearing at the wrong seating might be exposed to unfamliar foods. White bread was thought to be cake; bananas were a complete enigma. How strange and frightening it must have been! As most of the immigrants were not detained and were destined for points outside New York City, provisions were made to supply them with some food for their train trips. Boxes of food, fifty cents for a small one and one dolllar for a large one, were sold to the immigrants in the railroad waiting room. The contents of each box were printed on the sides, with corresponding prices, in several languages: two pounds of bread, eight cents; one pound cervelat sausage, twenty-two cents; five sandwiches, twenty cents; four pies, twenty cents; two boxes of cake, twenty cents; oranges or apples, ten cents. Surely the immigrants wasted no time in tasting the contents of the boxes to sample the flavors of their new country. Mealtimes were one of the few times the detained immigrants were reunited with family members. Surely the enormity of their decision to come to America was hammered home when they sat down to eat and did not know what they were eating, or how they were to eat it. No doubt they were most anxious to recreate the comforting smells of the kitchens they had left behind."

Bill of Fare for Ellis Island Dining Room November 19, 1906
Breakfast: Coffee with Milk and Sugar, Bread and Butter, Crackers and Milk for Women and Children.
Dinner: Beef Stew, Boiled Potatoes and Rye Bread, Smoked or Pickled Herring for the Hebrews, Crackers and Milk for the Women and Children.
Supper: Baked Beans, Stewed Prunes and Rye Bread, Tea with Milk and Sugar, Crackers and Milk for Women and Children."
---Ellis Island Immigrant Cook Book, Tom Bernadin [New York] 1991 (p. 24)

Primary sources confirm Ellis Island foodservice was big business:
[1893]
"Opens the Door to Frauds: How Food is Sold to Immigrants at Ellis Island," New York Times, December 13, 1893 (p. 1)

[1902]
"When William Williams, Commissioner of Immigration at New York, awarded Hudgins & Dumas the contract for feeding immigrants who are detained at Ellsi Isalnd he stirred up a protest which was carried over the head to Secreatary Shaw to the President, and brought about a conference at the White House yesterday which was attended by Commissioner Williams, Secretary Shaw, President Roosevelt, and a number of New York men who represent the unsuccessful bidders for the contract. Commissioner Williams granted Hudgins & Dumas the contract for feeding detained immigrants at the rate of 30 cents a day for each person. Many of the other bids submitted were much less, one being a s low as 18 cents. The unsuccessful bidders sought an explanation of the commissioner's action. He said that he believed the men he had selected would furnish the most satisfactory supplies. This explanation did not satisfy the complainants and an appeal was made to Secretary Shaw, and finally to the president, who summoned Commissioner William Williams to Washington to make an explanation...Judge Jacob Neu, of Brooklyn; L.J. Obermeir, of New York; Henry B. Ketchum, of Brooklyn; Emil Schwab, of New York, who has the contract for feeding the immigrants at present...At the conclusion of the conferernce yesaterday Mr. Ketchum, who is attorney for one of the unsuccessful bidders, said: 'This affair is not ended. There will be further investigation. Mr. Williams' statement that he believes Hudgins & Dumas will bige the best service is not satisfactory to us. Both of these men have been employed in newspaper work. They are absoluttley without experience in the restaurant and eating-house business. Their bids are far higher than those contained in many of the other proposals. It is reported that they were influential in secruing the appointment of Mr. Williams. The steamship lines pay for the meals of the immigrants getained at Ellis Islnd,and thye are not willing to pay such a price when equally good meals could be had at lower figures. The reliability of many of the other bidders cannot be questioned. Last year the amoutn paid by the steamship companies for meals was $62,500. In addition to receiving this ammount of money, the contractor for conducting a restaurant, which is the source of considerable income.' The interview with the PResident was sought in order that the facts in connetion with the recent letting of contracts for the feeding of immigrants, the changing of their money, and for their transportation might be known. The conference lasted an hour, at the conclusion of which it was announced that Secretary Shaw remained firm in his position of accepting Mr. Williams' recommendations."
---"Feeding the Immigrants: Award to Hudgins & Dumas is Upholded in Washington," Washington Post, June 21, 1902 (p. 8)

[1908]
"The Secretary of Commercie and Labor to-day awarded to Firtz Bodt the exclusive privilege of furnishing food and maintaining a restaurant at the Ellis Isalnd Immigration Station from the date of the contract becomes in the near future until June 30, 1911. Eight proposals were rec ieved, and they were made on the basis of actual requirements during the past six months, when immigration has been very light, and alos upon estimated requirements when immigration is normal. Mr. Brodt's bid for supplying the service during light immigration was %519,250 and during normal immigration $1,077,750. Other bids during light immigration ranged from $560,550 to $773,400, and during normal immigration from $1,211,450 to $1,560,200. The contract for feeding incoming aliens at the station at Ellis Island when the reform movement came at the close of the administration of Comissioner Fitchie went to the firm of Hudgins & Dumas. Harry Balfe, who is holding it at present, succeeded Hudgins & Dumas. This year both were bidders for the contract, and it was announced that Balfe had been the successful bidder. The it was suddenly announced that all bids were called off. Hudgins & Dumas were asid to have the backing of Bennet and Balfe that of Tim Woodruff. It is said that Mr. Balfe contends that he has been regularly awarded the contract, and he will go to law to prevent the granting of the privilege elsewhere."New York Times, October 16, 1908 (p. 12)

[1910]
"Bids for supplying food in the immigration station on Ellis Island were opened yesterday by Commissioner William Williams. There were thirteen bidders, and the figure quoted for the board of aliens ranged from 20 to 35 cents a day. The contractor up to a few days ago, was Fritz Brodt of this city. The contract calls for distinct grades of food and a fixed quantity for each person. The specifications even state how much ham must be put in a sandwich, and how much milk in a glass. When Commissioner Williams succeeded Robert Watchorn as Commissioner, he said Brodt was not living up to his contract. Charges were preferred atainst him, and after a trial his cotnract was oredered annulled at sixty days' notice. The figures at which Brodt held the contract were 6 cents for breakfast, 10 cents for dinner, and 6 cents fro supper. This does not govern prices in the restaurant for employes or the selling of boxes of food for immigrants traveling by train. One of the lowest bidders was Daniel Slatterly, former secretary of Police Commissioner, Bingham. The three lowest bids submitted were the Union News Company, 5 cents for breakfast, 9 cents for dinner, and 6 xcents for supper; Slattery & Sturtevant, 5 cents for breakfast, 9 cents for inner, and 7 cents for supper, and Hudgins & Dumas, 7 cents for breakfast, 8 cents for dinner, and 9 cents for supper. The highest bid was 11 cents for breakfast, 13 cents for dinner, and 11 cents for supper. The Union News Company runs food stands in railroad stations in addition to selling papers. Daniel Slattery heads the firm of Slattery & Sturtevant, Hudgins & Dumas were the holders of the food contract when Williams was Commisssioner of Immigration som years ago. The bids were sent to Washington and the announcement of the award will be made there."
---"Lowbids for Food Contract," New York Times, January 18, 1910 (p. 18)

[1911]
"The food given to the immigrants at Ellis Isalnd is not suficient. The people are half starved there, and thererfore, when the tables are set, there is agina a scramble--the hungry people grab, in addition to their own, the portions belonging to other persons." At first I felt too embarrased to join in this fight, and I remained without bread. Later I did all I could to get my portion, though I never took anything that was intended for another."
---"Siberian Prisoner Flees Here and Gets a Shock," New York Times,, January 29, 1911 (p. S(unday)M(agazine) 5).

"To the Editor of the New York Times: In your issue of Jan. 29, 1911, Magazine Section, Page 5, you published an articel headed 'Siberian Prisoner Flees Here and Gets a Shock.' The article purports to be a description by one Karl Lewis, a Lettish immigrant. of his experiences while detained at Ellis Island. This alien, who, as the article itslef shows, was detained 'because his tatements before the Board of Inquiry at Ellis Island were not truthful at rfirst,' and who, as the official records show, made false statements under oath before the board, has received the freedom of your columns to utter a libel upon the undersigned, who are operating uner Government supervision the commissary contract here, by stating that 'the food given to immigrants at Ellis Island is not sufficient' andc that 'the people are half starved there,' besides makding assertions of similar character, which are open into a general denunciation of the legal procedcure at Ellis Island. 'We do not believe The Times would knowingly permit an abuse of this kind any more than it would close its columns to a jsut criticism; but it does see to us, inall fairness, that an ex parte statement, emantating form such a source, should have been made the subject of inquiry before publication. The commissary quarters at Ellis Island are wide open to inspection. There is nothing about the place trhat we are not pleased to exhibit and explain. The food, which is of the grade and variety specified in a contract drawn by the Government, is plain but whholesome and bountiful--quite as good meal for meal, we believe, as will be found on the table of the average wage worker throughout the country. Every item of food, as shown on the daily bill of fare, is checked up by Government Inspectors, a different official being present at each meal, while Government watchmen and matron sare always in attendance to see that every reasonable need it met. Representatives of the various missionary and immigrant aid societies are in and out of the dining room during meal hours looking after their special charges. They have the freedom of the place and have authority from us to procure delicacies in caese wehre delicacies seem to be required. In addition to the regular meals, milk and crackers are served twice day and at night to children throughout the building...Morever, the cleanliness of the great dining hall and the good quality and abundance of the food provided are constantly remarked by sightseeing visitors, settlement workers, and investigators. These facts are so well known to so many disinterested persons and are so easily obtainable that we feel sure you will share our regret that proper sources of information were not consulted prior to the publication of the statements in the article that so injuriously reflect on us. Hudgins & Dumas, New York, January 31, 1911"
---"Speak for Ellis Island," Hugdins & Dumas, New York Times,, January 31, 1911 (p. 8)

[1913]
"The table that Uncle Sam Speads at Ellis Island is clean, appetizing and abundant, according to an article in the New York Mail. About a million meals are served there. The immigrants' dining-room has many wincdows, looking out toward the country whither these new citizens have made their way, and like everything else about this, their first hostelry, is scrupulously neat. In it the tables are covered with white paper, constantly renewed, and the men is provided directly under United States official orders. It includes soup, fish, meat, vegetables, fruits and cereals. The bill of fare for any one day, as given, sounds wholesome and sufficient and the food is well cooked. The guests eat until satisfied. There is not better kitchen in all the land than this great modernly-equipped food center of Ellis Island."
---"Immigrants Receive Good Food at Ellis Island," The Christian Science Monitor, July 15, 1913 (p. 19)

"An investigation of the charges that unfit food was sold to immigrants at Ellis Island by private contractors was begun yesterday by the Departments of Commerce and Labor...A number of month-old pies and a loaf of moldy bread were place on the table before the commission as a sample of some of the foodstuffs at the Island...'It is not fair to judge this bread by its present condition after a month...I simply offer it for the purpose of having it analyzed to determine if bread made from pure and wholesome flour would show such impurities as may be seen in this broken loaf.' Dr. McCombs has analyzed these samples of eight pies, supposed to be fruit pie, such as we saw sold to the immigrants, and found they were made of apple skins and cores, with the addition of seventeen currants top each pie...In one pie we did not find anything at all; it simply had a dash of color on the top...' He told how admission to the kitchen of the immigration station had been refused to the party, and it was not allowed to inspect any part of the food supply system...'We had gone to the Island to inquire about a reported shipment of tainted fish...We talked to Inspector Alexander who told us that the food was so bad that the employees carried their own supplies and cooked for themselves... ...I tried to buy four of the 50 cent boxes of food sold to the immigrants. They refused to let us have any on the grounds the food was intended only for immigrants. A man told us we had no business being there and told us to get out...On August 1st the Research men returned to the Island and were permitted to make an investigation. 'We found tainted meat in ice boxes with good food...there was a barrel of rotten beef and lamb. Hudgins came in and told us that the meat was to be creamated. He said 150 pounds of spoiled meat had to be burned daily. I asked him why such meat was shipped to the island, when the specifications in the contract called for Waldorf-Astoria beef. His answer was to bring in the chef who said it was always customary to burn the spoiled meat...The witness said the meat and cheese sandwiches sold in the cartons prepared for immigrants showed short weight. Referring to the pies again, he said the so-called lemon pies...were made of dough, starch and sweetened water. 'Is it practicable for food to be supplied in accordance with the prices and specifications of the contract?'...'Impossible!' the witness replied. It is hypocritical to attempt it. The prices are eight cents for each meal in the immigrant restaurant, or twenty cents per day. The rates should be at least twelve cents each for breakfast and lunch and fifteen cents for dinner, or thirty-nine cents per day. One of the great defects of the system is that no provision at all is made for nursing mothers and children in the way of food supplies...The food at the Island for adult immigrants should be of some standard quantity and quality, and the variety should be cut down to plain and simple wholesome food...Hudgins and Dumas were represented by ex-congressman William S. Bennett. George H. Mann was counsel for several of the employes and former bidders and contractors for the restaurant priviledges."
---"Tells of Bad Food at Ellis Island," New York Times, August 13, 1913 (p. 5)

"Henry Bouzereau, a chef once in the employ of Mrs. John Nicholas Brown at Newport, testified before the special commission of the Department of Labor yesterday in the investigation of food conditions at Ellis Island. He said that during five months he was chef for Hudgins & Dumas, the contractors for Ellis Island, and at that time the immigrants received excellent food. When he was asked how he qualified to appear as an expert witness, Bouzereau, now head cook in a Manhattan hotel said: 'For some time I had charge of the cooks' school in the United States Training School in Newport, with 200 men under my supervision: I was chef for Capt. N.E. Niles on the receiving ship Hancock at the Booklyn Navy Yard and had served as chef for various society people in Newport'...'Would you say that the meat served to the immigrants was as good as that served in the navy?' asked [the] examiner...'Yes,' replied Bouzereau. He went on to day he was employed at Ellis Island from October, 1912 to February, 1913, when he had to resign because the contractors could not afford to pay him the wages he desired. During that period he said he had not seen bad meat or bad food served at any time. 'Was there a daily custom of burning spoiled meat at the Island, as has been testified here, because it was unfit for food?' he was asked. 'I knew of no meat creamatory there. Good roast beef was served to the immigrants three times weekly. It was as good as could be found in many hotels.'"
---"Ellis Island Food Defended by Chef," New York Times, September 11, 1913 (p. 6)

"When the special commision engaged in the investigation of the Commissary Department at Ellis Island resumed...a former Government employe who had been ordered to appear as a witness failed to respond, and a search was made for him. Later the commission was notified that the missing man, George Schultz, had been provided with a ticket for some place in Pennsylvania, wehre a new position had been promised to him. He departed over night. Schultz, who had been employed at Ellis Island by the Government as a chief water tender until Agustu 28, when he was dischareged with four others, had volunteered to testifiy on behalf of the complanants against the contractors who have the food privileges. Schultz went before the commission late on Friday, just before the session for te day closed, and he was ordered to return the next morning at 9 A. M. At 11 P. M. on Friday night he telegphoned to Fritz Lindinger...who was one of the uncuccessful bidders for the Ellis Island contract, and said that he was forced to go away at once to get work. With this information Alfred W. McCann, the chief complainant against the Ellis Island conractors, went before the Ellis Island commission and said: "I saw the cook, Bouzereau, pick out a piece of veal from a barrel condemned to be burned and prepare it to be fried up for use. Once I was served with a bad stea, which I picked up and slapped against the face of the Polish cook. The chief steward returned to me my money the next morning, 25 cents.'"
---"Ellis Island Food Witness vanishes," New York Times, September 14, 1913 (p. 4)

"The special commission, named to investigate the charges made against Hudgins & Dumas, who have the contract for running the restaureant for supplying food for immigrants at the Ellis Island Immigration Station, has made a report ot Secretary Wilson of the Department of Labor, finding that the charges are unfounded. Several recommendations are made, intended to improve the restaurant service and the sanitary conditions about the place. The commission recommends that provisions contained in the specification for the inspection of all meats by a representative of the Bureau of Animal Industry, be rigidly maintained. That smoked chipped beef, or hard-boiled eggs be substituted for canned beef and the boxes or cartons prepared for the aliens. That a counter be maintained for the sale of a greater varitey of arcicles, including assorted size bottles of milk, covering as far as possible, the desires and needs of various people passing through Ellis Island, who do not care to purchase the boxes, or cartons. Segregation of races, consistent with orderly dispatch, in immigrants' dining room, and insistence, so far as possible, upon proper table decorum."
---"Uphold Ellis Island Men," New York Times, October 4, 1913 (p. 22)

"In a statement criticising the report of the special commission's investigation of the immigrant commisary at Ellis Island, presented to Secretary Wilson of the Department of Labor, finding that the charges of bad food having been served to immigrants were unfounded, Dr. William H. Allen and Henry Bruere, Directors of the Bureau of Municipal Resaerch, said yeasterday that the methods pursued by the commission were similar to those which whitewashed Ahearn, Tweed, and Senator Stilwell...The methods used by the Ellis Island Investiating Commission never found the facts anywhere about anything...The nation-wide publicity given to the propsoed investigation several weeks in advance of its beginning demanded that the fullest and most exhaustive competent record of evidence of prices paid, quaintities c onsumed, quantities rejected, and inspections made, complatins received, &c., be heard and considered, in order that the findings be convincing and conclusive. Comparing verbal testimony of disgruntled contractors and discharged former employees with interested present contractors and their subordinates, and offsetting the one against the other, could only produce and erroneous conclusion, and is not propler for the purpose of this particular investigation. Prices of foodstuffs were not sought, and no prices put in evidence except upon the consent of the contractor's procedure, which would never disclose any discrepency between the specification and the deliveries. The number of boxes of food sold to immigrants, and therefore involved in the question as to thoroughess of inspection, was not allowed to be shown...this investigation has been conducted as through the comnplaint were for the purpse of ousting the present contractors."
---"Ellis Island Food Inquiry Denounced," New York Times October 5, 1913 (p. 3)

World's largest restaurant?
"The contractors who feed the immmigrants 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 take into account in the enormous kitchens where more meals are prepared in a day than anywhere else in the country. There are old men and women, babes and children of different ages and different conditions of health, and Uncle Sam and Miss Liberty are so mindful of them all as to require food that will meet the requirements of each one. No hotel in New York has so large and ensure a lot of patrons. 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)

Charitable aid organizations fed their own:
"Italian charitable societies also played a part in the emergence of a singular Italian American food cultures. Organizations such as the Italian Welfare League in New York distributed food to newly arrived immigrants in need, to stowaways detained at Ellis Island, to people being sent back to Italy after failing to pass inspection, and to the distressed in the community. Relying upon local food merchants for donations, volunteers for the charity distributed spaghetti, canned minetrone soup, tomato paste, fresh fruit, cheese, beans, rice, chicken, veal, sausage, 'food that Italians like.'"
------Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration, Hasia R. Diner [Harvard University Press:Cambridge MA] 2001 (p. 16)

"Jewish immigrants arriving after the 1870s entered into a well-structured and complex universe of Jewish philanthropy set up to cushion distress...The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS, worked out an arrangement with officials at Ellis Island to provide kosher food for Jewish detainees."
---ibid (p. 187)


Military rations Official Military cookbooks were issued by the government. Standard recipes served 100 men. We own (& are happy to share)
The Navy Cook Book/United States Navy [1944]
Army Recipes/War Department Technical Manual TM 10-412 [August 1946]

Recommended reading: Chow: A Cook's Tour of Military Food/Paul Dickson...best overall summary of USA military food from the colonial era to present. Chock full of photos, recipes, historic notes (The Cooks Creed 1862, Uses for Stale bread 1945), castaway cookery & extensive glossary of military food terms.

Did you know? The Culinary Institute of America was established in 1946 to provide education for returning WWII Veterans?


Recommended reading (general)


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Research conducted by Lynne Olver, editor The Food Timeline. About this site.


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© Lynne Olver
16 May 2014