When Joseph Haas landed on Ellis Island, he was overwhelmed. The undernourished 14-year-old had been on a boat from Germany for weeks. He was alone. As he entered the Great Hall, he heard a cacophony of languages. The day was a blur—but almost 70 years later, he still remembered eating his first meal in America, a boxed lunch that cost two of the ten dollars he carried in his pocket.

Haas was just one of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who ate at the most expansive food operation ever seen at the time—quickly dubbed “the world’s largest restaurant.” In steerage, poor immigrants like Haas had to subsist on food they brought along for the journey—if seasickness allowed them to eat at all. They arrived starved for fruits, vegetables and a square meal. But feeding 5,000 people or more per day wasn’t always easy, tasty or ethical.

All told, about 12 million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island between its opening in 1892 and its closure in 1954, some three million of them before 1900. Anyone who fed those masses was sitting on a potential goldmine—and the American government let private businesses get in on the action when it allowed contractors to bid for an exclusive three-year contract to be the island’s concessionaire, or single food provider, in 1892.

There were two ways to eat on Ellis Island: at food stands that sold snacks and boxed meals to immigrants on the move, and in dining halls for immigrants who were detained on the island—some for weeks at a time—due to health or visa issues. Though none of the food on Ellis Island was free, it was a better deal than what could be found outside the island. Those who waited to eat until they left Ellis Island were often tricked into paying exorbitant prices by merchants who waited on shore to bilk them out of what little money they had. And for detainees, most of whom had already eaten the food they brought with them for their long journeys overseas, there were no other food options at all.

Dinning Room for detained immigrants at Ellis Island. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

It was a largely captive audience, and vendors did not expect hungry new arrivals to be picky about what they ate. “There is a fine chance for defrauding ignorant immigrants,” wrote a reporter in The New York Times. It was tempting for contractors to serve small quantities of low-quality food and to encourage immigrants to buy boxed lunches they didn’t really need.

The Ellis Island food stands were similar to the prepared foods kiosks that can be found in modern-day airports. People would choose from a brief menu of sausages, breads, prepared sandwiches, apples and other goods, hand over their money, and move on. The island’s dining halls, including one that seated 1,000, were just as brisk. People sat close together on benches in front of rough wooden tables and were often segregated by sex. Sounds of silverware and different languages rang through the air as people gulped down their basic meals.

Many immigrants spoke no English and were unfamiliar with American money. They had no idea what was a reasonable price for a meal and many were so exhausted they thought the restaurants were part of the actual immigration process. They dutifully ate unpalatable meals of stewed prunes over dried bread, with some concessions for immigrants who kept kosher.

To make matters worse, the government began to award contracts to inexperienced vendors. In 1902, they gave the concession to Hudgins & Dumas, a company run by two newspapermen with no experience in food service. Other bidders—many of whom had bid less than the new firm—were furious. They filed lawsuits and initiated investigations, but Hudgins & Dumas held on to their contract for years.

Finally, tensions over meals boiled over when immigrants began to accuse Hudgins & Dumas of serving insufficient and even rotten food. “The people are half starved there,” Karl Lewis, a Russian refugee who went through Ellis Island in 1911, told The New York Times. “The hungry people grab, in addition to their own, the portions belonging to other people.” In 1913, the Department of Labor opened up an investigation.

One of the twenty-five cent meals served at Ellis Island, 1920. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

Their findings were shocking: Month-old pies made of apple cores and skins, barrels of tainted lamb and beef, rotten fish and flimsy sandwiches. Workers told investigators that the contract didn’t provide enough money to purchase high-quality food. Others were fired before they could testify. But others claimed that the food was fine and that the investigation was just a witch hunt designed to oust Hudgins & Dumas.

Frederic C. Howe, the commissioner of immigration for the Port of New York, suggested that the government stop the contracts and serve meals itself—and pointed out financial connections between the concessionaires and Congressman William S. Bennet, who had been Hudgins & Dumas’ attorney. When the contract expired in 1916, Howe refused to renew it.
Bennet retaliated by proposing legislation that forbade the government from providing food at Ellis Island and smeared Howe as a socialist and accused him of allowing prostitutes and criminals to enter the country.

Howe’s suggestion of a solution to the concession problem couldn’t have come at a worse time: World War I was raging and the government was increasingly worried about Bolsheviks and Communists. Things came to a head after the Russian Revolution, when the government tried to force Howe to deport suspected radicals without due process. Rather than do so, Howe resigned in 1919. “Things that were done forced one almost to despair,” he later recalled. For Howe, more than food was rotten at Ellis Island.

But what about the food itself? After Hudgins & Dumas’ dirty reign, the Department of Labor took over concessions for a year. Then, the practice of choosing a single concessionaire to provide food for the entire island was re-instituted, but with less profit and more government oversight like regular inspections and better audits.

The system may have improved slightly, but the food didn’t get much better. There was no more rotten food, but as late as 1925, near riots were reported over food quality among detainees. By the time Ellis Island closed its doors in 1954, it had been associated with detention, deportation, and disgusting food for years. Life in America might be sweet, but for many, it began with stewed prunes—and a sense of disillusionment as to the immigrant experience.