Immigrant Meals from the Late 1800s

Immigrant meals in the 1800s

I recently discovered a cookbook titled “Fifteen Cent Dinners for Families of Six“, an 1877 version of a budget friendly cookbook for immigrants living in New York City. Originally published by Juliet Corson, this cookbook is now part of the American Antiquarian Society’s cookbook collection

Corson, the founder of the New York Cooking School, published the 44-page pamphlet during a time when poor immigrant families were prevalent in New York City. Many lived in squalor. 

Juliet Corson New York Cooking School

Juliet Corson in 1888. Source: Wikipedia

The pamphlet was free, and targeted families with the main wage earner (then, the man of the house) earning between $1.00 and $1.50 per day. 

To give you some sense of what these families earned in today’s dollar, 15 cents in 1877 is equivalent to $3.41 today … and these were meals for a family of six … parents, and four children of various ages. The 1877 wage range equivalent in today’s dollar is $22.73 to $34.09 per day, or $682 per month before taxes … for a family of six. 

Immigrants in New York City 1900

Immigrants in New York City in 1900. When this photo was taken the immigrant population was 76% of New York City’s overall population. Source: World Digital Gallery

In her cookbook, Corson stresses the use of absolutely everything, wasting as little as possible. She talks about using and reusing meat broth for soups and sauces. She teaches readers how to select seconds (less than perfect) in cuts of meats, but stresses the importance of fresh vegetables. All of her tips and recipes are engulfed in her concept that the foods suggested will help provide for health and strength … and they would have.

Immigrant meals in the 1800s

Example of a weekly meal plan provided by Corson.

Waste Not, Want Not

One thing I noticed immediately while reading the cookbook was a lack of eggs. There were, however, multiple uses for beans, grains, and boiled meat. There was a lot of boiled meat! Boiling meat provides broth that can be reused later. Broth makes great soups … my vegetable beef soup is a modern-day example of how to reuse meat broth. Broth can also be used to boil rice or oats, which provides additional nutrients to the grains that you wouldn’t get simply with water. 

Ultimately, a family who followed the recipes and tips on how to reuse and keep food would eat well and be healthy, especially considering living conditions of immigrants in New York City at the time. 

From 1877 to 2016

Unfortunately, there are families living on this or less even 139 years later. While noodles (spaghetti) with a flour and butter based sauce from last night’s meat broth might not sound appealing today (I think I could make that work!), the same rules apply. Cooking from scratch and being frugal allows you to stretch ingredients much farther than buying prepackaged foods at the grocery store – even cheap ones.

We weren’t poor growing up – if we were, I never knew it – but we had some lean years. I remember Mom going to the grocery store with $25 for the whole week … for several years. There were three of us – Mom, Dad, and me – and two dogs. Mom made it work, just like her mom had made it work … and I’m thankful that I learned those lessons. I still pay attention to food waste when I cook. I keep bacon grease, reuse broth, freeze carcasses to make stock when I have time, and grind stale bread and crackers to make breadcrumbs for frying. Trust me, it’s easier to just toss what’s left and buy breadcrumbs, but I can’t! Unless I’m totally out, then I hit the store.

Think of ways you can reuse and stretch your food … and let me know what you come up with!


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