Meet Tom Bernardin–the EXPERT of Ellis Island. He has been labeled as author, speaker, interpretive historian, tour guide, foodie, preservationist and storyteller–oh yes–and expert. Tom began his love affair with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island back in 1978, before the restoration began, before the island really took in many tourists. He attended a small training program to become a tour guide and after a few seasons, the relationships he established with the workers as well as immigrants and their families would change his life forever.
One element that arose over and over again as he learned more about those that passed through the “golden door”, was the significance of the recipes and food culture that the immigrants had brought with them into their new country. It was a means of securing the memories of their earlier lives. Impacted by their desire to preserve their past and their heritage through their food, Tom conducted a national recipe search. From this search, stories and recipes flowed in from immigrants and their descendants, anxious to share this part of their lives.
Humbled and moved by their responses, Tom constructed the Ellis Island Cookbook with deft and respectful writing. Along with writing and publishing his cookbook, Tom also conducted side lectures on the history of Ellis Island and continued to work as a tour guide several months out of the year. Over twenty years later, you can still find Tom ushering groups around the island.
Everyone loves Tom. When I called the National Park Service, he was praised. When I spoke to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation (SOLEIF), they gave me his contact information right away. If I wanted to write anything about the statue or island, I was told he was my guy for information. I was excited to meet him, and when I did, he didn’t disappoint.
Before attending the tour, I didn’t know how I’d feel as a Native American, learning about all the immigrants who had come to the U.S. Would I still have a connection to the place? If most of my ancestors had come from the soil I was already standing on? Tom must have thought about the same thing, because after he had done a little research about me, he made sure to show me a small Native American burial plot located on the back side of the large Ellis Island Museum. I would have missed it if it had not been for him. I threw tobacco and lavender on the plot to give my respects.
As I heard the immigrants’ stories and learned more about their struggles, hopes, dreams and, yes, the food culture they brought with them from abroad, my heart swelled with a deep understanding of their plight and determination. Since moving to New York, I have had to conjure that same determination each day in order to “make it in the Big Apple.” I wondered if the Italian-American family touring with us was experiencing the same. I asked them why they came. They said they had brought their son to see New York City, and especially Ellis Island, because he was about to join the military. They wanted him to know better the country for which he may be required to fight. I can’t explain the images in my mind about how we are all connected in some bigger way, but it flooded my thoughts. I hoped the very best for him.
From time to time, I would delve into a large ziploc bag Tom had brought with him on the tour–cookies from his cookbook. He also shared small bags of them with the workers on the island. I ate too many, but, hey, what can you do? It was a once in a lifetime experience, right? I planned on hunting down the recipe from his cookbook as soon as I got back.
I’m not going to tell you all the history that I learned on that tour. I’ll let you all experience that for yourselves on your next trip to New York City. I am no Tom Bernardin! What I will tell you, is that you will be joining one of MILLIONS of guests to the island and statue each year. I’ll also tell you that his cookbook is moving and full of amazing recipes. I continue to say that I don’t believe you know someone until you have eaten with them, but when those people have long past, you just may reach them through cooking one of their recipes. Thank you Tom, for continuing their story.
—Elise McMullen a.k.a The Galavant Girl
Today, Tom is working on Volume II of the Ellis Island Cookbook. You can submit to him your stories and recipes through his website at www.ellisislandtours.com.
Here’s a tip if you are planning on taking the tour… You must have a ticket to reserve your SPOT IN LINE to get on the ferry to the island. You can do that through http://www.statuecruises.com/. Enjoy!!