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College Has 300 Year Food Problem

Riots and Class Wars Mark History of Student Protests

By Edward J. Sack

In 1639 the first head of Harvard College was fired largely because he served poor food. Around 1800 food battles became so violent that the University had to abandon the idea of a common table. In 1926 Dean C. N. Greenough said he would welcome suggestions on how to solve the "food problem." Last year Dean Bender asked the Student Council to conduct a poll on what students thought of the food. Throughout this 300 year history of food problems many changes in the dining system occurred, always whenever protests became widespread and proved to be well founded.

Food complaints fall easily into a cyclical pattern. First, the founding fathers insisted that all students be served at a common board. After 200 years of establishing a reputation for poor food, the University abandoned the Commons and let students fend for themselves around the square and in clubs. Agitation for a University-sponsored dining hall soon began and resulted in a voluntary commons at Memorial Hall in 1874. Support of this system finally waned, and in 1923 Memorial Hall was abandoned. Immediately pressure began for a good dining system. This movement ended in the present house system, which has grown into a sprawling $3,000,000 business. Once again, student protest has been rising, attacking the quality of this system.

Foul Hasty Pudding

The University's food problem started very early in fact it was the school's first problem and quickly developed into a major crisis. The Pilgrim Fathers, eager for as many parental restrictions as possible, decreed that all students must eat at a common table, an insistence which plagued administrators for the next 200 years. With Mr. Nathaniel Eaton as the school's entire faculty, students ate in his home. He was charged with serving mostly "porrige and pudding, and that very homely ... without butter or suet." The students maintained they received "hasty pudding with goat's dung in it, and mackerel served with their guts in them." They further claimed, "The swines and they had share and share alike." Because of general discontent with Eaton's conduct and the proved charges about the food, he was fined, deposed, and forced to flee to Virginia in 1639. He later died in debtors' prison.

Reverend Henry Dunster succeeded Eaton and built the first college buildings, placing the dining room in Harvard Hall. In spite of his more orderly system, and the largest kitchen in New England, the College had established a reputation for poor food that, according to one historian, "clung to it for more than two centuries."

Food Fights

Toward the end of the eighteen century, students developed the habit of expressing disapproval of the food by throwing it around the room and staging huge class fights. One student was suspended for hitting a professor with a baked potato. If he had missed the professor, it would have been considered part of a normal fight. In 1766, the disapproval took the form of the The Great Butter Rebellion, which was only quelled when the Corporation requested the Royal Governor to read the Overseers' resolutions and enforce them, which fortunately occurred peacefully. Several years later, the Rotton Cabbage Rebellion occurred, which was settled without outside aid.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the culinery battles raged so fiercely that the Administration took radical steps to keep the idea of a common eating table. Since most of the warfare took the form of inter-class fights, the Common was transferred to University Hall in 1816, and each class had its own room on the first floor. But this only made things worse, for the restriction turned out to heighten class spirit. Circular holes in the walls soon appeared, and missiles went flying through them. A typical freshman-sophomore fight on a Sunday evening in 1819 was commemorated in the poem, "The Rebelliad:"

When Nathan threw a piece of bread And hit Abijah on the head, The wrathful freshman, in a trice, Sent back another bigger slice, Which, being buttered pretty well, Made greasy work wher'er it fell, And thus arose a fearful battle, The coffee-cups and saucers rattle, The bread-bowls fly at woeful rate, And break full many a learned pate.

Regardless of their shins and pates, The bravest seiz'd the butter-plates, And rushing headlong to the van, Sustained the conflict man to man.

The cause of these riots, as explained by Dr. Peabody, was that "the food... was so mean in quality, so poorly cooked, and so coarsely served, as to disgust those who had been accustomed to the decencies of the table, and to encourage a mutinous spirit, rude manners, and ungentlemanly habits; so that the dining halls were seats of boisterous misrule and nurseries of rebellion."

End of Commons

As both the food and atmosphere of the Commons deteriorated, most student withdrew to the peace and plenty of private boarding houses. The Commons was finally abandoned in 1849, and President Sparks said, "It is improbable that the Commons will again be revived."

Sixteen years later, Thayer Commons was opened. This was actually an independent, voluntary, non-profit dining association, supervised by Regina Bonarum, "Queen of the Goodies." The demand for Thayer was so large that in 1874, at the suggestion of President Eliot, the dining association moved to Memorial Hall, which had been originally planned for nothing but the Commencement dinner.

Editing at Mem Hall

Memorial Hall flourished for over half a century on a voluntary basis. Each student had a certain seat he occupied for all meals. Serving 1000 men a day under the vaulted arches of the nave, the association charged an average weekly rate of $3.95. Class wars still occurred and even bloody fights among the colored waiters, but the food was considerably better than Harvard Hall's. Menus offered roast rib of beef, braised pork tenderloin with robert sauce, "Creme d'Menthe Punch", and "Jelly Roll Pudding, Wine Sauce".

These last two items led to the invasion of the hall by Carrie Nation, an axe-wielding prohibitionist. During the noon meal on November 14, 1902, she appeared in the gallery, where visitors came to "watch the animals eat", and was immediately recognized with cheers and jeers from the floor below. She shouted, "Boys! Don't eat that infernal stuff, it's poison." When she headed down the stairs with her nickel-plated hatchets, students quickly crowded around her, offering cigarettes and cigars, which she struck to the floor with indignation. When an uproarious mob had swept her into Sanders Theater, she attempted to speak, but shouts and singing drowned her out, and she finally abandoned Harvard to a life of sin.

The Union Club

The Union opened in 1901 as a club for all Harvard men. It charged a membership fee of $10 per year and was run like a restaurant, complete with waitresses. In 1923, Memorial Hall closed because of lack of patronage. Students once again turned to club and cafeteria eating.

The evolution of our present setup began innocuously in 1914. Freshman halls were built, Smith, Gore, Standish, and McKinlock, with their own dining system. The dining hall of Gore is now the Winthrop House dining room, and McKinlock's is Leverett House's dining room. Long tables ran the length of these rooms, which were served by waitresses known as the Flying Squadron. These were the first dining halls to be served by a central kitchen.

Agitation for University dining halls for upperclassmen was renewed in 1926, but this time students sought friendly, convivial halls instead of the huge expanse of Memorial Hall. The Union offered club tables on its second floor to any group of twelve at $9 per week for 17 meals. A Crimson editorial, entitled "And Again, Food!" applauded this idea and wanted "systemized eating to take the place of cafeteria philandering." The Union's suggestion was followed up with a concerted drive to erect a new dining hall on Mt. Auburn Street, which failed when an insufficient number of students reported that they would cat there. Most people ate at clubs or were "eating round."

The problems of the twenties were finally solved by Edward S. Harkness' $10,000,000 and the House plan. Lowell and Dunster opened in September 1930, and Adams, Eliot. Kirkland, Leverett, and Winthrop followed during the next year. In September, 1931, the Union was made the freshman dining hall, and the freshmen took over the Yard from the house-bound seniors. The present dining halls went into operation, featuring waitress service. The halls had been designed for this serving method. That everyone should eat in these dining rooms was considered a key part of the House plan. Students and faculty were to miagle informally over the dinner table.

During the thirtics the dining halls operated with comparative smoothness, Food was generally considered good, and numerous choices were always offered. For instance, breakfast eggs could be boiled, fried, dropped, serambled, or omelette.

After War, Trouble

Once again the dining system has taken on the aspect of a problem, with a Student Council investigation and poll, the Seiler investigation, and CRIMSON editorials. The present difficulty stems from the post-war transformation of the system-it now serves more people than it was originally built for and in a different manner than was originally planned.

In a poll taken by the Council last year, 2582 students voted. They favored an expert, impartial investigation of the dining system, four to one. They approved the nutritional variety of the food by a small majority, but were dissatisfied with the lack of variety in individual foods, temperature of hot items, and the lack of imagination in planning.

Seller's Investigation

The administration said that the poll proved nothing definite about the food. It did request Benjamin Seiler, a Boston caterer and member of the visiting committee, to make an informal investigation of the system last spring. He made a few informal recommendations to the dining hall administrators. His main point was that preparation of food should he brought closer to serving. He said it would be ideal to have a kitchen for each dining hall. He made several suggestions for improvement within the present system. Some of them, such as toasters on the serving table, were partially carried out. Others, such as steam tables to replace the electrically heated serving tables, were rejected. Siler also commented that he considered it almost impossible to compute costs when students can take any amount of meat and milk they want.

Today, there are three main opinions on the food situation. The administration attitude is that the food is the best possible for the price paid, and that this best is good enough. Every student pays 58 cents a meal for 21 meals a week, and the average cost to the University of each meal served is 75 cents. The dining halls rely heavily on the fact that many do not eat every meal. Present complaints, according to the administration, are nothing more than the usual gripes.

What's Wrong Now?

The second opinion is that held by the Council. It believes that students have justified complaints and has formed house food committees to sort out the gripes and pass good recommendations on to the hall managers.

Many students hold a third opinion that something is organically wrong with the system as it operates in several dining halls. They say that the kitchens were never meant to serve so many people, and that this has resulted in a loss of efficiency that makes it impossible to have food that is appetizing, imaginatively presented, and tastes good. They suggest either making long-run, changes in the system or allowing students not to pay for board.

These three different opinions constitute the modern food problem. As was said in the nineteenth century when Memorial Hall went into operations as a voluntary commons, only time will tell how the problem will be solved

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