While we know much of the foodstuffs purchased by the college boarding halls during the Early Period, and can extrapolate the types of dishes they may have cooked, we must look elsewhere to determine the eating habits of students and their perception of the foods served to them. The image to the left shows several male students eating in a dorm in 1914 (Image courtesy of the Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections).
Diaries can be a good source for this information, although some are better than others. Peter Felker wrote a diary in 1869, around the time that the privy containing the food remains was used. However, Felker never mentioned the quality of the food served to him. Edward Granger, on the other hand, wrote more in detail about food habits of the students in the earliest dorms (ca. 1858-1859). It seems Granger wasn’t the biggest fan of the food served by “the Institution,” as he refers to it. He mentions frequently skipping dinner and longingly declares “[I] hope when Christmas comes I shall get something from home.” On Christmas Day he admonishes that he “had a fine Christmas dinner considering that it was in the Agricultural College.” The next day, he wrote “After meeting we had a feast… Chicken and peaches, brown bread and ginger snaps. Everything was first rate, and we had a glorious meal.”
Granger quickly changes his tune again on New Years’ Day, stating, “Finished my supply of good things and suppose I shall have to live on the Institution or starve.” In order to cope, Granger and his friends often ate little snacks from home in their rooms or on occasion even stole food from the kitchens. Here are a couple of anecdotes:
Dec. 24, 1858: “12 o’clock (midnight) Mr. Charley and Bush have just returned from an expedition to the lower regions. The booty consists in about a peck of fried cakes, to a portion of which we have been giving ample justice.”
Jan. 15, 1859: “This evening there has not been much studying in No. 2, as we have been having a good time, generally. Charley furnished some eggs and Frederick some pop corn. Where Charley procured the eggs I don’t know. We asked no questions for conscience’s sake. Wrapped the eggs up in paper, and then wet them, and put them under the ashes to roast- they were first rate. Charley will find some more some of these days.”
Beyond what Granger wrote, we know little of student food habits. We do know that eventually student dissatisfaction with boarding hall foods caused them to form their own boarding clubs. We plan to do further research into this next year by delving deeper into the Archives and perusing student newspapers for further commentary.
Like at any institution, early Agricultural College students liked to party. While mischief and illicit behavior undoubtedly occurred on the early campus, there were formal and organized parties, balls, and banquets as well.
While we do not have any official records of banquets from the Early Period (1855-1870), the MSU Archives contains menus from banquets held either on or near campus from 1884, 1926, and 1939. The first menu is for the “Class of ’86 Banquet” held on August 1, 1884. This banquet, held at the Lansing House Hotel in downtown Lansing, seemed to be quite a grand affair. The menu was extensive, headlined with “Chicken Salad, a la Mayonaise” and “Lobster Salad.” Cold dishes included items familiar to us now, such as sliced turkey, chicken, and sugar cured ham, as well as some less familiar fair—“boned turkey with Jelly,” “Beef Tongue, Spiced” and “Pressed Beef”. Boned turkey is a whole turkey carefully de-boned and baked or boiled for a long period of time, served cold over a savory jelly made of calves’-foot (yum!). Pressed beef is made when a joint of silverside beef is boiled, pressed, sliced and served cold. Recipes for these main dishes are common in 19th-century cookbooks.
“Relishes” on the menu include something called “Chow Chow”. This relish is around today in the southern US, and consists of some combination of tomatoes, cabbage, onion, carrots, beans, asparagus, cauliflower, and peas, which are all canned and pickled together. Under the “Social” category on the menu are listed TEN different types of cake. In addition to the cake were “Desserts” such as various ice creams and fruits.
In 1926, a program for the “All-College Night Banquet” to celebrate the 69th anniversary of the founding of Michigan State College. The menu this time is a bit simpler with fewer options, and approaching closer to the types of food we might expect at a banquet today. Menu items include fruit cocktail, “veal birds” (pounded strips of veal rolled or wrapped around a stuffing), mashed potatoes, gravy, lettuce with Thousand Island dressing, rolls, butter, ice cream, cupcakes, and coffee. The menu for a banquet held by the Michigan State College Board of Publications in 1939 grows even closer to modern feasting fare. The spread consists of cocktail, baked ham, au grautin potatoes, corn, spring salad, assorted rolls, coffee, and fresh strawberry sundaes. You might find this exact menu at certain catered events today.
The evolution of food preferences throughout campus history is evident. Early banquets featured a wide variety of foods, many of which were labor-intensive for preparation, and included a number of dishes not readily familiar to the modern palate. Moving into the 20th century, the variety of food offerings became narrower, the options generally easier to produce en masse. There is a trend of simplicity and subtle flavors during the pre-war era, expressed in fare such as potatoes, salad, and rolls. Also, it is presumable that as class sizes grew on campus (including the addition of women), that budgets were tighter and food choice had to be more economical.