During the Early Period of MSU (1855-1870) students not only learned how to clear land, grow crops, and tend to farm animals, but also learned about the processing of animal products. While some of this may have been in informal settings, there were some formal classes including cheese-making. Looking at photos from the MSU Archives, as well as the analysis of animal bones found on campus, we are able to tell that students were also learning how to process meat. Different modifications on the bones, including saw and chop marks, have been found in locations that are not typically associated with cuts of meat. These marks provide evidence that someone with little experience in butchery techniques was making cuts, most likely a student or an apprentice learning the butchery trade. In the image to the left, students are butchering meat during the early 1900’s (Image courtesy of the Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections).
There is not much information out there in terms of what types of meals were actually cooked by the boarding halls on the early MSU campus. While we have records of what foods were produced and purchased by the college via account books and farm ledgers, we have yet to find any menus for the meals that were served daily to students. Even student diaries rarely if ever mention specific types of foods they received as part of their board.
This lack of information meant we had to get a little creative to figure out the ways in which food was probably prepared and cooked by boarding hall cooks. We did so by visiting the MSU Library Special Collections to use their vast collection of historic cookbooks (check out the “Archival Research” tab for more information). Widely-distributed cookbooks that were published during the MSU Early Period were used to get a feel for recipes and ingredients that were popular nationally at the time. Unique regional and local cookbooks were also explored in order to get a feel for dishes common in the Midwest during the late 19th century. Special attention was paid to recipes that included the ingredients found in the boarding hall account books, but we also noted popular recipes that recurred in various cookbooks. The image to the right shows female students in a cooking class, 1917 (Image courtesy of the Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections).
Most recipes in these books focused on cooking meats/poultry/fish, breads, pies, and cake, with some space devoted to vegetables and beverages. Recipes for beef, veal, mutton, pork, ham, fish, and oysters were plenty. Meat recipes were inclusive of ALL parts of the animal—roasted calf’s head, calf’s head soup, calf’s foot jelly, veal brains, beef tongue, liver, “brain balls,” and other delicacies were included in most cookbooks. There are plenty of chicken recipes featured in the cookbooks, yet, oddly, chicken was not a common item purchased by the early campus boarding halls. On December 12, 1858, Edward Granger, an MAC student, wrote in his diary, “This noon for the first time since I have been in the Institution we had Chickens for dinner”. The reason for the early aversion to chicken by the boarding halls is unclear.
Sections featuring vegetable recipes were shorter than other sections of nineteenth-century cookbooks, and curiously included macaroni, rice, and baked beans. Other vegetables mentioned were mostly potatoes, root vegetables, and salsify (i.e., the oyster plant), correlating closely with the vegetables both grown and purchased by the Agricultural College boarding. Desserts, on the other hand, comprised almost half of the recipes in some cookbooks. A multitude of cakes and pies were listed, popular flavors including lemon, plum, ginger, and “cocoanut.” Cookies were much less popular than cakes, although gingerbread and ginger snaps recipes were common. Other common desserts included blanc mange and Charlotte Russe, jelly and cake confections formed with molds.
Cuisine encompasses not only ingredients and food combinations, but also cooking techniques. While frying, baking, and broiling are often recommended, boiling is by far the most common cooking method featured in these recipes. Sally Joy White’s Cookery in the Public Schools (1890), an instructional book on the tenants of cooking, describes boiling as “one of the simplest ways of preparing meat” (p. 88). Recipes for boiled beef, ham, and even whole chickens and turkeys are numerous, and boiling is almost universally recommended for cooking vegetables. It might be assumed that this method of cooking both meat and vegetables was employed by campus cooks to feed the large numbers of students and staff since efficiency may have been favored over flavor. However, dishes weren’t entirely devoid of spices—mace, nutmeg, allspice, clove, rose water, and sometimes even cayenne were common features of recipes. Pickling was popular, providing both flavor and long-term preservation for fruits and vegetables during an era of limited refrigeration. From the traditional pickled cucumber to pickled peaches, pears, and even walnuts, pickling seemed very important and were undoubtedly a component of the early campus diet.
Michigan cookbooks, often assembled by churches, were useful for insight into more everyday, regional and local cuisine. These include compilations from Port Huron (1876), Ann Arbor (1887), and Lansing (ca. 1890). They included many recipes for whitefish, not surprising given the proximity to the Great Lakes. The Lansing cookbook was the only one to devote whole sections to croquettes and cheese, indicating local food preferences for fried foods and delicious dairy products.
To summarize, the boarding halls likely cooked a great deal of red meat, root vegetables, and breads, and occasionally poultry, fish, other vegetables, fruits, and various types of cakes. Popular foods and recipes of the time correlate well with what the college was purchasing. The likelihood that simple recipes, dishes, and cooking techniques (such as boiling) were used in order to efficiently cook large amounts of food for the students. Did this result in tasty food? See how students perceived the food in the Consumption tab!