A typical breakfast eaten in the dining room of Old Sem in 1854 included baked potatoes with butter. These remained a daily, and to many, a monotonous breakfast staple, to judge from what Mrs. Emma Mclntyre, matron in charge of Bowman Hall's food service, penned into senior Ralph Mather's 1909 memory book as her parting wish for him: "No [more] baked potatoes for breakfast.
Potatoes were the least of the dietary problems in 1854. The students complained so vehemently about the rancid butter and the hair in the hash that they succeeded in having the cook fired. Seventy-five years would pass before the college engaged its first credentialed director of food services. Leila Rose Huebsch, who had transferred from Cornell to the University of Iowa to earn a B.S. degree in 1913, returned to Cornell in 1925 as a home economics instructor and "dietitian and director of dining halls." She fed Cornellians until her retirement in 1954. Nine years later, Cornell began contracting with national food service management companies: Saga, Marriott, Marriott-Sodexho, and now Sodexho. These companies introduced Cornellians to casseroles and entrees dubbed "mystery meat" by the always suspicious student body.
Records from the 1870s tell of popcorn parties in Bowman Hall and mention the popularity of ice cream socials. As early as 1871, Jummy Ruff and his family, the only African-Americans living in Mount Vernon, had an "ice cream saloon" in town. For reasons not recorded, the faculty denied the ladies of the Philomathean literary society permission to have "an ice cream parlor" in their hall during commencement week 1877.
As is sometimes true today, student banquets were held off campus. Early on, these dinners often pretended to elegance quite beyond their sponsors' sophistication. For example, the freshman banquet of 1911 at the Montrose hotel in Cedar Rapids featured a printed menu that included "Fille of Sole" (fille = daughter, girl). No description exists, which is probably a good thing, of the "Goat Tea" that Cornell's Abba Dabba Butta Chapter of the Brotherhood of Billygoats hosted in 1928.
The oyster supper was particularly favored by the literary and other student societies. As with almost every other student entertainment option during the 1800s, it required faculty permission, as in the case of the men housed in the newly built South Hall, who were allowed an oyster supper on New Year's Eve 1874, four years before the college introduced winter break.
One day Arrola Cole, wife of President Russell Cole (1943-60), was making a large pot of oyster stew while her husband, in his office in College Hall at the other end of the campus, suspended a student. The young man hied himself to the President's House to beg the intercession of Mrs. Cole, whose capacity for compassion was known to be far greater than her husband's. Arrola, in a mothering way, sat the fellow down at her kitchen table and ladled out a bowl of oyster stew. He did not like the milky taste or texture, but he spooned it up lest he offend his only hope of reinstatement. As they chatted amiably, she refilled his bowl as soon as she saw it was empty. More talk and more bowlfuls followed before she remembered an appointment and bade him goodbye. He left bloated and sick, but the next day his suspension was rescinded. For the rest of his life he never ate another oyster.
The 1911 "Girls Grex" was a formal affair held in the new Gymnasium (now McWethy Hall) and featured grapefruit, corn fritters with syrup, breaded tenderloin, creamed cheese, potatoes, pimento relish, coffee, "doughnuts," mints, and grape juice.
Charles Milhauser is classics professor and registrar emeritus. He may be reached at email@example.com or 100 Intracoastal Place, Apt. 307, Tequesta, FL 33469.