Vassar Yesterday

Brain Food

By Peter Bronski

In the early years of the college, the diet of the female students was considered noteworthy enough to warrant coverage in The New York Times.

The Time’s June 1, 1884, edition published, “What the Vassar girls eat,” which went through a laundry list of the consumption of various foods—meats, milk, eggs, butter, flour, various fruits and vegetables, and other items. The article concluded, “...if there is one thing more than another that the average Vassar student yearns after, it is a nicely browned pancake. Vassar’s pancake griddle is 10 feet long and 3 feet wide, and 2,400 pancakes are consumed at breakfast.”

Writing in 1889, Jessup Whitehead, in his Steward’s Handbook and Guide to Party Catering, had some choice words in response to the latest numbers about the Vassar girls’ voracious consumption. “The figures presented by the board of trustees grow more and more serious year by year, and the statistics ... now at hand, are simply appalling,” he wrote. “To begin with, the dear, delicate creatures consumed 230 barrels of flour. Their small white teeth opened and closed upon 100,000 [pancakes], 10,000 bananas, 30,000 oranges and lemons, and 32,000 clams. They further diminished the resources of the country by swallowing 84,000 pounds of fresh meats, 8,000 pounds of smoked meats, nearly 5,000 pounds of turkeys, over 4,000 pounds of chickens, nearly as many of fish, 141 gallons of oysters, 14,000 pounds of butter, 95,000 quarts of milk, 25,000 pounds of sugar (whence their unusual sweetness), and 1,000 bushels of potatoes...”

Whitehead concluded: “If this rate of consumptions increases, or even continues, it will be expedient to have the daily food purchases of Vassar included in the market reports of the country for the sake of their effect upon prices.”

Times have certainly changed. Despite the school’s student population growing more than eightfold, both the total and per student consumption of staple foods has decreased—student pancake consumption for 2009, for example, had gone down to 25,000 pancakes per year.

Of course, there’s an obvious question in the face of these changes: Why? Has meat consumption gone down because students are simply eating less of it, and there are more vegetarians on campus? Has milk consumption decreased with a rise in the popularity of soy, rice, almond and coconut milks (and water and soda, for that matter...)? And what of Vassar’s beloved pancake? Was it simply a victim of increased choice in breakfast foods, or perhaps are today’s pancakes larger than they once were, so students are eating fewer of them?

Regardless, one thing is certain looking back on the early days of campus dining. Students’ appetites for food were as hearty as their thirst for education.