By Darra Goldstein '73

Vassar has been in the vanguard of food for more than a hundred years.

Ellen Swallow Richards, Class of 1870 and America’s first professional female chemist, tirelessly argued that student achievement depends not only on excellent teachers, but on nutrition as well. Her seminal book, Food as a Factor in Student Life, managed to convince even the conservative Boston School Committee to change its dietary curriculum. As she remarked to the Women’s Congress at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, “A cow is worth to the state perhaps a hundred dollars a year, a trained mind one hundred thousand dollars a year. A nation which so carefully feeds its cattle should take care of its young men and women with promising brains. In fact, the future of our nation may be said to depend on the feeding of the students now in the schools.” If Richards’s ideas sound familiar today, it’s because they echo in the words of another first lady, Michelle Obama, who has made healthier lunches in the nation’s schools a focus of government action. 

Richards’s interest in science was undoubtedly spurred by the courses she took with Maria Mitchell, Vassar’s great professor of astronomy, who held weekly gatherings for her students at her apartment in the observatory. As one student later reminisced: “Often on Sunday afternoons [Miss Mitchell] asked a few students to join her around the cheery log fire to drink coffee, eat star-shaped cookies, and meet her personal friends.” These friends included such forward thinkers as the suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone Blackwell.

Given the severe dietary regimen in force at the time, I wonder whether Miss Mitchell’s star-shaped cookies might not have been as much of a draw as her illustrious guests. Vassar’s archives reveal that Hannah Lyman, the College’s first Lady Principal, held firmly to the Victorian belief that women are frail creatures in need of bland nourishment. In an 1866 letter to Vassar’s president, Lyman complained that new students were getting too many packages with unhealthy goodies from home: “The short supply and improper selection of food during the first months had the effect of exalting eating into a prominent theme of conversation and of perpetuating a habit I had hoped measurably to eradicate—of receiving ‘boxes from home.’” Miss Mitchell’s apartment must have seemed like an oasis.

It’s no wonder that the students resorted to making confections for themselves late at night in the dorms, using spirit lamps snatched from the chemistry lab or gas from a gaslight. They couldn’t have imagined that their experiments would bring Vassar lasting fame, but that’s exactly what ensued—in the form of Vassar fudge. The first documented mention of this now classic American candy is found in a letter from Emelyn Battersby Hartridge, Class of 1892. In 1888, she made a batch of fudge for the Vassar College senior auction, based on the recipe she had been sent. The candy became so popular that, as the Chicago Tribune reported in 1896, “Vassar girls not only indulge freely in ‘sweets’ of every known variety, but they get up new recipes whenever their sated palates demand a change … ‘Fudge’ may be eaten hot or cold, but it is never so truly delicious as when, at the witching hour of midnight, it is first removed from the gas jet or alcohol lamp and served on bits of cardboard, or portions of a manicure set, bubbling hot, to a group of maidens in night attire.”

Reading about maidens in night attire carried me back to my own college days, when I was part of Vassar’s last all-female entering class. I lived in Josselyn House, whose gracious parlor and elegant wood-paneled dining room bespoke an era far removed from the turbulent ’60s. One of the great joys of my first term at college was having breakfast in our nightgowns or PJs, with no worry about our appearance. That changed the next year when Joss became coed—suddenly our snuggly flannels seemed out of place. Gone, too, were our sit-down Sunday dinners with table service, white linen, and monogrammed silver. Along with those meals disappeared our post-prandial demitasse in the parlor, where I had learned how to hold a small coffee cup smartly, with my pinkie crooked.

In terms of the food, I fear my college years in the early ’70s were not among Vassar’s finest. It was an era of Salisbury steak and iceberg wedge salad. So ubiquitous were those chunky lettuce wedges that we believed the college had a special endowment for them, as well as for the daily slices of tasteless ice cream served neatly wrapped in waxed paper. No wonder we eagerly stole out to Raymond Avenue’s all-night bakery, where doughnuts came dripping out of the vat at 2:00 am—this was long before northerners had even heard of Krispy Kreme with its flashing neon “Hot Now” sign. Each fall we made a trek for fresh cider to the Old Cider Mill, sadly now defunct as a working farm.

My class represented the end of a Vassar era in another way, too: we were the last to experience in-dorm dining. In 1974 ACDC—the all-campus dining center—opened as a central dining hall, and ever since then, the College has worked hard to bring new vitality (and better-tasting fare) to campus dining. Some years ago a farm-to-college program was launched to bring students fresh, locally grown food. But that innovation was really just a new twist on Vassar’s past. When Henry Noble MacCracken became president in 1915, one of his first initiatives was to begin buying from local purveyors. By the end of his tenure in 1946, Vassar was not only producing much of its own meat, milk, and vegetables on the Vassar Farm, it was also heavily supporting the local economy.

The farming operation that produced supplies for the college ceased in 1957. However, there is still plenty of student engagement on the Vassar Farm; it has become a laboratory of sorts not only for botanists but also for world-changing future farmers. Students till their own vegetable plots and learn gardening techniques through the Vassar Experimental Garden and the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, which aim to create a just and sustainable food system in the Mid-Hudson Valley.

Given Vassar’s enduring interest in how we eat, this special issue of the Vassar Quarterly presents a baker’s dozen of Vassar alums from 50 years worth of classes whose interest in food has defined their professional lives. Vassar grads continue to change the landscape through their social and environmental activism, through their culinary and cross-cultural investigations. They may no longer be devising new forms of fudge with purloined Bunsen burners from the chem lab, but they remain in the vanguard, cooking up ideas ahead of their time.

Darra Goldstein ’73 (darragoldstein.com) is the Willcox and Harriet Adsit Professor of Russian at Williams College and founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture.