For nearly four centuries, Harvard University has educated young people — and fed them. When the University responded to the COVID-19 pandemic in March by curtailing on-campus operations and sending students home, it maintained the teaching but not the feeding. Both functions will be restored someday. But maybe not exactly as before. Food’s significance for social inclusion and equality is the main theme of “Resetting the Table,” an exhibit at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography for which I was guest curator. Now that no one can gather around the exhibit’s central table — or any table at Harvard — I’ve been thinking about what past crises show about food and Harvard. Two earlier emergencies had different outcomes: the College’s use of food to enforce social hierarchy survived the American Revolution, but not World War II. It’ll be the second era’s more forthright reforms that we’ll need, moving forward.
Once upon a time, Harvard students and faculty ate together, like a family. At meals, the faculty and president acted as kin and father, as if students were children who needed supervision. Students were younger on average than College students today and were considered intellectual apprentices. Meals were ways to remind them of their dependent status, even though, as free men, overwhelmingly white, they would eventually rank high. Although some students boarded out, the College discouraged this. Students could collect morning provisions from the Buttery and breakfast in their rooms, but other meals were eaten in common, at tables set with equipment, such as silver salt cellars, to mark community and ceremony. Exceptions to the College diet were granted only by petition. The authorities were scandalized, in 1723, when students were caught “going into town, on Sabbath mornings, to provide breakfasts.” (Everything has a history, even Sunday brunch.) Some cravings proved impossible to control. In 1759, students were permitted to hold private entertainments with rum punch, and no adult supervision, so long as the punch wasn’t too strong.
Structured meals survived the College’s first major disruption, the American Revolution. For a time, students could model any dissatisfaction with Harvard food on Colonial protests of British policies. In 1766, when served rancid butter, students protested: “Behold our Butter stinketh!” They met, passed resolutions to walk out of breakfast, and did the walkout. The Corporation and Overseers demanded confessions and a pledge of future good conduct. So much for defying oppression within Harvard. Meanwhile, the Boston area was becoming a hotspot in the bigger rebellion. On May 1, 1775, 12 days after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety (with executive power over the province) dismissed Harvard students early for summer vacation. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress then commandeered Harvard’s grounds and buildings for the Continental Army — 640 soldiers crammed into Massachusetts Hall. The College ordered students to reassemble in Concord on Oct. 4. There, faculty and students boarded in taverns and private homes. Tavernkeepers and householders acted in loco parentis, supervising the behavior of the young men they lodged and fed.
By June 1776, Harvard could reoccupy its property, and College life resumed. After the war, the student body outgrew available accommodations within the Yard. By 1849, Harvard abandoned dining in common. Students (still all male, still overwhelmingly white) no longer considered themselves the social inferiors of the president and faculty. They were private gentlemen, with new emphasis on the social differences among them. Cambridge boardinghouses took anyone who could pay, but some students created private club tables to which members had to be elected. Students with even greater means lived luxuriously in private accommodations and ate at restaurants.