4 July/August 2014
The Carolina boys who came of age at the turn of the 19th century studied pretty much the same set of subjects, and at suppertime
they gathered in the same frighteningly
unreliable dining hall, sometimes left so
poorly fulfilled that they hunted Chapel
Hill possum and raided the village citizens’
chicken coops and beehives.
To succeeding generations, the evening
meal often was the best of a routine day,
the time squeezed between classroom and
library for Danziger’s, the Coffee Shop,
the Rat, the Porthole, the Zoom, Harry’s,
Hector’s, Pepper’s, Spanky’s and Time-Out
— escapes from the often-maligned Swain
But in old Steward’s Hall, supper was no
picnic. Situated just to the east of Old East,
best we can tell, it was one of the first three
buildings erected on the tiny campus —
and the first to be torn down.
Mealtime often was a rigorous subjugation to a stern faculty in an isolated place
small enough so that everybody could be
watched — certainly more austere in every
respect than students had been used to
wherever they came from.
Before Hinton James (class of 1798) fin-
ished his hike from Wilmington, his menu
already was being planned — by a com-
mittee. Considering the obvious limitations
of the times (Florida oranges and Maine
lobster being out of reach), it seemed
reasonable: coffee and tea; wheat or corn
rolls; plenty of butter; bacon, beef and bird;
“potatoes and all other kinds of vegetable
food”; pudding and tarts.
There were only two problems. The
students seemed to consider themselves to
be guaranteed all this, and that era’s steward,
John “Buck” Taylor, was at the mercy of
supply lines that often were wanting.
There is not one in Colledge that does not
complain … it is impossible to discribe the
badness of the tea and coffee, & the meat generally stinks, & has maggots in it.
— letter from brothers
If the way to a man’s heart is through his
stomach, Taylor was in need of a compass.
He lasted but three years as steward; still it
fell to his successor, Maj. Pleasant Hender-
son, to weather the worst of the unhappi-
ness over the food.
The sons of planters did not all get the
memo about who was running the institution, and bacon and butter greased the
wheels for one of the first great confrontations between students and faculty.
In 1808, 38 students, some of whom
would go on to distinguished public
careers, declared the steward’s shortcomings
an infringement upon their rights. Their
petition said grievances with the kitchen
“are daily accumulated … and as such we
require an alteration.”
To the faculty, the word “require” was
over the line. Suspensions ensued, and the
students eventually crawled back with flow-
ery mea culpas. In a second petition they
settled for something more along the lines
of “how about meeting us halfway?”
By 1819, the University was done with
its adventure in the food-service business.
It rented out Steward’s Hall for the next
28 years. From 1847 until the opening of
Commons Hall in 1885, there was no for-
mal dining on the campus at all.
The void was filled on and near Franklin
Street in what became the heyday of the
boarding house. Home-prepared meals for
small groups naturally tended to be glamorized. But as the student population grew, the
University had little choice but to resume
cooking in volume. And finding fault with
the campus diner became tradition.
Swain Hall, opened in 1913, was called
Food for Thought
Bacon and butter greased
the wheels for one of the first
great confrontations between
students and faculty.