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Dining Like Our Ancestors

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Students in Frank Sciacca and David Gapp's "Food for Thought" class put aside their cell phones, iPods and even forks, and enjoyed a historically accurate, early 19th century meal on Jan. 31 in the Great Room at Spencer House.

The meal, dubbed a Galaxy Dinner, attempted to recreate the cuisine that Hamilton College students would have enjoyed circa 1812, the year of the College's founding, based on early cookbooks and documents preserved in the Hamilton Archives. The "Proceedings of the Hamilton Trustees, May 15, 1813, of the Regulation of the Dining Hall," explain that at the expiration of each quarter, "the Steward shall provide a dinner in an extra style, which is to be considered as a galaxy dinner, and for which each Student shall pay the Steward an extra sum of fifty cents."

The 2008 menu included creamy pumpkin soup, homemade breads, chicken pot pie, beef stew with root vegetables and small red potatoes in a rich broth, Indian pudding, cornmeal pudding sweetened with molasses, baked acorn squash, pickled vegetables
and apple pie and apple Charlotte. But what attendees did not have were forks – which were considered something of a luxury item at that time. Diners had to make do with spoons and knives.

Food for Thought: The Science, Culture and Politics of Food, is an interdisciplinary exploration of food. Topics include why we eat what we eat, where our dinner comes from, the politics of food and the cultural history of cookbooks. The final course project will be planning and planting an early 19th century garden on campus and successfully compile a "polished and erudite wiki entry" for the garden on a selected food crop.

Attendees enjoyed reading the 11 "Regulations of the Dining Hall" from 1813 that maintained "the provisions of every description provided by the Steward shall be of a good quality, pure and wholesome." If any foods were "impure or ill-dressed... it will be the duty of the monitor of that table to make immediate report to the faculty who shall be present, who shall immediately inspect the same and report to the President."

Galaxy 2008 diners also learned that seating in 1813 was strictly monitored. "Not more than ten Students are to be allotted to one table, who are to be seated as to face inwards and to be located in classes; each table to have two monitors, whose places and duties shall be designated by the Faculty for the purpose of preserving order, and reporting all transgressions of the rules prescribed by the Faculty to the President."

Food for Thought student Melissa Balding '09 enjoyed the dinner and noted "The food was so good that no one cared about being deprived of forks!"


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