This is the second post in a two-part series examining student foodways at Princeton.
As mentioned in the conclusion of last week’s post in this series, the campus refectory was no longer an option after the Nassau Hall fire of 1855. This meant that eating clubs became entrenched in Princeton’s traditions. There were many transient clubs with fanciful names at first, most of which simply pooled resources to engage the services of local boarding houses. In spite of the theoretical market forces that might have acted upon these establishments to encourage higher quality, W. F. Magie (Class of 1879) described “generally miserable eating conditions,” “poor food,” and “coarse service.” This motivated the formation of Ivy Club as a more permanent fixture in 1879 that would employ its own staff. Several other eating clubs followed suit, eventually building clubhouses along Prospect Street.
Following the demise of the refectory, the University offered a meal plan to students via the Commons beginning in 1876. The Nassau Literary Magazine described the early offerings as including beef, wine sauce, potatoes, milk, and bread pudding. By 1877, students were distraught that they were occasionally served the leftovers as “a huge plate of hash” and the wine sauce disappeared. “The man who will deliberately and with malice aforethought place before a fellow creature a plate of hash, is fit for treason, stratagems, and spoils.” Things apparently had not improved by 1904.
Boarding houses also remained an option, though perhaps not a more appealing one than the Commons much of the time. The Nassau Lit complained about the ubiquity of fried food at these establishments in 1880. Owners tried to improve their reputation by putting out their menus in advertisements in the Daily Princetonian. Thanks to this, we can find a more detailed look at the everyday foods Princetonians might have eaten, as well as evidence of changing American foodways.
Zazzali’s Majestic Restaurant was an early 20th-century option for boarders and one of a handful of businesses owned and operated by Italian immigrants in Princeton. A wave of Italian immigration made new foods popular on the east coast of the United States around this time. In 1900, Zazzali’s offered spaghetti alongside roast turkey, mashed potatoes, and apple pie. A typical meal at Zazzali’s would cater to local tastes, with roast chickens, beef with gravy, and Maryland oysters frequently appearing on the menu.
In the early 1920s, Clara Phares published daily menus in the Daily Princetonian to lure boarders to her establishment. Much of what she offered at The Homestead was similar to Zazzali’s typical fare of beef with gravy, mashed potatoes, stewed tomatoes, and coffee, but more variety began to appear. In 1921, she offered “French pancakes,” i.e., crepes, to diners—a surprising innovation given that crepes weren’t truly popularized in the United States until later decades. Other foods associated with fine dining also made an appearance around this time, such as Waldorf salad, but a more usual meal would remain in the realm of the traditional and familiar.
A student-run alternative fed hungry Princetonians in the mid-20th century, the Student Sandwich Shop, where despite the name one could dine on much more than just sandwiches. The average meals would still bear close resemblance to what was served at Zazzali’s and the Homestead in previous decades, with the stereotypical meat and potatoes as staples of American cookery being a common sight, but the appearance of chow mein in the 1930s was also evidence of the growing diversity of the American diet.
Those whose dietary needs fell outside the dominant culture had a long time to wait for more possibilities to open up. Schaefer’s Delicacies offered Princeton what we think of today as the regular offerings of Jewish delis starting in 1954, including bagels with lox and sour pickles, but it seems by the 1960s it was no longer in business, prompting one student in 1962 to lament the inability to satisfy cravings for knishes, latkes, and matzoh locally. There was, however, the Yavneh House, which brought kosher dining to Princeton starting in 1961 and relocated to Stevenson Hall in 1971. Halal food became available in dining halls in 2014. Though there were “meatless Tuesdays” during World War II, putting chow mein and salmon loaf on the menu of the University Commons, a full week of vegetarian options would have to wait until the 1970s, when both campus dining halls and eating clubs began to accommodate meatless diets.
Aside from the regular board, students could also avail themselves of other local options for a meal or snack when they wanted something different, or just wanted to stay in their rooms to eat. Generations of Princetonians bought apples and other snacks from James Johnson or peanuts from A. C. Seruby, while William Taylor may have brought hot dogs to Princeton around 1904. The Student Sandwich Shop would deliver sandwiches, ice, and drinks to students on campus, likely a welcome option to many. A reference to pizza appeared in an ad for Andy’s Tavern in 1953, while sushi was offered in a mysterious classified ad in 1967. By the early 1980s, students could get gyros sandwiches and falafel delivered to their rooms.
In the 1970s, Princetonians got a new option: The co-op, where students cooked for themselves and each other with complete collective control over their menus. Some chose vegetarian groups because they wanted to share meals with like-minded diners; others just wanted to save money or have better food. Independent students could choose to just cook for themselves, too, in communal dorm kitchens or in off-campus housing. By the late 20th century, co-ops became vegan-friendly as well.
Not everyone appreciated these deviations from the mainstream. In 1983, four juniors moved to Plainsboro because, as one explained, the Dickinson co-op just wasn’t an option. “Tofu this, tofu that. We’d have had beancurd coming out of our ears.” Though their solution was a bit more drastic than most, they were satisfied with their choices. That is not to say that the old favorites weren’t being offered. As a student noted in 2010, one could still enjoy beef with wine sauce, even amidst all the kamut, sprouted lentil tabbouleh, and mesclun salad. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Admission Office Records (AC152)
Alexander, James W. Princeton, Old and New: Recollections of Undergraduate Life. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1899.
Board of Trustees Records (AC120)
Collins, Varnum Lansing. Princeton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1914.
Eating Clubs Records (AC019)
Norris, Edwin Mark. The Story of Princeton. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1917.
Scrapbook Collection (AC026)