Archive | Food For Thought RSS feed for this section

Controlled Rot: Growing Mushrooms at MacLeish

27 Apr

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” goes the proverbial phrase used to encourage making the best of what one has. At the MacLeish Field Station we have lots of forest that provides much shade. So why not grow food that does not require full sun—such as mushrooms? In April, eight students spent an afternoon inoculating logs with both blue oyster and shitake mushroom spawn. Their work was part of an agroforestry demonstration project being established this year at the Field Station.

Alexandra Davis ’18 and Lilly Williams ’18 drill logs in preparation for inoculation.

Inoculating logs is relatively simple. Holes drilled into recently cut logs are filled with mushroom spawn and then sealed with cheese wax.

Tracy Rompich ’21 inoculates logs with shitake spawn.

Tess Abbot ’20 and Molly Peek ’18 seal the spawn in the logs with cheese wax.

After being labeled, the logs are all stacked in the shadiest part of the forest. Over the 12 months the fungi will grow and spread throughout the logs, becoming well established, and hopefully begin fruiting mushrooms that we can harvest next summer!

Preparing hot chocolate for all the volunteers on the beautiful spring day are,
from left, Lily Williams, Molly Peek, Alexandra Davis, and Diana Umana ’19.

Another Earthbound Shake Up

9 Feb

On Tuesday, January 23rd the Pacific tectonic plate slid a tiny amount under the North American tectonic plate causing a magnitude 7.9 earthquake southeast of Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. The epicenter of the earthquake is depicted on the map below from the United States Geologic Survey (USGS). The red line on the map depicts where the two tectonic plates meet, forming the fault line. As the Pacific and North American tectonic plates meet each other they are moving about 59 mm each year. This is why earthquakes are common in the Pacific-North America plate boundary region south of Alaska. Over the last 100 years, 11 other magnitude 7+ earthquakes have occurred within 600 km of the January 23rd, 2018 earthquake. This earthquake is shown as an oval on the map, not a single point. That is because this earthquake was generated when an area of the plates 230 km long and 30 km wide strike and slip over each other.

So why do we care about an earthquake that occurred over 3,600 miles away? Did you feel it? You may not have felt it, but the seismograph at our Ada & Archibald MacLeish Field Station located about 10 miles from Smith College campus felt the shock waves (see below). The seismograph at MacLeish is part of a vast network of stations across the entire country recording earth movements. We may think of the ground as terra firma, but when two tectonic plates rub against each other the ground wiggles like brown pudding.

To get a sense of the ripple effect of the earth from the earthquake, click on the map below to watch the vertical motion video map of the Alaskan earthquake. In this video, red dots represent vertical motion up and blue dots represent down vertical motion of the ground.  It is clear that the clash of the plates sent shock waves across North America and beyond. There was our beloved terra firma rippling like water.

Submitted by Paul Wetzel, Environmental Research Coordinator, CEEDS

With information from the USGS and IRIS DMC (2010), Data Services Products: GMV The Ground Motion Visualization, doi:10.17611/DP/16325361.

Closing the loop: Recology’s composting facility

1 Apr

Matt Richtel’s NY Times article (25 March 2016, “San Francisco, the Silicon Valley of Recycling”) concludes with the spokesman for Recology’s recycling facility in San Francisco wishing that his visitors would also have the chance to tour the composting facility.  Last Monday, I had the chance to do just that.

At 9 am on a cool, sunny day, I met Greg Pryor at Recology’s composting facility in Vacaville, CA.  Greg, whose title is Organics Branch Manager, generously spent a good part of his morning with me, answering my questions and showing me around the impressive facility.  He is a wealth of knowledge and has a deep understanding of all aspects of the business, having overseen the facility for twenty years after starting his career in construction management.  We spent the morning discussing everything from business models to odor control, microbial decomposition to government regulations, and high-speed grinders versus low-speed shredders.

What is compost?  Essentially, it is the soil organic matter that is left behind after an organic waste has been decomposed.  When added to soil, compost increases aeration, water retention, and creates a healthy microbial community (think of a rich, black, earthy-smelling soil versus a beach sand).

The Vacaville site accepts yard and food waste from San Francisco, Vallejo, Dixon, Vacaville, and other communities and processes it into compost that is sold to farmers and landscapers.  Food wastes are processed first thing in the morning (and, here, first thing means 4 am).  The organic waste is loaded into a low-speed shredder which tears apart large pieces and rips open the plastic bags into which many consumers put their food scraps before tossing in their green curbside bucket.  The waste then moves through a rotating drum with four-inch openings.  Bits that are smaller pass through, while the over-sized pieces (or, “overs”, in composting parlance) continue on.  The overs travel to a sorting tent where employees pick through the waste to remove contaminants: plastics, glass, metal – usually items that should have been tossed in the recycling bin rather than the compost bin.  The sorted overs are ground up and mixed back with the waste that originally passed through the four-inch screen.

Four-inch screen at the Recology composting facility. (Photo credit: Andrew Guswa)

Four-inch screen at the Recology composting facility. (Photo credit: Andrew Guswa)

Then the process really begins.  To ensure an appropriate carbon-to-nitrogren ratio for the microbes and a bulk density that allows sufficient air to pass through the waste, one bucket of food waste is mixed with two to three buckets of yard waste (think grass clippings and brush cuttings).  The combined organic wastes are then placed on top of four perforated pipes that draw air down through the pile to ensure that the microbial decomposition remains aerobic and at the right temperature.  After thirty days “on air”, the waste is moved into rows, where it cures for another thirty days.  The finished compost is then sieved through a quarter-inch screen to remove any stray bits of plastic and glass before being sold.

Organic waste “on air” – note the pipes along the bottom that pull air down through the pile. (Photo credit: Andrew Guswa)

Organic waste “on air” – note the pipes along the bottom that pull air down through the pile. (Photo credit: Andrew Guswa)

As Greg points out, more and more farmers and landscapers are recognizing the value of organic matter as a contributor to healthy soils, and the composting business is transitioning from a focus on waste-management to a focus on creating a valuable product.  When I asked Greg to identify his biggest challenge, he indicated the contamination of their feedstocks, e.g., that stray plastic bottle that ends up in the compost bin rather than the recycling bucket.  As you might imagine, farmers and landscapers do not want compost riddled with shards of plastic and glass.  With better quality control on their inputs, i.e. with all of us doing a better job of sorting our wastes, this circular economy has the potential to really take off.

– Andrew Guswa, Professor of Engineering, is currently on sabbatical in California.

Cider Pressing with CEEDS

2 Nov

Over Family Weekend this year students and their families gathered outside the Campus Center to celebrate Fall with CEEDS faculty, staff and student interns by pressing cider, tasting apples, eating freshly made cider donuts and sampling cheese. Attendees got to press their own fresh cider the old fashioned way via hand-cranked cider presses. More apples were consumed at the heirloom apple tasting table where seven very different local apple varieties were available for tasting. Dining Services partnered with us to offer some tasty aged local cheeses to pair with the apples.

Click through the gallery to see some photos from the event.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

– Brittany Bennett is a senior Engineering Science major hailing from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She hopes to educate engineers on how to best create a more sustainable world.

Agriculture and transboundary infectious diseases – the Ebola crisis

14 Oct

20141010-BABY-slide-MFC3-videoSixteenByNine1050_NYTPhoto: Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

International Food Policy Research Institute Director General Shenggen Fan has authored an opinion piece on the implications of the Ebola crisis for food systems in West Africa. The article, Preventing an Ebola-Related Food Crisis, was posted to IFPRI’s DG Corner blog on October 9th.

Agricultural production, food importation, labor availability, and local trade have been significantly upset in many regions struck with the virus. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 40 percent of farmers in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, have abandoned their farms since the outbreak, while cultivation has ceased on 90 percent of agricultural land. Harvests have been disrupted due to labor shortages as people fall ill, are quarantined, or are prevented from traveling freely. Consequences include decreased food availability and rapid increases in food prices: the cost of rice has increased by up to 30% in Ebola-stricken regions (World Bank 2014), while cassava has jumped in price by up to 150% in Liberia (FAO 2014). See the original World Bank and FAO reports for more information.

Fan offers his own recommendations for moderating what could become a large-scale food crisis. I assume this blog’s readership includes those who share my interest in evidence-based agricultural growth that is responsive to the needs of people – perhaps you also have thoughts on the implications of zoonotic epidemics for agricultural livelihoods, and what can and should be done in times of crisis.

I have more questions than answers.

– Jacqueline Maasch ’16J

Jacqueline is an anthropology major, environmental science & policy minor, and sustainable food concentrator. Her interests include agroecology, human health & nutrition, (agro)biodiversity conservation, and climate.

Learning to understand a food forest

1 Jul

The outdoor realm of the world has always held more fascination for me than that of the built environment, mostly, I think, because of the variety of smells. At home, those smells were pine needles and green peas, strawberries and mulch. In Ecuador, where I’m completing a two-month tropical food production internship on a biosphere reserve, the smells are vastly different but still provide fascination for me; the smells of maracullá and papaya, donkeys and thatched roofs mingle with motor oil and moist air for an intoxicating mixture of jungle community. When I first arrived in the 350-person community of Camarones four weeks ago, I made the three-kilometer trek up to the Jama-Coaque Biosphere Reserve. I unpacked in the bamboo tree house and became acquainted with the moist evergreen forest surrounding me. I looked out on the tree-covered mountains and immediately took stock of what was lacking from my normal view—power lines, roofs, and road cuts, to name a few. What was present was thereby made more special—I saw powerful hummingbirds hovering over passion flowers, countless bizarre insects, as well as a mish-mash of fruit trees and shrubs that would soon become my fascination. About an acre of the Jama-Coaque Reserve is a permaculture food forest, and this site is where I’m spending most of my time.

I’m learning more and more that a permaculture system looks akin to a half-forgotten forest. And even more, I’m learning this laissez-faire appearance is intentional—strived for even. This is hard for me to comprehend; I come from a suburban New England town where lawns were the norm and any stray dandelion was blasphemous and immediately attacked with any number of chemicals, from RAID to Windex. In school, I was praised for having all my papers in numerical order and at home I was rewarded for keeping the table clean. These subtle influences made me want to control everything in my reach. This tendency mostly manifests itself in a clean room, doing most of the driving on road trips, and taking on the mother role in many friend groups.

This controlling trait of mine has also applied to most of the gardening I’ve done in my life. Gardening brings me joy and peace because I have a hand in producing the food that I consume. Neat rows, not a single maple seedling in sight, and beautifully trellised tomatoes are my favorite TV shows and I could watch them for hours. Of course, there have been mishaps, including a slapdash pea trellis, and a bunch of tomatoes whose growth was stunted when I mistook their terminal buds for suckers (suckers are sometimes removed from tomatoes so that energy is sent to a few tomatoes to make them bigger—in this case, the tomato plants had to send lots of energy into a sucker stem to create a new terminal bud).

Nothing compares, though, to the chaos and beauty of permaculture. To my control-focused brain, a permaculture system is difficult to comprehend, but I’m coming to understand the purpose. Along with the general food production my internship entails, I will also be getting a Permaculture Design Certification. This certification will verify that I am capable of designing a system that might look like an overgrown forest but that is so productive the fruits of my labor will literally be falling on my head (this is not an exaggeration—I’ve had maracullá, or passion fruit, fall off its vine into my lap while reading in a hammock).

The food production side of the reserve is still young, but some of my favorite permaculture techniques that the reserve employs include a water filtration system that uses beneficial bacteria that inhabit sand and eat harmful microorganisms, making the river water potable; planting ginger rhizomes to outcompete weeds; and utilizing the cleansing properties of banana and yucca plants to filter our grey water. I am also learning the concepts of design, which really just define common sense principles of using a problem to create a solution, among other things. The crux of permaculture is to design sustainable human settlements, something we all need to put all of our time and energy into.

Life on the reserve is similar to a permaculture system—while most of our food still does not come from the backyard, bananas, oranges, limes, passion fruit, yucca, oreganon, spicy ají peppers and a spinach-like green called verdulaga come in from the food forest and supplement our diet. Our days are relaxed and full of learning. The day starts at eight, maybe clearing the understory with machetes or harvesting oranges and cacao in the forest, followed by an extended lunch, and then permaculture class. The day ends at four and a good two or three hours of my afternoon are consumed by reading (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert are my latest obsessions). Since there is no electricity, dinners are shared by candlelight and then after a game of cards it’s to bed at 8:30.

One of the things I’ll miss the most when I return to the States is having an infinite supply of fresh local bananas at my doorstep. The coast of Ecuador is prime banana country—“banana heaven” is what my intern coordinator called it—and each week it’s someone’s chore to harvest a whole stalk. Bananas are actually overgrown herbaceous plants, not trees, and their vascular system is amazing. To harvest the fruit, one must cut down the plant, which then exudes copious amounts of sap. Each xylem tube of the plant is visible to the naked eye, making the cut stump look something like a beehive, but with rectangular holes instead of hexagonal. A banana stalk contains anywhere between 25-35 bananas and terminates in a long stem holding its purple flower bud. Since all bananas that are cultivated today are clones, bananas do not reproduce sexually, so this flower never gets to complete its natural cycle. Bananas produce pups at their base, which grow into subsequent plants in about nine month. I pretty much swore off of bananas a while ago for the well-known politico-social reasons, but while in Ecuador I’m planning to consume as many as my body can stand and appreciate this bizarre fruit’s sweetness while I can.

The most recent adventure in tropical food production surrounded a pile of light-brown fermented seedpods. These seeds had been harvested from age-old trees and their orange outer-pods sat fermenting in a bag for about three days and then spent the past two weeks drying in the sun. Yesterday, we toasted them over a low flame and then cracked open the casings to reveal a midnight black oval with a delicious fragrance. Once ground, this end result was turned into xocolatl—“bitter liquid” in the Aztec language Nahuatl. In other words, hot chocolate. From the tree to the cup, chocolate takes on many forms, and in the process I experienced we didn’t even make a classic chocolate bar. Yet I have to say my favorite part of this whole cacao process was not sipping of the panela-sweetened drink but sucking on the freshly harvested outer pods, which are coated with a sweet and slightly tangy goo that is absolute heaven. My fellow food production interns and I sat for about an hour shelling the pods and intermittently sticking one into our mouths to enjoy that sweet flavor. Cacao is actually native to Ecuador, yet most modern cacao does not come from here. However, the majority of the highest quality cacao is grown in coastal Ecuador, right near the reserve. So while I’m eating locally now, I will sadly never be able to taste the fine flavor of Ecuadorian cacao in a Hershey’s bar…but who needs those anyway? I’ll have my chaotic, fruit-falling permaculture garden design to keep me happy when I return.

P.S. I apologize for the lack of pictures—we operate with limited technology up here! If you’d like some photos of this project, visit the reserve’s website at, their facebook page at or check out my fellow intern’s blog at

-Julia Graham, ’16

Feeding our Hearts and our Heads

29 Nov

Have you noticed the new signs in our dining halls –maps, information about animal by products, and information about food available locally? These spiffy visuals are the work of the environmental science and policy capstone class (ENV 312) as they focus on community environmental issues right here on campus. The students have been taking a closer look at on how much of Smith’s dining food is local, where it is coming from, and what the student response is to local foods on campus.

For example, this week new maps have gone up in dining halls to highlight the food being served that is produced locally. Did you know that yogurt from Sidehill Farm comes right from Hawley, MA (28 miles away). Also, since last January, Smith College made the transition to using ALL cage free eggs provided from a local grower in NH. In the winter, many of our carrots, radishes and parsnips are supplied by Winter Moon Farm and transported the 4.5 miles to campus via bike cart!

local map

In addition, table tents and small handouts about our rBGH-free milk, available in many dining halls from Guida Farms in CT, can be found scattered around dining halls. Keep your eyes open for special meals featuring locally grown meat, such as Thanksgiving dinner and Julia Child’s Night, where products come straight from Massachusetts farms.

By showing your appreciation for these efforts, students can support Dining Services decision to purchasing more local, sustainable food that feeds us better and helps our community farmers at the same time! Look for the yellow sticker that denotes local food in dining halls today.

Also, please share you thoughts and feelings about our food on campus by taking our survey. It takes just 5 minutes of your time, and you could win a prize for participating!

Bridge 1 circle 3

-Hanna Mogensen, ’14
CEEDS Intern

Food for Thought: Alumnae and Food!

13 May

As an almost-alum, I am often worrying (no thanks to CDO emails and phone calls with my mother) about post-grad plans. While there are a plethora of opportunities to explore and tons of places to go, loans, a limited budget, and lack of experience in the world of work are definitely limiting factors when it comes to finding a job. While many of my fellow Smith grads are off to take jobs in the city, living out their Fulbright dreams, traveling abroad, or interning at the company of their dreams, I find myself less sure of what I want my future to look like.

Growing up on Cape Cod, I usually spent my summers sailing, swimming, and, along with most of my peers, working in a restaurant. Because the majority of my hometown’s economy depends on the revenue generated by tourism (the population triples—from 33,000 to about 100,000—in the summertime), there is no shortage of seasonal restaurants, ice cream shops, and cafes. Working in the food industry, for me, has always been almost second nature. Yet, as overfishing continues and many restaurants (usually for financial reasons) continue to buy produce from big food service companies who aren’t necessarily concerned with the sustainability and origins of their products, the prospect of spending my summer shucking clams and doling out lobster rolls becomes less appealing every day. So, to help quell my own uneasiness about life after graduation, I chatted with a few alums who have found fulfilling and rewarding work in the food industry.

Maggie Kraus, Class of 2012

Maggie is perhaps better known to Smithies (and her ever-widening fan base) as half of the folk duo Hannah & Maggie, which performs regularly in and around New York City, and has spent much of the last two summers touring the country. She graduated last May with a Comparative Literature major, a Spanish minor, and an Archives Concentration, and promptly hopped in the car and drove across the U.S. to promote her newly released CD. She returned home to New Jersey in September with no job and no plans. Her first priority was, she says, “to find some sort of income”.

What she ended up doing turned out to be very different than her life on stage. Maggie usually wakes up around 6 or 7 and walks a few minutes into town to The Able Baker, where she works the register, serves coffee, cleans, washes dishes, and occasionally bakes.

“I was walking my dog the first time I spotted a small bakery nestled in the corner of town. I knew it couldn’t have been there long (it certainly wasn’t there the last time I lived at home) but it was bustling with people: happy people! Even the customers, standing in a considerable line for coffee, were smiling.” Not wanting to miss an opportunity, she called them when she got home to ask if they were hiring—which they were. She’s been a full-time employee now for eight months, and, she’ll tell you without hesitation, it’s the best job she’s ever had.

“It’s so refreshing to wake up (early!) and help other people start their day on a good note. Working at the bakery has definitely transformed the way I look at “sweets”. If they’re made right (with real, simple, and fresh ingredients) there’s a lot less to feel guilty about. The best part about my job is that I actually believe in the food we’re making. I love telling people that the milk and eggs are delivered from local farms, and that our insanely delicious banana bread is gluten-free, nut-free, and dairy-free.” The owners and staff have also been a big part of her positive experience at the bakery. “They’ve treated me like family since the first time I put on an apron. I could never have predicted finding this job but I’m so, so happy I did!”

While Maggie is not quite sure of where her life (and music) will take her, she’s enjoying her time at the Able Baker. For the immediate future, she plans to take a trip to Ireland with her mother before heading off across the country to tour with Hannah in July. If it’s in the cards, she’ll most likely return to the Able Baker in September, continuing her foray in the food service industry. Yet if she doesn’t, it is clear that Maggie sees her time at the bakery as more of an opportunity than a financial obligation, which is perhaps a sign that sometimes not making plans can lead you to find something you didn’t even know you were looking for.

Image Pies being made from scratch at the Able Baker.

Yoanna Torres, Class of 2010

During her time at Smith, Yoanna’s studies  focused on Sociology and the Study of Women and Gender. When she graduated, Yoanna worked briefly for the census in Easthampton—a job she would not highly recommend. “People were so mean. They would just slam the door in my face. One man crumpled it up and threw it at me. It was terrible.” When the census was over, she started working at Goberry for a bit before heading off to spend some time in Peru. She then returned to Northampton, and to Goberry, where she continues to work now.

Like everyone else who works there, Yoanna started by working hourly. From there (if you seem responsible), employees are given the opportunity to become a shift supervisor. Usually, this is as far “up” as one can go, but now Yoanna is also the General Manager for both the Northampton and Amherst stores.  “I developed a personal relationship with Molly and Alex, the two owners. We work really well together and they needed someone to run the store so that they didn’t have to worry about the day-to-day stuff, and that’s where I came in.”

Yoanna, for now, plans to stay at Goberry until at least next summer. The pay is good and she really enjoys the people she works with, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t making any future plans. “I think I want to go back to school. I’ve also been thinking that maybe I want to start my own business—but that requires an idea, which I don’t really have yet.” As for working in the food industry, Yoanna describes it as “a mixed bag”.

“I love food, and I love interacting with people. Sometimes food service brings out the worst in people, and people can be so demanding to the extent that they’re rude. I like the part of my job that makes other people happy—food makes people happy for the most part. I hate the parts that make people unhappy, especially because often times they have nothing to do with me or my product or my job.”

However, the “downsides” don’t seem to ruining her hopes of starting her own business sometime down the line, and Yoanna feels confident that she will probably continue to work with and around food. Her experience in the industry has led her to see that a possible career path would definitely be “do-able”, as well as something she would enjoy. However, embarking down this path doesn’t mean she’ll be compromising her personal beliefs in the process. “I feel strongly about making connections with local farmers and having it be a community establishment, as opposed to just a business. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that sort of thing, but I just don’t think that would fulfill me.”

Thanks a lot to Maggie and Yoanna for taking the time to chat with me, and good luck to you both in the future, wherever it may lead you!

-Eva McNamara, ’13

Food for Thought: Food and the Smith Culture

9 May

Food is a huge part of Smith College culture—lectures, club meetings, concerts, and celebrations are advertised with treats, offering ice cream, pizza, cookies and more. Dining services takes student’s dietary needs and requests seriously (you can read more about that here!), and tea & snacks are served weekly in Smith houses. Looking at the college today, it is hard to imagine that at one time it was against the rules for students to have food outside the dining rooms. Food history at Smith, and other women’s colleges, is complicated—diet trends, health concerns, and external pressure have all played a role in deciding what the women at these institutions were consuming, especially in the late 1800s, when women were finally being given greater access to higher education.

Despite the opening of many women’s colleges during this time (Mount Holyoke was given its collegiate charter in 1888, Wellesley opened in 1870, and Smith in 1875) many did not believe that college was a place for women. In 1867, Dr. Edward H. Clarke of Harvard insisted that the colligate environment was not fit for females, saying that the “educational methods of our schools and colleges for girls are, to a large extent, the cause of ‘the thousand ills’ that beset American woman”. He claimed that these institutions caused “irrational cooking”, “indigestible diet”, and “unassailable abominations”. In order to “protect a woman’s future”, he asserted that you must control her food, as this was the basis for “safeguarding her crucial contributions to both family and society”(Brewer).

Although institutions of higher education for women persisted, at least early on, the health of the students remained a top concern of college officials. In 1877, for example, officials at Wellesley College decided that, because of “the prevailing delicacy of health in American girls”, dietary restrictions would be put in place. Students were not allowed to buy or receive any food other than that which was served by the college, and ultimately, eating was not allowed between meals. Women who broke these rules faced suspension, and, in some cases, expulsion. Similar restrictions were not uncommon at other women’s colleges—although the strictness of the rules around food varied from place to place.

As one might expect, the students at Wellesley had mixed responses to the new rules. Some followed them strictly so as to avoid the possible consequences. Student Louise Edwards wrote home to say that “so much has been said on the subject of eating between meals that most of the girls would as soon almost take poison”. Students hid packages from home, some so afraid of being caught that they kept them wrapped and hidden until the end of the year. But there were also those who bent the rules and those who disregarded them altogether. Clara Capron, a first year at Wellesley, complained to the college physician, claiming headaches and requesting to be allowed to eat fruit between meals. Francis Robinson, a sophomore, had a bit more disdain for the regulations. She told her mother, “Mr. Durant said that if a girl ate any fruit in her room they would expel her. I have some grapes, peaches and pears in my room and what is more I’m going to eat them.” Other stories echo this sentiment—girls having fudge sent to them from home wrapped carefully under clothes, or hiding cakes in the attic to avoid being caught red (velvet)-handed.

Image “A Memorial of exams, essays, metrical travilations [sic] and the like.”
Tea party with Bertha Allen and Helen Lambert, 12 March 1892.
Smith College Archives

By the 1880’s, especially at places like Vassar where consequences were less harsh, “Chafing dish clubs” appeared—late night meetings at which students would gather “with blinds shut and curtains drawn, and a gossamer water-proof draped carefully over the transom”. These “spreads” became almost gluttonous for some—oysters on silver platters and fudge parties drew crowds of friends. Dorthy Firman wrote home in 1906 from Wellesley to say that “a girl might as well not come to college if she hasn’t a good digestion. She can’t have any fun.” 

As spreads became more popular, students began to disregard the rules with abandon, publicizing their consumption-based gatherings. Spreads were used to celebrate—sometimes specific events like engagements and birthdays—and also used simply as a way to gather together with one’s friends. As the secret gatherings spread, faculty became more lenient about enforcing the rules, often purposely ignoring the “telltale aroma of fudge or hot chocolate” which could betray a party. Eventually, students felt so comfortable with their spreads that they were reported to have begun stealing ingredients (like milk) from the school kitchens. Judging from my Smith experience, late night kitchen raids are still common—hence locks being placed on the fridges in the dining halls during my first year.

By the turn of the century, colleges had begun to sanction the spreads, although many still questioned their “dangers”, especially as they became more extravagant. In 1901, Wellesley president Caroline Hazard voiced her concerns about spreads distracting students from their studies, and noted that perhaps the time spent entertaining (and cleaning up) was causing the women to “hurry to [their] necessary duties”. And she was not alone. Mount Holyoke student Amy Roberts wrote home in 1898 to tell her mother of the time constraints she and her roommate faced. “Carrie and I are beginning to think that our social duties are quite oppressive…We could get along quite nicely if it wasn’t for our studies.”

Today, women’s colleges are far different from what they were in the past, yet students still engage in joyous, celebratory eating, especially at Smith. Northampton is home to many wonderful cafés in which Smithies often do their work and socialize. Alumna Julia Child is remembered with a feast of sorts in the fall, and the college never falls short on providing cheese and desserts for weekly tea. It seems safe to say that if it were not for the determination of the alumnae who refused to follow the dietary guidelines forced upon them, Smith, and the other seven sisters, would not have become the schools they are today.

Image Zoe Sperber ’13, making snacks for the Smith College Vibes

You can read more about chafing dish clubs in Pricilla Brewer’s essay, The Chafing Dish and the College Girl that is included in Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias, edited by Madden and Finch. Looking Good, by Margaret A. Lowe, also offers an in-depth look at diet culture in the early 20th century. Interestingly, Ms. Lowe used a lot of material from the Smith College Archives in doing her research. But, if you would rather see actual pictures, read letters, and delve into alumna’s thoughts and lives, check out the Smith College Archives (located in the Alumnae Gym) yourself!

-Eva McNamara, ’13

Food for Thought: Concentrator Nichole Calero!

3 May

Nichole Calero, an Ada Comstock Scholar in her last semester at Smith, hails from Great Barrington, MA. Always ahead of the curve, Nichole was planning to study food at Smith through the structure of an American Studies degree very early on. When Smith added the Sustainable Food Concentration, she applied immediately.

“I took Landscape Studies my first semester here, and that really inspired me, because it gave me a whole new toolset to look at things with.” Nichole has enriched her course selection at Smith (other favorites included Writing About Food, Economic Botany, and ENX 300, the concentration capstone) with practical experiences, the first of which was her time spent interning at Berkshire Grown, an organization in Berkshire County that promotes local food and farms. “Essentially they called me the outreach intern. My job was to understand what Berkshire Grown was about, and visit members who may not have had much contact with the organization, but were producers in the area.”  This means that Nichole visited farmers, and gave them the opportunity to ask any questions, bring up any concerns, give feedback, and offer suggestions. This one on one time with farmers eventually led to Nichole creating individual bios for each farm that were put on the website. For her second required practical experience Nichole worked on a CSA farm (which she had previously been a member of) for a season—a different, yet equally important, learning experience in the world of food.


When Nichole discusses her future plans, she looks broadly at the past, and, more specifically, at food trends. While she finds diet trends fascinating from a personal standpoint, she also finds them troubling, particularly in terms of the inherently classist nature of food tendencies, especially the new sustainable food movement. “When you look at social patterns and how they work, you see over and over again that the upper class finds something “trendy” that the lower class is doing for survival and then they promote it.  So [in the case of sustainable food] now you have people growing their own food and it’s “the thing to do.” Just like supporting small farms is “the thing to do”, instead of just a thing to do. But that inevitably excludes a lot of people, and some people can’t afford a CSA share (although I’m noticing that more and more farmers markets and CSA farms are accepting food stamps, and that’s great). When I first started my education I really wanted to understand marketing, so that I could help promote the local food movement. Now I think that’s the wrong angle, so I’m more interested in working with an organization that seeks to bring food access to the people who aren’t currently able to have it.”

As for the Sustainable Food Concentration, Nichole is excited that it’s finally here, despite it taking years for these ideas to become mainstream enough to merit collegiate acknowledgement.  “These ideas are really important for the survival of the environment, and for the survival of the human species—all species actually. I think that it’s great that Smith has taken a step to create the MacLeish field station, but it’s very removed from campus. I realize that iconically it’s important for the Smith campus to be beautiful and designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, but I think that it would be beneficial for Smith to take another initiative and go ahead and let us have more than a single community garden that’s tucked away behind buildings. The Smith Community Garden is great, but it would be beneficial for the college to make something that’s inclusive for more than just the students who are interested in this line of thinking.”

Anything else?

“I’m really proud to be one of the first graduates from the Sustainable Food Concentration, because I think it’s a sign that Smith is really acknowledging that this is a really important aspect of our future.”

Thank you to Nichole for chatting with me—I can’t wait to see where your passions take you!

-Eva McNamara, ’13