What’s for supper?

Students outside Saints’ Rest ca. 1857. Image from MSU Archives.

If you missed my poster two weeks ago at the Midwest Historical Archaeology Conference hosted at MSU, I’m also going to share my research here on the CAP blog.  The poster, entitled “What’s for Supper?  Food preferences and availability at the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan”, was a summary of my faunal analysis of the Feature 125 remains associated with the all-male Saints’ Rest dormitory (Boarding Hall, 1857-1876).  We believe this feature to be kitchen refuse because it contained animal bones with butchery marks, ceramics, and glass.

With this project, I attempted to answer the following question: During this period, were students able to select preferred meats or were they limited by availability?  President of the College, Lewis R. Fiske, wrote in his personal report on February 26, 1862 that “so much animal food is consumed in the Boarding Hall”, a comment supported by the variety of beef cuts CAP found in the feature.  This is not a surprising discovery—a group of young men doing farm labor every day in addition to studying would get very hungry indeed!  Archaeological and documentary records also show, in addition to beef, pork, mutton, chicken and wild game were consumed by students.

This chart shows cuts of beef found in Feature 125. All parts of the animal were being eaten.

The results of my research were skewed in favor of beef because cow bones are large and dense, making them more likely to survive in the archaeological record.  Approximately fifty cows are represented by the sample from the feature, but only one pig and one sheep could be found, despite large numbers of them recorded in President Fiske’s papers.  Of all the animals found in the feature, 73% were juveniles, showing a clear preference for young meat.  Older stock were usually kept for breeding and milk or wool.

The role of availability is less clear.  While the College did kept their own stock, I was unable to find out if animals were being butchered on campus between 1857 and 1876.  Also, there are financial records showing that beef, pork, mutton, and chicken were being purchased from local butchers for the students to eat.  Further research needs to be conducted on the placement and construction date of the campus slaughterhouse, and also on the names and roles of the individuals selecting meat for Saints’ Rest residents.



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