Students gather on move-in day in 2023.
Author: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Nicole Guglielmo

The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for 30 years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.

— Calvin Trillin

The kindly editorial family (keep in mind this is “family” in a New Jersey sense) here at Your Favorite Periodical has, over the years, been magnanimous in allowing many flights of fancy on my part, without any apparent retributive effort to narrow my focus on various Princeton historical figures and issues. The capos have, however, recently instituted periodic theme issues of PAW which serve to sharpen somewhat the adaptive skills of us scribblers while also hopefully being a thoughtful deep dive for those wonderful alums out there in the dark. In honoring my own treatment, I’ve always tried to op-ed thematically while never intruding on the topic-development process itself; but I will admit there was a theme I secretly hoped would someday rise to the Pantheon of Chosenness, and against all odds this year it did: the Food Issue.

There are two reasons this has been a secret wish. One was ease of subject; I have no choice, even given the breadth of Princeton’s history, about what the column topic must be. If I somehow wrote otherwise, the potential of my premature demise would arise, and that’s not what I signed up for. So be assured that, in concert with the unanimous wishes of the classes of 1919 through 1985, we will recall an era of University sustenance conveniently summed up in a single word.


A seemingly innocuous and murkily ambiguous term in other collegiate contexts, “Commons” to a Princetonian of a certain age reanimates not only the feeling of a particular room and atmosphere, but specific conversations (a significant portion food-related, beginning with basics: did this used to be food?), occasions, and even detailed menus. To this day, anyone from my era needs to be safely away from breakable household treasures before the term “Shepherd’s pie” is broached.

This is getting ahead of myself. Commons, for the young and/or cloistered, was an interlocking series of five Gothic dining halls seating perhaps 200-300 persons each, wherein the entire freshman and sophomore classes ate whatever meals they had to, after standing in line to be admitted in a way that would only seem Dickensian if you were literate. And yes, being on the corner of Nassau Street and University Place, if you had an 11 a.m. class in the E-Quad, you tramped over there to stand in line, eat your ham (?) sandwich au platter and soup au tureen, then dash to your 1:10 p.m. physics lab way down in Jadwin Hall. With 10 or 12 people to a long table (many still in use decades later in various guises), Commons waiters (fellow students picking up some $$) would, when a table was full, serve pitchers of ****, platters of ****** and tureens of ***** to the awaiting penitents en masse, broadening the homey restaurant term of “family style” into a vague existential threat. The idea today of 1,500 people going through this singular exercise 15-20 times per week seems at the bleeding edge of credibility; hence the vivid recollections these many years later. Shepherd’s pie. The group dynamic this created during the 50 years Commons was all men was not unexpected. When a delay in the kitchen held up food delivery to the tables, prison-movie-type stomping and pounding might develop. Spontaneous standing orations regarding particular food items from aspiring Whig-Clio members were not unheard of. There was spooning: A date whose host couldn’t afford to take her anywhere else would, upon her leaving the hall after her repast, be impolitely evaluated via the banging of spoons on their tables by the seated males, the more attractive the louder, to the embarrassment of absolutely everyone. And of course, there was the nuclear option: a food fight in the secure knowledge that someone would one day immortalize it on film, as in John Landis’ Animal House

You’ll recall there was a second reason I was compelled to write about food. It’s my mom. An excellent chef herself, raised on the farm during the Depression in a barter economy and capable of cooking anything well, she was also brilliant and focused — a whizbang accountant and the first woman graduate of the University of Illinois’ College of Commerce. When I was accepted at Princeton from a public high school, she morphed into the Defender of the Family Virtue, entrusted with hiding my crass plebeian persona from the prying eyes of the Ivy gentry. This rapidly focused around my table manners: not only the right fork, but posture, mouth sounds, bite size, toothbrushing beforehand, you get the gist. Exhaustively, for the entire summer before my freshman year. Then I stood in line and went to Commons, where it rapidly dawned on me that utensils were optional, never mind the rest: One summer, shot to hell. Anyway, I never said a word to my wonderful, dedicated mom; I just took her to Commons on her first trip to Princeton. She observed everything with a keen eye, the huge platters and dishes of bland but (that day) not terrible food, the randomly behaving and disheveled clientele, the novel approaches to ingestion, if any. Then she was spooned on the way out; I made up some cockamamie story, but I doubt she bought it. From that moment, I honestly don’t recall any discussion between us of table manners for the remainder of her 91-year-long life. God bless you, Libbie. 

Huge constructs such as Commons do not just arise organically in the natural order of dietary things. [That would be your wildflowers and raw venison.] It took 160 years of culinary disasters at Princeton to create the need and the will. Technically, from 1756 Nassau Hall didn’t do too badly feeding a small student population as long as it was in the basement (long before electricity). Coffee, tea, and bread for breakfast; beer, cider or occasionally chocolate and bread for supper; butter for a treat; and for noontime dinner, local fish, fowl, meat and potatoes, or maybe a pie (Shepherd’s pie?). The quality suffered in the lean financial times following the Revolution, and then Nassau Hall burnt to the walls in 1802. Whilst that was under reconstruction, President Samuel Stanhope Smith 1769 erected Geological Hall (now Stanhope) and the mirror image Refectory, with new kitchen facilities, across the front campus. The sustenance barely improved, and in 1815 the trustees on one of their power binges actually cut the food budget. Eating in town was preferred, nay envied; unpromising refectory “food” was expelled through open windows. Among the wealthier students, eating clubs of varying formality began to appear in the 1840s, then the real tipoff came. When Nassau Hall burned again in 1855, some of its functions supplanted the Refectory kitchen, and on campus dining simply vanished; the building became Philosophical Hall. Students were on their own for meals in whatever clubs, boarding houses, and presumably in-season game preserves were handy and affordable. When President James McCosh arrived after the Civil War, he brutally stamped out any vestige of Greek fraternities, but left the eating societies alone for lack of any ready alternative. Then the privately built brick University Hotel died after eight inauspicious years and the college took it over as a dorm in 1884, with dining space for 250 students. As the junior/senior clubs solidified and moved to Prospect Avenue, University Hall (as rechristened) meal plans became required of freshmen in 1906, then sophomores in 1908, however the ramshackle facility was not only inadequate but essentially condemned. Woodrow Wilson 1879’s college plan would have offered a replacement, but when it died with his presidency in 1910, urgency married the need for sustenance with both the donor community and the collegiate Gothic transformation underway by architect Ralph Adams Cram. The result, adjacent to gorgeous new Holder Hall, was the 1916 colossus of Commons, donated by the widow of megafinancier Russell Sage (a friend of Cram), Day & Klauder’s complex of five dining halls and a central kitchen on the corner of University & Nassau, the bustling hub of Princeton dining operations to this day. In all essentials, it was the same locus of the freshman and sophomore classes 50 years later when my mom innocently dropped in. Then by 1970 table service was gone, supplanted by rudimentary cafeteria lines, and in 1982 the new frosh/soph colleges (Wilson’s idea took 75 years) decentralized eating across the campus, to the tune of over two million dollars in dining service upgrades alone.

Today, the five vaulted Commons halls not only serve food to Rockefeller College (Madison) and Mathey College (Upper Eagle), but provide Hogwartsy common rooms to both (Upper Cloister and Lower Cloister) and a joint library (Sub Eagle). The food, in part because of a huge servery update in 2007, is miraculously good, no matter what your sophomore nephew says. Of course, if you drop in toward closing time on a slack weekend, nuzzle into a quiet corner and take a hard listen, the clang of the serving pitchers and line calls of the Commons captains may once again seem to intrude, and the mood may seem to revert. Shepherd’s pie.