Food Fight: A Brief History of the Roosevelt Cafeteria

Cafeteria scenes from the 1940s and ’50s.

College students and food have a long, conflicted history. Older alumni at many colleges may recall dubious offerings like mystery meat, weak coffee, and tuna surprise — and student complaints about cafeteria food are legion. A student riot occurred at Harvard College in 1766 because “the butter stinketh.” In 1818, a food fight at Harvard led to the expulsion of the entire sophomore class.

Cafeteria scenes from the 1940s and ’50s.

Since 1947, there has been a cafeteria at Roosevelt’s downtown Chicago Campus — though its location has changed several times. During the late 1940s, the cafeteria was located on the south side of the Michigan Avenue lobby, where the marketing and public relations office now lives.

By 1955, the cafeteria was on the Congress Parkway side of the second floor of the Auditorium Building. During the early 1960s, it relocated to the third floor, and later to the second floor corridor facing Wabash Avenue. When the Herman Crown Center opened in 1970, the cafeteria operated on the west side of the second floor. Since 2012, the current McCormick Dining Center on the second floor of the Wabash Building has overlooked the Wabash Avenue elevated train. There have also been cafeterias at two other sites: University Center Chicago and the Schaumburg Campus.

Food Service Director Bill Reich.

It was not always a serene place to be. In 1947, The Torch student newspaper called cafeteria food “sleazy and monotonous … and carelessly and amateurishly prepared.” Some students that year discussed creating a cooperative cafeteria. In 1949, the Student Council voted to boycott the cafeteria if it did not improve, and an editorial in The Torch noted the “not-so-spotless silverware, the restricted menu, the oft-times poorly prepared food, and the mediocre seven-cent coffee.”

Executive Chef Charlie Taylor; the McCormick Dining Center.

Over the years complaints continued, and in 1971, a student guide called Truckin’ Thru RU helpfully listed local restaurant alternatives because the cafeteria was a place where “plastic-wrapped sandwiches and sterile hot dishes turn our stomachs.”

Cafeteria scenes from the 1960s and ’70s.

Others have fonder memories. Earl Rodney (BBA, ’54) recalled that his favorite dish in the cafeteria was “ham hocks and lima bean stew”; Ethel Crisp (BA, ’74), some 20 years later, remembered the “delicious hamburger with lots of pickles.” One anonymous student during the 1970s treated himself every day to a Suzy Q snack cake. More recently, Arielle Antolin (BA, ’16) proposed the addition of a “grilled pepper jack cheese and burger with bacon bits on white bread.” The cafeteria adopted the suggestion and promptly named the sandwich “The Arielle A+ Burger.”

“The pizza puff: ridiculously greasy but my treat to myself after a jam-packed day of classes.”

Bianca Milligan (BA, ’17)

Michael Shatz (BM, ’50) wrote in the book Memories of the First 60 Years that the cafeteria was a “melting pot of races and nationalities” and “the heart of the school.” Similarly, retired U.S. diplomat Jacques Paul Klein (BA, ’63; MA, ’73) remembered the cafeteria as “the focal point for our debates, arguments and critiques but — most importantly — camaraderie … Who could not help but be enriched by such a multiethnic, multiracial, multicultural and diverse student body?” In contrast, others noted that there was sometimes self-segregation of students by race, religion, athletic identity, gender or college.

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