Student Food Through the Ages

Some details of student life have changed over the centuries, but one thing is a constant: students have strong opinions about the food they were served.

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Dating back to 1220 – that’s before the first colleges were founded, when the University of Oxford was more of an informal grouping of halls and teachers – there’s a letter from ‘B. to his venerable master A.’ (translated), which notes that ‘the city is expensive… without Ceres and Bacchus Apollo grows cold’. To explain, Ceres was the Greek god of food, Bacchus of wine and Apollo of music. In the 800 years since then, student letters (and texts, and emails…) home to their parents might have changed in terms of the type and quantity of Classical references, but not so much in terms of their content.
Yet what students have eaten from their always-insufficient funds has varied considerably over the centuries. The medieval student would have had no potatoes, no coffee, no citrus fruit and no chocolate. Meat would have been a treat and the religious calendar would have imposed feasts and fasts to be observed too – all quite different from modern student life, for the most part. Here’s a look at six eras of student life, and the food they would have enjoyed – or, perhaps more often, grumbled about.

1. Medieval students

Thin pickings at odd times.

Medieval students did not have an easy time of it. Between the outbreaks of plague, the rioting when town and gown rubbed each other up the wrong way one time too many and the fights between students that were a normal part of university life, they didn’t even have much by the way of good food to comfort themselves with. These young men – who could be as young as 14, and therefore still be growing – were often not wealthy, as they could be the sons of clergymen following in their fathers’ footsteps. Wealthier students could request money from home and enjoy the diet of the medieval upper classes, which was dominated by meat from a variety of sources: pork, chicken, goose, pigeon, eels and more, whether roasted or in pies. But most students were not so lucky.
One 12th century student in Paris grumbled of the fact that he had nothing to eat except peas, beans, cabbage, and a very small quantity of salted meat; nothing fresh. It’s likely that the poorer students in Oxford, and later, Cambridge, would have eaten a similar diet; reasonably healthy, for the most part, but not very filling.
Water would not have been safe to drink, so students (like everyone else) would have drunk small beer, which was beer brewed to have a very low alcohol percentage, so that it wouldn’t have been intoxicating (unless you drank too much of it). Wine was the preferred choice for when students aimed to get drunk, which they did frequently if the complaints by townspeople, lecturers and parents of the time are anything to go by.
The pattern of mealtimes in Oxford sounds odd to us now. Lectures took place between 6am and 10am, with a large meal taken between 10am and 11am, before lectures resumed at 12. No fires were allowed in the rooms, including lecture rooms and student bedrooms, and there was no glass in college windows until 1300 at the earliest, so hearty meals would have been necessary to provide students with the calories to keep warm. This was, after all, the time of the Little Ice Age, when the Thames in London froze over every year; winters would have been much colder than they are today. It’s likely that many poorer students (or those who were too tempted by the excitements of independent living away from home to keep control of their budgets) would have spent their time half-frozen and malnourished, making their complaints and requests for more money in letters home understandable.

2. Tudor students

Tudor food was heavy on the meat.

By Tudor times, student life, including meals, would have become a little more comfortable. For one, the diet available to students would have been much more varied thanks to increased trade around the world. More spices would have been available, though very expensive, thanks to new and safer trade routes. Students would have been able to enjoy turkey (bred for centuries exclusively in Norfolk), potatoes, hot chocolate and – less favourably for their health – tobacco. It’s likely that the quality of food served to the poorest students wouldn’t have improved considerably, but at least it might not have been quite so monotonous.
A typical student at Aberdeen in 1579 appears to have enjoyed a feast compared to their counterparts in earlier centuries; perhaps because the average student had by this time become wealthier, becoming more likely to be the son of a nobleman or gentleman than a poor clergyman. Their food included white bread (a great luxury; black bread, made of barley and rye, was the norm for the lower classes, while the upper classes enjoyed white bread made of wheat flour), oat bread, beef, mutton, small fish, crabs and eggs.
Nor was this just because the students at Aberdeen were unusually well off. A student-authored guide to Heidelberg from the time features a student complaining about the quality of the veal he was being served, while a medieval student would no doubt have been grateful to be served veal at all.

3. Georgian students

Food started to become a little more adventurous.

The food choices of Georgian students, just like their clothing choices, were defined by their class and their wealth. Of course, it had always been so, but the stratification of Georgian society was more formally defined in a university context. This was partly the result of it being increasingly less defined outside of the university; as the middle classes grew wealthier, the spending power of the wealthiest merchants began to resemble that of the gentry, and so more formal distinctions were required to tell them apart than their finances.
In Georgian Oxford, noblemen and the sons of noblemen sat to dinner with the Senior Fellows; gentlemen and sons of gentlemen with Junior Fellows, and the rest in the main body of the hall. The lowest social class of student, the batteller or servitor, who acted as a servant to pay for his education, got his dinner not in the hall but from the buttery with the servants.
Their food would seem reasonably familiar to us. Their breakfasts might be bacon and eggs, cold meats, hot chocolate, buns, muffins or toast, or if you were unlucky, gruel – a kind of wobegone porridge. The Georgians were inspired by French cooking – it was the height of fashion to employ a French cook, or to send your cook to France for training – and given that the same influences are still at play in British cooking today, their dinners also start to sound more like something we would eat today: sauteed mushrooms, baked salmon or venison pie, for instance.

4. Victorian students

Making up for the calorie deprivation of their predecessors.

A significant change took place as Britain moved from the Georgian age to the Victorian age: mealtimes began to sound remarkably like the ones we follow today. Where medieval students had eaten their main meal at 10am, fashionable Georgians might eat breakfast, then a light lunch, then dinner at 4pm or 5pm, then a supper at 9pm. By the late Victorian times, college dining had caught up, and students had breakfast around 8am, lunch at 1pm and dinner at 6pm – plus, quite often, an afternoon tea, and an evening snack.
The food that they were served was normal for the time, but would strike any modern student as unmanageably generous and stodgy. Breakfast could be ham, bacon, eggs, porridge or smoked haddock, lunch another choice of four or five meat or fish dishes, following by a sponge, milk or fruit pudding. Dinner would be another choice of several meat or fish dishes. There would be cakes and cocoa in the evening (a key social event for female students), and bread and butter in the mid-afternoon. Victorian students were expected to exercise vigorously, and they would need it order to work off all the calories they consumed.
It was in Victorian times that women were first allowed to attend British universities. Victorian women’s eating habits were restricted; they were discouraged from obvious enjoyment of food, and the fashion for tightly laced corsets in the later Victorian era also limited the amount they could eat. Going to university meant escaping many of these requirements, and they must have enjoyed their generous portions with relief. For poorer students (for instance those on scholarships), the food they got in halls would also have been richer and more plentiful than they were used to at home.

5. Wartime students

Rabbit pie anyone?

Universities (and everywhere else) experienced food shortages during both the First and Second World War. In the First World War, rationing was only introduced in 1918, placing restriction on the amount of sugar, meat, flour, butter, margarine and milk that any individual could buy. But there were shortages long before this, with students (who had after all been used to a hearty diet) being faced with yellow bread and margarine, and sardines becoming a luxury. Their diet became composed of anything that could easily be grown or raised in Britain with minimal labour, such as marrows and rabbits, and many students took up growing vegetables or raising rabbits themselves to expand their diet. The quality of the cooking also went down considerably, with cooks leaving their jobs to work in munitions factories instead.
Rationing began sooner in the Second World War – petrol in 1939, bacon, butter and sugar in 1940 – and lasted until 1954, nine years after the war had ended. At various times bacon, ham, other meat, eggs, sugar, loose tea, cheese, preserves, butter, margarine, lard, sweets and bread were all rationed. Other foods weren’t rationed, but were so hard to come by that they might as well have been; any fruit or vegetables that could not be grown in Britain disappeared, such as lemons and bananas, and there were even shortages of fruit that grows easily in Britain, such as apples.

6. 1970s students

Convenience and unconventionality made them appealing.

In the 1950s and 1960s, most students lived either in student halls or as lodgers in private accommodation, both of which would have been catered; the concept of a private house let out entirely to a group of students only became normal in the 1970s. This meant a new phenomenon: students cooking for themselves. Many student flats and houses had woefully inadequate cooking facilities, which added to the fact that students then as now often placing cooking very low down on their priority list, meant that food that could be cooked quickly was prized.
One such food was pasta. Most types of pasta hadn’t been eaten much in the UK until then; Victorian students enjoyed macaroni, but spaghetti, for instance, was unusual enough that in 1957, many people were fooled by a BBC April Fools’ Day joke that the spaghetti harvest had failed, featuring people plucking spaghetti from trees. But the rise in foreign travel meant that British people could afford to travel to places like Italy and bring back the food that they had enjoyed.
Another change in the 1960s and 1970s were the waves of immigration from around the world, particularly from India and China. This meant that new cuisines were being brought to Britain that were hugely exciting compared to the relatively bland food of a country that could still keenly remember rationing. Ready meal Vesta curries and Vesta Chow Mein were launched, and though ready meals like these were initially priced for a luxury market, their convenience soon made them appealing to students. They still needed to be cooked, but they could be cooked in a single pan, which was hugely convenient for a student whose bedsit might contain a two-ring hob with only one working ring. For students with more money and less time, Chinese and Indian takeaways also spread across the country, providing an alternative to staples like fish and chips. The scene was set for ever greater convenience and variety in student food, leading right through to the profusion of choice that students enjoy today.
Images: medieval soup; roast pig; salmon and tomatoes; afternoon tea; rabbit pie; vesta curry; noodles being served