Guest Post: A History of University Dining Services: McGill's Ptomaine Palace, 1957-1970

Over the past five years, The Historical Cooking Project has highlighted the relationships between food, research, and academia. Recently we have featured several posts discussing pedagogy--specifically, how to teach about food history in university classrooms. However, we have never included any content on the history of food in universities themselves. Today's guest post by Colin Rier delves into the history of one university's dining hall system.

This post is also available in audio form below.



Ptomaine Palace: A History of Bishop Mountain Hall from 1957-1970

Bishop Mountain Hall, and the three residences which it serves, was originally a response to a problem that McGill University of Montreal, Quebec had struggled with for much of the mid-20th century. The school was experiencing a significant increase in the amount of students, particularly students coming from outside of Quebec, and Canada. These new students started to settle in the neighbourhood immediately to the east of McGill; establishing that area as the McGill ghetto.

In the mid 1950s, the housing potential of the area around McGill was beginning to be pushed to its limits for a variety of reasons. At the time there were only two major McGill residences; each with their own dining hall. There was the men’s residence of Douglas Hall up the hill from campus, and Royal Victoria College for the women; just at the southeast edge of campus. The McGill Office of Physical Resources acknowledged that the only way to solve this problem was to create more residence space. The task of creating a new Men’s residence program was given to Stanford Reid in 1957. Reid was originally the Warden of Douglas Hall, and would later go on to be the first Director of Men’s Residence.

Students dining in Bishop Mountain Hall, February 6 1967, McGill Student Union Public Address

The committee, led by Reid, ultimately established that not one, not two, but three new residences were to be built, all sharing the same central office, and dining space of Bishop Mountain Hall. The residences were built to hold up to 800 students, while Bishop Mountain was designed with the potential of serving up to 1100 people, 3 meals a day. The residences were quickly constructed, and opened to its first residents in the fall of 1962 with a great degree of anticipation.

Unfortunately for McGill, the honeymoon phase for Bishop Mountain Hall did not last long. The first documented sign of student disappointment with the food at Bishop Mountain Hall, was in an issue of the McGill Daily on November 15, 1962. Only two, and a half months since the residences had opened. The student writes:

“I am an unfortunate inmate in this hallowed institutions brand new, beautiful residences. I have visited twenty-seven countries, and have been able to digest twenty-seven different varieties of food, but I can assure you that never before have I tasted that strange substance being served at Bishop Mountain Hall, in the name of food.”

The student goes on to describe all the way in which the food at Bishop Mountain Hall fails to meet their expectations. Not only is he upset with the actual quality of the food, but as well at meal times it takes up to 30 minutes of standing in line for residents to actually receive their food from the counter. The student eventually signs off there letter:

“P.S. Please don’t print my name, or they’ll give me a second helping”

Bishop Mountain Hall by Dunford, Bolton, Chadwick & Ellwood, N.D., McGill CAC

Beyond the quality of the food, and timeliness in which they serve the food, the students in Men’s residence struggled with Bishop Mountain Hall because of the way in which the payment system was structured. There was a good amount of internal debate over the way in which the residence would manage student payment for food from the dining hall; but they ultimately settled on a year long pre-paid meal ticket, which could only be redeemed at Bishop Mountain Hall. This meant that students were expected to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day of the week, only at that dining hall. As is still the system in the majority of McGill’s downtown residences, it is compulsory for students to buy a full year meal ticket. This was, and is, not unique amongst university residences in Canada, but McGill was unique with the rigidity in which they enforced it. Many of the students in Men’s residences chafed against the montony of food from Bishop Mountain Hall day after day.

Average dinner tray at Bishop Mountain Hall, October 13 1970, McGill Daily

The conditions in Bishop Mountain Hall did not improve over the coming years, in fact they worsened dramatically. At the end of November of 1964, Bishop Mountain Hall experienced a full blown food riot at the hands of its students. These riots came to be known as the ‘Bishop Mountain Hall Bread Riots’. The troubles began when, on suspicion that students were hoarding bread, and butter in residence rooms, a residence administrator by the name of Robert Bray searched several rooms for bread along with some of his residence staff. The Daily actively reported on the bread situation, starting on November 25, 1964:

“An ultimatum yesterday limiting the consumption of bread and butter at Bishop Mountain Hall has renewed student-administration friction.”

Bray imposed a rule of 4 slices of bread, and 3 “pats” of butter per student per meal. The students showed their displeasure with this new rule, by smearing the tables of the cafeteria with butter, and picketing at the doors of Bishop Mountain Hall. This acted as the final straw for many students; an enterprising group of students formed their own dining hall within residence, calling it “The Last Stand.”

“The residents of McConnell Hall have at last found some sort of solution to the problem be settling these starving inmates. The solution is called the “Last Stand”... a small concession stand to be set up right in McConnell Hall to dispense necessities such as hot dogs and ice cream to the hungry hordes.”

Beyond being the first large scale display of student frustration, this event contains the first mention of Robert Bray, who would go on to be the Chief Administrator of Men’s Residences and Food Services. In 1965, Stanford Reid, the man who had developed the idea of Men’s residences and acted as Residence Director left McGill to go University of Guelph. Taking his place at the head of residences was Mr. Bray, assuming the title of Business Director of Men’s Residence and Food Services. However, with Reid leaving, wardens took more control of their own residences while the head administrator took more control over Bishop Mountain Hall. It’s with this transition in power that the students truly begin to resent Mr. Bray.

“BRAY SERVES SHIT! BRAY SERVES SHIT! BRAY SERVES SHIT! BRAY SERVES SHIT!”

After a series of letters to the editor of the Daily in 1966 including complaints regarding the lack of variety, and poor quality of ingredients the resident’s felt the need to express their frustration in a more dramatic fashion. Mr. Bray arrived to work on the morning of October 31st to see an effigy of himself hanging out of the top floor of Gardner hall, with the slogan “Bray Serves Shit!” written across its’ chest. The level of discontent was growing among students, to the point that McGill administration outside of residence office, including the Vice-Principal, were beginning to take notice. Many students in residence brought their concerns to the students’ union which they published in a public address in 1967:

“Due to the less than palatable meals which emanate from the kitchens at Bishop Mountain Hall, it has earned the nickname ‘Ptomaine Palace’...the majority feel that the quality and types of food being served can be improved so as to allow one to consume the needed amount of calories.”

After hearing from students, University Residence Council and the Student Union, since the inception of Bishop Mountain Hall in 1962, the McGill Senate decided to launch a Sub-Committee on Residence Policy in 1969. The committee was ultimately formed containing 7 students, 7 non-students and a non-student chairman. There was a number of items they were tasked with investigating, but primary among them was to better the food services of residences.

Bishop Mountain Hall “Counter Girl”, May 30 1962, McGill Daily
Gender influenced the food of Bishop Mountain Hall at this time in two important ways. The first of which was in the division of labour within BMH, as is still somewhat true for McGill. In the dining hall, women were responsible for the serving of the food, whereas the men were responsible for the administration and preparation of the food. This is evidenced by the Senate Sub-Committee on Residence Policy in which they refer to the cooks as ‘the men’, and the counter service workers, as ‘counter girls’. The first women I could find in the archives to have had a central role in the kitchen of BMH was Mrs. Cleghorn who was brought onto the residence food committee in 1970 at request of the Senate Sub-Committee. Beyond BMH, there was the all women’s residence at Royal Victoria College that the men from Men’s residence could go to and pay cash. This was an all female staffed dining hall, both back and front. The men often feared the warden, but otherwise noted the quality of meals “as good as going back to mom’s house.”

In an external audit of the McGill Men’s Residences Food Services by Maurice Novek, he declared that the department was chronically mismanaged at all levels, and that the committee would be wise to recommend the dismissal of Robert Bray. While McGill did not part ways with Mr. Bray they did adhere to the other recommendations produced from the report; including the hiring of a dietitian, as well as more staff members with experience operating a kitchen. With the hiring of this additional staff, the change was made in which Mr. Bray had less control over the actual food then ever before in his career. Along with the changes in food services the men’s residences were opened up into co-ed residences the following year as while as a number of other changes. This marked a major regime change in every level of operation in residence. Despite the changes made, the food services of residence would continue to struggle as there would be two more Senate Subcommittees on food services in the 10 years following 1970.

Works Cited (selected, full list here)
Internet Archive (McGill Student Publications)
-McGill Daily (Vol. 51, No. 092: May 30, 1962-Vol. 67, No. 045:November 14, 1977)
-McGill Reporter (Vol. 02 No. 024: April 10, 1970)
-McGill Student Union Public Address (December 07, 1966 & February 06, 1967)
-McGill Free Press (Vol. 02, No. 005: September 25, 1968)

McGill University Archives
-Budget Planning Group Report to the Chairman, 26 January 1979 (RG 3 C313)
-McGill Food Service Study, January 12 1978 (RG 3 C 313)
-Dining Room Correspondence from John Macnamara (Douglas Hall Director) to Gerry McSheffrey
March 13, 1978 (Director of Residences) (RG 3 C 313)
-Correspondence from Bennet (Director of Business Operations) to Kingdon (Director of Physical Resources) March 28, 1978 (RG 3 C 313)
-Correspondence from McSheffrey (Director of Residences) to A.C. McColl (V.P. Finance) regarding the Centralizing of Food Service April 14, 1978 (RG 3 C 313)
-Minutes of Senate Sub-Committee on Residence Policy on June 30th, 1969 (RG 3 C 59)
-Minutes of Senate Sub-Committee on Residence Policy on October 8th, 1969 (RG 3 C 59)
-Correspondence from URC Chairman (Grimson) to Sub-Comm Secretary (Noel) on December 23, 1969 (RG 3 C 59)
-Correspondence from URC Chairman (Grimson) to Sub-Comm Secretary (Noel) on January 19, 1970 (RG 3 C 59)
-Minutes of Senate Sub-Committee on Residence Policy on February 24, 1970 (RG 3 C 59)
-Senate Sub-Committee on Residence Policy Recommendations Concerning Food Services in the Men's Residences on May 28, 1970 (RG 3 C 59)
-McGill University Men's Residences Information Sheet [No date] (RG 2 C 390)



(courtesy of Lauren Goldman of McGill Library)
Colin Rier is in his 3rd year (BA) studying food history at McGill University. As well as studying at McGill, Colin involves himself in Montreal’s food community by managing Foodchain restaurant, leading food tours for the Museum of Jewish Montreal, as well as leading a food based community building project in Solin Hall Residence entitled FETE. This past summer he interned in the McGill Rare Book Library working with the Cookbook Collection. His research focuses are in food criticism, 20th century restaurant history, and Canadian cookbook history. This research and podcast was prepared for a Seminar on the Student History of McGill taught by Professor Suzanne Morton in the Fall of 2018. For more on this project, check out his website.

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