From garden fresh veggies to a certain orange root variety baked into an E-town tradition, the College’s Dining Services operation stretches well beyond the Baugher Student Center, where the Marketplace, Jay’s Nest and Blue Bean Café are housed. An organic garden tucked in a quiet campus cranny provides an assortment of fresh produce. Catering Services creates, for gatherings of all sizes, an array of culinary delights—from finger foods to feasts. The Bird Feeder, a late-night food truck, roams residence hall parking lots.
Before it belonged to Elizabethtown College, the plot of land between Cedar Street and the path to Bowers Writers House—across from Ober Residence—belonged to a farm. It’s only fitting, then, that, many years later, an an acre of it has been turned into an organic garden.
“Not many people know where it is, or even know about it,” said Charlie Downs, executive chef for Dining Services. Downs said Eric Turzai, director of Dining Services, was inspired by Dickinson (Pa.) College’s community garden.
The first seeds were planted five years ago, but the first two years saw a lot of trial and error. Originally just a half-acre in size, this particular space once housed the barnyard. To make the land more conducive to gardening, the College staff members trucked in leaf mulch and soil. However, as Downs explained, the soil was not mixing properly; it was trapping gases.
“But Chris (Bowers) kept working it up,” said Downs, of the designated Dining Services gardener. A local organic fertilizer company tested the soil and provided some guidance to Bowers and the team. Now in its fifth year, the garden is producing a plentiful bounty of fruits and vegetables. The 2013 harvest yielded more than 3,300 pounds of produce and herbs.
The tomatoes were amazing this year. There were a hefty amount of those
“The tomatoes were amazing this year. There were a hefty amount of those,” said Bowers. To be exact, 853 pounds of the fleshy fruit were picked from the vines, according to a harvest report.
The garden is growing. Last year, Bowers built two hoop houses—simple, unheated greenhouse-like structures—to extend the growing season. He would love to plant some fruit trees—maybe an apple orchard.
“Our students love apples—they eat them like there’s no tomorrow,” he said. Bowers—whose official title is receiver and maintains other duties within Dining Services—enjoys tending to the garden.
“I’m a big outdoorsman—I love hunting and fishing, and my kids love nature… Anything to do with outside, I like,” said Bowers, adding that his affection for gardening is more than getting some sun. “I like the thought of us saving money and growing our own stuff; it’s sustainable.” Student workers help tend to the garden; they weed, pick veggies and learn about organic gardening in the process.
To bring things full circle, not all of the uneaten food in the Marketplace goes to waste—not in the general sense of the word that is. Several years ago, the College partnered with Somat Co. of Lancaster on a sustainability project, which turns organic waste from the dining facility into electricity. After the fuel is produced at a nearby farm, some of the by-product—now in powder form—is returned to the College for use in its garden.
It’s not uncommon to see Turzai and Downs standing, observing, the lines in The Marketplace. This is research.
Downs said menus are often reviewed and updated to reflect the tastes of students. There are mainstays, of course. Chicken fingers are, by far, the largest “seller”—it’s not uncommon to go through 30 cases of them during one meal. At 10 pounds a case, that’s a good plenty of poultry. New for this academic year is the Mongolian Grill, or “Mongo” for short, at which students add their own starch and veggies and select a protein and sauce; the meal is cooked before their eyes in seconds on a 4-foot-round iron skillet.
Healthier choices abound to complement the comfort foods; at least two steamed vegetables are offered at each meal, a whole grain is added as a salad toss option, and sauté lines offer whole wheat pasta or rice. Dining Services makes an effort to offer variety to those who prefer—or require—vegetarian or vegan diets. For example, there’s a fryer specifically used for vegetables only—no corn dogs here!—and every sauté line offers a vegan protein.
In a time when food allergies are seemingly on the rise, Downs explains that he and his staff take these health concerns seriously. Kelly (Clayton) Peiffer ’12 was diagnosed with celiac disease—a condition which produces a reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye—when she was 13 years old; was initially concerned about eating once she arrived at college.
“Eating is such a social thing that I was afraid it would hinder me from making friends because I would be a burden on them. I was afraid that people would think I am just a picky eater,” she said.
Students with special dietary needs—such as peanut and dairy allergies or gluten intolerance as Peiffer has—receive personal attention at mealtime. At new-student orientation Turzai gives students and their parents a tour of the College’s dining facilities—behind the scenes included.
“My parents loved the treatment, and my mom felt safe sending me to E-town knowing that I was going to be able to eat and find gluten-free food,” she said.
Students on a gluten-free diet are given their own personal toaster, and all students with special dietary needs are provided a personal, refrigerated bin that can hold food and snack items. Peiffer filled hers with bread, cereals, protein bars and waffles—“just about anything my heart desired.” Bowers visits local stores several times per week to purchase specialty items, such as gluten-free bread, cookies and pasta, and he and lead cook Sue McSherry make special versions of “just like home” favorites including macaroni and cheese and homemade stuffing. Knowing that no matter how tidy the salad bar is kept, there’s always a chance for a strand of shredded cheddar to end up in tub of veggies—to prevent any reactions he makes individual salads and places them in the requesting students’ cold bins.
Downs spent 22 years as a country club chef—a demanding position that required weekend and holiday work. Now at E-town for 10 years, he appreciates the ability to balance work and family.
“[At the College] you’re treated respectfully,” he said, adding that he loves working with the kids. “That makes me happy.”
Dining Services is the largest employer of student workers, typically providing jobs to more than 200 students per semester. Katherine Tripp ’14, now a student manager, has worked for Dining Services all of her four years, including staying on campus for two full summers. She said the job has introduced her to other students—now friends—that she might not have met otherwise.
“It’s really good leadership experience,” she said. “I can be a timid person; [this job] gives me more confidence.”
Tripp said her campus job allowed her to build strong relationships with the full-time staff. She serves as the office assistant to Sherri Dunbar, and also spent time in the garden this summer learning from Bowers.
McSherry remembers her first day of work at the former cafeteria in Myer Hall; in fact, she was younger than Tripp at the time. She was hired, on the spot, and hadn’t been anywhere else on campus until a few months later when she was instructed to go to Alpha Hall to fill out retirement paperwork.
“Retirement?! I’m only 18,” McSherry recalled her younger self saying. Now, 43 years later, she’s still here, two years away from retirement and probably the most familiar of anyone with one of the College’s most loved legends…
Like mom and dad would want, we saved dessert for last.
People still call the College from time to time asking for the Backdoor Bakery. That’s according to McSherry. She says not only did the former cafeteria and bakery serve students, it also was open to the greater Elizabethtown community. Local citizens ordered birthday cakes, holiday pies and everyday baked treats—and even take-out dinners and chicken potpies.
Many Blue Jays are quite fond of one particular dessert staple: carrot cake. No one knows for sure of the origin, but McSherry remembers it this way: “way back”—at least 35 years ago—her former boss wanted to start a tradition of serving carrot cake at open houses. Today, the dessert is served in the Marketplace and at campus events. Campus visitors can purchase whole cakes at the Blue Bean and Jay’s Nest and, rumor has it, prospective students on an admissions tour might even get a taste of the long-time campus recipe. “It tastes the same; it hasn’t changed,” said McSherry.
From spicing up menus to cultivating its own crops, Dining Services continually adds flavor to campus.