It’s not hard to imagine, I’m sure: Middlebury College in the late 1970s, back-to-the-land students in a back-to-the-land state at an institution that hadn’t quite gotten the memo on what we were
interested in and why. For instance, unlike today, when sustainability is not just an ethic to study but also one to live by, our dining halls had not yet discovered whole grains or local produce. So a bunch of us did what free-living students do—we abandoned the meal plan and decided to feed ourselves.
We set up shop at Weybridge House, where many of us lived, laying claim to the kitchen. The Middlebury Co-op—at the time entirely based on pre-orders and bulk-food purchasing—became our primary food source. Each month we sat around the big, round dining room table to determine our needs for the next four weeks.
The Co-op was situated in the old railroad station on the northern edge of town, lending an impression that our food had just been unloaded directly from freight cars. Every 30 days we dragged home sacks of grains and beans, nuts and dried fruits; we procured monster blocks of Vermont cheddar and a most memorable 40-pound bucket of peanut butter with oil swirling on the top. For vegetables, we went to local “pick-your-own” farms, and stored root crops in the Weybridge basement alongside our home-brewed beer. (The beer was legal by state and College law at the time, or at least we convinced ourselves that this was true.) We baked our own bread, made yogurt by the gallon, sprouted everything possible, and, even once, attempted to make tofu.
We got by on $10 a week, per person, not including ice cream and the whole pig we once roasted in the forest by Bread Loaf. Each member contributed to the account and was assigned a night to cook. We had a daily lineup of dinner guests, mostly fellow students seeking momentary refuge from food on the hill. (I think they also enjoyed the candles, wooden bowls, chopsticks, beards, and long hair.) Sundays, however, were reserved for honored guests. Parents came, as did professors and College administrators. Dean Erica Wonnacott—with whom one of us was too often in some kind of negotiation—was a frequent guest; even President Olin Robison paid us a visit.
The College dining policy was to reimburse off-meal-plan students at 50 percent of their cost, which was $12.50 a week. However, with a doctor’s excuse, one could receive the full $25.00. Some of our pediatricians from home were willing to affirm our newfound dietary restrictions; others were not. I vividly remember the satisfaction of sharing my signed excuse letter at the dinner table. To this day, I imagine ours was the only U.S. bank account to have had the registered name “The Doctor’s Excuse”; I believe I still have a canceled check squirreled away somewhere in my attic.
A not-insignificant legacy of our group is that one of us, Richard “Wiz” Wiswall ’79, became an organic vegetable farmer; to this day, he owns and sinks his hands into the rich soils of Cate Farm in Plainfield, Vermont. Another legacy—I’d like to think, anyway—is that today’s Middlebury student is supported by a far better health-aligned dining service. No doctor’s excuse required.
Larry Childs ’81 is a senior trainer and consultant with Project Adventure, an international nonprofit organization that focuses on experiential education.