The Granola Gang
Four times a week in the cavernous kitchen of Proctor Dining Hall, bakers mix 12 gallons of rolled oats with walnuts, almonds, honey, and other ingredients to make granola for Middlebury College.
While this relatively simple act is not that remarkable, how it’s done here is somewhat unusual.
The job belongs to the Granola Gang, a cadre of dedicated students who produce the 250 pounds of granola it takes to feed Middlebury students every week.
Students eat it with milk, they put it on ice cream, they mix it with yogurt, and they put it on fruit. Some students just spoon it into a paper cup and snack on it all day long. Vermont cliches and jokes aside, the granola at Middlebury is a very big deal.
“Our students just love their granola,” says one of the original Granola Girls, Shannon Engelman, a junior from Minnesota. “When I was a freshman, the College bought its granola from a Vermont company and went through tons and tons of it. But now we make it ourselves and it’s a lot more ‘about us’ this way.”
Or, as Executive Chef Robert “Bo” Cleveland puts it: “For the students making the granola, there’s a real sense of ownership and pride. And for the rest of the students, they like the taste and they know the granola is homemade right here.”
The Granola Gang produces two varieties of granola using a secret recipe that is constantly being refined by Chef Cleveland and the bakers. One mix has nuts and no fruit; the other has dried fruit and no nuts.
The College consumes more than 10,000 pounds of granola each year and saves about $27,000 annually by making its own product. Matthew Biette, director of dining, says that that is money Dining Services can now put toward other efforts, like buying local beef and organic vegetables.
The Granola Gang’s roster of bakers varies from semester to semester. And although the original group was all women, the Granola Gang is now co-ed. Engelman does all the scheduling herself, and new members receive on-the-job training from the more experienced granola makers.
At any given time there’s an active group of six or seven students who divide up into threesomes to fill the four shifts per week. (During Language Schools the Granola Gang cuts back to two shifts per week, owing to the reduced number of students on campus during the summer.)
Making the granola is an up-and-coming tradition at Middlebury, and while it’s not as well-established as Winter Carnival or “Picking Up Butch,” it’s one that students in the dining halls have come to appreciate.
On a recent Sunday afternoon in April, Shannon Engelman meets Alexandra McKeon ’13 and Marie Russo ’11 in the Proctor kitchen to make granola that will be served for the next few days.
The trio gets started right away and pretty soon it’s obvious that they have worked together before. As Shannon measures out the oats and pre-heats the oven, Marie blends vegetable oil with Vermont maple syrup in a steam kettle. Meanwhile Alex adds the spices, weighs the sunflower seeds, and readies the sheet pans.
Together they mix the raw granola with their hands and spread it into the shallow pans, 16 of them at once. Next they place the pans in the carousel oven for 55 minutes at 275 degrees.
They spin on their heels and begin cleaning up the work area. Every 10 minutes a whistle sounds and a warning light flashes on the oven; it’s time to flip the hot granola. They take the pans out four at a time, stir the mixture around, and place the pans back in the oven. “Flipping” prevents the granola from burning and keeps it cooking evenly.
All this work is making the Granola Gang hungry. After the second flip and all of the pans are back in the oven, Shannon, Marie, and Alex dash upstairs to the dining hall for a quick bite to eat. Ten minutes later they are back down in the kitchen again, just in time to flip the granola.
“We have always had students working in the bakery,” Bo Cleveland muses, “and making the granola for the whole college gives them a chance to take on a finite task, see it through to the end, and accomplish it with minimal supervision.”
In two hours the process is finished. The 16 pans of granola are now cooling in the racks, and the Gang has gone off to study, socialize, exercise, or do whatever students do on a Sunday afternoon. On Tuesday after class it will start all over again: 12 gallons of oats, two cups of vanilla, a quart of maple syrup….
The Granola Gang—a Middlebury tradition in the baking.