Local produce. Farm internships. Composting. In recent years we’ve proudly documented the transformation of Kenyon’s food scene from chow-line glop to creative choices, locally sourced and arrayed at food stations in an all-new Peirce. But just when it seemed there was nothing left to learn about food at Kenyon, we found some dining-hall developments we never knew about before. We bet you didn’t, either.

Snout to tail

You may know Kenyon buys whole hogs and steers instead of packaged cuts or ground meat for its food service. It’s part of the College’s commitment to the local agricultural community. What you may not realize is that a whole steer is more than chuck and brisket and tenderloin. It’s also bones and brains and tongue. For whole animals to be cost-effective, ideally nothing should go to waste.

“We use it all,” said Meagan Worth-Cappell, head chef for AVI, the food service at Kenyon. Yes, she’ll turn the tender beef cuts into dishes such as steak sandwiches with chimichurri sauce employing the use of locally made cheese and bread as well, but she also works lesser-known animal parts into the dining menu.

Some years, she’s scheduled a “Fear Factor” night, cooking ingredients such as tongue and heart as a challenge to see if she can get students to eat them. “People eat with their eyes first, so we tried to make it look scary,” she said. “We wanted to see if most of them would eat it. And most of them didn’t.”

What the chef does more often is incorporate organ meats into more familiar dishes, not just to use them up but also to give students an opportunity to try something new.

Worth-Cappell said she’s served a dish she calls “pork three ways” that includes traditional barbecued pork ribs, bacon ends (think bacon steak), and pork liver soaked in buttermilk, then seasoned with smoked paprika and seared on the flat-top grill. Some students asked for the plate without the liver, but many, she said, were willing to try it.

And some less familiar animal parts aren’t a challenge to serve at all, she said. Osso buco made with beef shanks is popular among the students, as is beef tongue that she braises slowly, then douses with barbecue sauce.

“It basically tastes like brisket,” she said.

The kitchen even utilizes the bones to make stock, which is then used in soups and stews throughout the year.

But the more unusual beef and pork parts remain just an occasional treat. Worth-Cappell said she has to freeze the organ meats from several “harvests” to have the quantity to serve the student population. (The College buys cows and pigs several times throughout the year, each time referred to as a harvest.)

“We serve 1,300 to 1,400 people for lunch, 1,700 for dinner,” Worth-Cappell said. “They eat a lot of meat.”

Hail, kale

It’s not just mounds of meat students are eating; Chef Worth-Cappell said she thinks they’re consuming twice the amount of vegetables as last year—a good sign for their health and nutrition. There’s heavy traffic around the salad bar, which includes the expected greens, beans, and veggies along with more unusual choices like house-pickled cauliflower, a favorite.

But the king of vegetables at Peirce is kale.

“I love kale myself,” said Worth-Cappell, who was bringing in small amounts of the sturdy green to make vegetarian dishes when she started at Kenyon in 2009. “The reaction to it was really great.”

Seeking more, she turned to John Marsh ’76, director of sustainability for AVI at Kenyon, who purchases locally grown and produced ingredients. He told her, “Nobody wants kale.” But it turns out many people actually do.

Kale’s popularity at the College follows a national trend. The vegetable graces just about every high-end restaurant menu across the country, in everything from soups and salads to martinis (yes, martinis) and adorns the pages of any number of food publications proclaiming its health benefits. Kale even became the tongue-in-cheek antagonist last fall when advertising giant Victors & Spoils made it the chief competitor to broccoli in an imaginary Coke-versus-Pepsi-style ad campaign that the company created in response to a challenge for the health issue of the New York Times Magazine.

Worth-Cappell persisted in bringing more of the vegetable to campus on a regular basis. She stays relatively straightforward in her preparation of kale at Peirce. She sautés it as a side dish, tosses it in pasta and pasta salad, folds it into omelets for breakfast, and stuffs it into eggplant slices for roulade. But on occasion—as when the College purchased 800 pounds of it last October during one of its peak growing seasons in Ohio—the chef has been known to puree the vegetable into vibrant green smoothies with ginger, honey, and yogurt or tofu: a concoction that proved particularly popular among students.

Kale is also her secret ingredient in pesto, something else she uses a lot of in Peirce. She grinds the greens with basil, garlic, Parmesan, and oil, and no one is the wiser to its presence. But she says she’s not trying to hide it. It just happens to taste better.

“The kale counteracts the bitterness of the basil,” she said. “It makes a really great pesto.”


Dietary restrictions and preferences have long been a challenge to college dining halls, and Kenyon is no exception. AVI has ramped up vegetarian and vegan options, added global dishes to appeal to the international tastes of the students, and omitted nuts from cooking altogether in response to a growing concern about allergies.

According to Kim Novak, resident director for AVI, 10 to 12 percent of Kenyon’s student population require some kind of special diet, whether it be vegetarian, vegan, or—the latest high-profile health-related trend—gluten-free.

The gluten-free phenomenon owes some of its popularity to celebrity endorsement. Tennis star Novak Djokovic said his game improved when he removed gluten from his diet after being diagnosed with a sensitivity. Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow have both gotten attention for doing “gluten detoxes.” Food companies have responded to the demand with new lines of gluten-free products, from cereals to breads to cake mixes.

For many people, eating gluten-free isn’t a fad; it’s a necessity. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness estimates that 1 percent of the U.S. population suffers from celiac disease, an auto-immune condition triggered by the consumption of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. For those with the condition, eating gluten damages the intestines, eventually blocking absorption of nutrients. Another 6 percent of people are believed to have a sensitivity to gluten that is less serious than full-blown celiac, but can still be debilitating.

That means roughly one in fifteen people—at least one person in the typical Kenyon classroom—needs to avoid eating gluten.

Novak appreciates the difference between preference and necessity. “Vegetarians and vegans are usually by choice,” she said. “Students who have celiac or who need to avoid gluten can get really sick.”

She said AVI purchases about $3,000 worth of gluten-free cereals, pastas, breads, and sauces each month. These are served in the “allergy sensitive area” of Peirce, a stack of shelves along one wall where students can find foods that meet their special needs. AVI also identifies items outside the allergy area that are gluten-free.

“That’s just part of our daily routine,” said Novak.

The limits of local

Kenyon’s commitment to using local food is so well known, some consider it part of the College’s mission. The dedication that brings, say, thirty-seven bushels of apples from a nearby orchard to the dining hall each week not only provides delicious food to the students but also makes Kenyon part of the fabric of rural Ohio life.

Yet few realize that some of the most popular items at Peirce aren’t local—nor can they be, because of where they must be grown. They’re not likely to be removed from the menu any time soon, either, because who wants to tell college students they can’t have their morning cup of Joe?

Kenyon goes through 114 pounds of coffee each week, as well as 280 pounds of oranges. But the biggest non-local item available in the dining hall by far is bananas—to the tune of 1,200 pounds (more than 4,000 individual bananas) each week.

And while the College procures whole steers and hogs for all the beef and pork used in the dining hall, the same isn’t possible with chicken. “We buy about 3,000 local chickens a year,” said Marsh. “That’s a fraction of what we use.”

In fact, the kitchen cooks up almost 2,300 pounds of chicken each week, mostly in the form of the boneless, skinless variety, to use in everything from stir-fries to pastas.

“That’s what the students were raised on,” said Novak.

Marsh concedes that chicken is one of the areas of potential growth in local food for Kenyon. “But right now, it’s about quantity and money,” he said. There aren’t enough chickens raised nearby for it to be affordable.

On the other hand, with the whole chickens that the College does buy, AVI is able to use the entire animal, right down to the bones—which are made into stock, just as the beef bones are.

“Almost all of our stock—beef, chicken, and vegetable—is homemade here in our kettles,” said Novak.

Saving waste

Students may be aware that their dining-hall leftovers go into the “pulper,” a kind of giant garbage disposal that grinds up the food waste so that it can be composted and ultimately used as fertilizer on College grounds. The machine was installed as part of the 2008 renovation of Peirce Hall that, among other things, retooled the kitchen operation with the aim of promoting sustainability and the use of local food.

What few realize is that the composting operation actually begins during food preparation. Worth-Cappell removed the trashcans on the cooking line at Peirce and replaced them with clear plastic containers: one for recycling, the other for the pulper.

The trashcans had become a crutch, Worth-Cappell said. Instead of sorting through what they were cleaning or chopping, the prep cooks would toss useable scraps directly in the trash. The action mirrored much of what happens in home kitchens across the country: the Environmental Protection Agency estimates between 20 and 30 percent of what is thrown away could be composted. At Peirce, some of the vegetable “scraps” the cooks trimmed away could be used in stocks or soups, and much of the rest could go to the pulper. Besides the plastic containers in which some foods are delivered, very little actually needs to go into the trash.

“Now they’re consciously saying, ‘Bring it to the pulper, or this is going into stock,’” Worth-Cappell said.

What happens at Peirce is not unlike what the chef says she does at home with small containers of kitchen scraps that she turns into compost for her own garden. It’s just on a much larger scale.

“It’s nice not to have that carbon footprint,” Worth-Cappell said. “We’re kind of giving back to the earth, not taking from it.”

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