Dorm of Bread and Honey

Several years ago, the Jordan residential cooperatives, adjacent to Radcliffe Quad at the intersection of Shepard and Walker Streets, became...

Several years ago, the Jordan residential cooperatives, adjacent to Radcliffe Quad at the intersection of Shepard and Walker Streets, became dorms; they are now scheduled for renovation. Below, Robert Saarnio '74 ('92) recalls the flavor of Jordan cooperative living in its glory days. After leaving Harvard in 1972, Saarnio took the scenic route back to Cambridge (see "The Big Layoff," July-August 1992, page 57). Now a curator with Cranbrook Educational Community in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Saarnio then lived in Jordan J, one of three units named Jordan W, K, and J respectively to honor former Radcliffe president Wilbur K. Jordan.


On a snowy evening's dinner hour, I arrived at the doorstep of Jordan J amidst a snowball fight of truly epic proportions. Frozen projectiles were issuing from every single one of the building's cantilevered concrete balconies, the white cannonade falling upon housemate-enemies below, who fired back at the balconies with equal ferocity.

Life on the edge: At left, Hilary Zaid '90 (front), Nina Klose '90, and housemates sunbathe on a Jordan J window ledge.
Photograph courtesy Nina Klose
Along with the aroma of baking bread that wafted from an open window, this good-spirited, if intense, display of wintry ballistics should have tipped me off that something out of the ordinary was going on here. But nothing could have prepared me for the ensuing year and a half of residence in Jordan J, a place that, as fellow co-oper Michael Sabin '90 put it, "produced more meaning, learning, and friendship than any other experience in high school or college."

Where our more truly communal brethren at 3 Sacramento Street shared every aspect of household function, including cleaning, we received our housekeeping services from Harvard. For us, food was central to the co-op experience. Residents were responsible for our collective weekday evening meals, plus a Sunday brunch, and we maintained a fully stocked pantry for self-service at breakfast and lunch. As a direct result, we soon developed a rich appreciation for the role of food in social life, something that, we suspect, our classmates in the assembly-line House dining halls acquired only years later.

Still, the feeding of two dozen residents is a major undertaking for undergraduates. Planning and executing the shopping trips, and managing the system of rotating dinner preparation and dishwashing, provided a case study in negotiation, mediation, and accommodation: high-level group dynamics, a finely honed exercise in Getting to Mealtime. In retrospect, we marvel at the degree of energy and passion that a group of exceptionally busy Harvard and Radcliffe students could focus on whether olives should be part of the regular shopping list. Our self-government even had its judicial aspects, perhaps epitomized in the long-running (and eventually successful) sting operation to discover the violator of our unwritten no-dirty-dishes-left-in-the-sink code.

Individual housemates, or small teams, signed up to cook meals and some of their offerings have become part of Jordan lore. One evening, a female Spanish resident served us "Cheese of the Nuns," a ricotta dish supposedly popular in Catalonia. A ton of it was produced for its inaugural (and only) offering; for nearly a week afterward, there were varied efforts to recycle the leftover portion, until one night a clever housemate attempted to transmogrify it into a kind of dessert quiche to put it out of its misery. Garlic bananas were another legendary entrée, prepared by a well-meaning male resident who was never asked to cook again.

Michael Sabin '90 (center) and friends celebrate Earth Day.
Photograph courtesy Nina Klose
Then there was the fresh baked bread--scrumptious, ubiquitous, and at the heart of every co-oper's memory. Although a beloved Sunday brunch staple was chocolate-chip pancakes (prepared from a massive chocolate-chip stockpile that could have met the annual needs of the state of Rhode Island), it was the communal baking and breaking of bread that stood, fittingly enough, at the core of the co-op experience. Those with bread-baking talent were the high priesthood of the kitchen. Baked at least twice weekly, and typically on a Sunday night, a fresh loaf's aroma would irresistibly draw us down from our rooms to the kitchen. This olfactory response culminated in group gatherings with knife, butter, and honey at hand. Now there's a "dorm" experience that our river- and quad-House classmates were not privileged to enjoy!

Each spring, the senior thesis-writing crunch brought out the quirkiest and most characteristic aspects of group behavior. A Jordan J thesis always involved collaborative support by the entire group. One housemate holed up in a tiny former cleaning-supplies closet, dubbed the Monk's Cell, as her den of intellectual seclusion; housemates supplied the anchorite with a steady flow of cigarettes and bags of candy at all hours. Other interventions included group counseling for a thesis-induced nightmare; continuous dosages of a favored blackberry tea; and a 48-hour rush-to-deadline marathon of communal footnote and bibliography production.

Vivid memories abound. None of us has forgotten the furor that arose over one housemate's suggested solution to our desire for a co-op cat, namely, a September adoption from and June return to the Humane Society. Or the Fat Goalie Proposition, advanced and considered over several consecutive dinners. This was the radical notion that an impenetrable ice-hockey defense could be achieved simply by posting a massively obese goalie in the net. As a former goaltender, I took exception to this idea, arguing the case for shot-blocking skill.

Our modes of play were as diverse as they were therapeutic. The monumental snowball fight had its warm-weather analog in titanic squirt-gun frenzies. In the Radcliffe quadrangle, Jordan J introduced "cometball," a game whose sole piece of equipment was a tennis ball inserted into the toe of a housemate's contributed pantyhose. Like so many of our co-op experiences, cometball was sui generis, the product of a social and residential community unlike any other. As one housemate put it, "Never before, never again. Only at the co-op."


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