What's Cooking at the Zoo?

By Joe Thoron '91

Pearl Batista '04E helps prepare dinner

"I remember walking home," says Jessica Andors '93, the resident counselor of Humphries House in '92-'93. "I would go past the football field and cross the bridge over the railroad tracks and the Zoo would come into sight, and I would think, 'I'm home.'"

From the outside it doesn't look special. Brick. Three stories. Dormer windows. A narrow patio runs the length of the building, and squat holly bushes flank the steps.

But Humphries House, more commonly known by its long-term nickname, the Zoo, is more than a typical former fraternity house. Since 1985 it's been a student-run cooperative where residents share group dinners five nights a week and cook their own meals the rest of the time. The two large downstairs common rooms contain industrial-size refrigerators and freezers, racks of bulk foods, and enough tables and chairs to seat 30 people to dinner. If you walk into the building in the late afternoon you'll be greeted by the smells of dinner cooking and by people gathered on the stairs and in the kitchen.

At Amherst the place has become something of a counter-cultural institution, with its longstanding traditions of faculty wine and cheese parties and Full Moon parties (yes, Phish played here in the old days). It's given several hundred students the same feeling Andors describes of finding a place at Amherst where they belong. So what, exactly, is so special about the place? How has it managed to be so important to so many students over the past 17 years?

Some people choose to live at the Zoo for the food, for the lure of a home-cooked meal every night, for the ability to bake pies, for the chance to eat more healthily than the institutional mission of Valentine Dining Hall may allow. Others come for the community, or to escape the lack of community they feel on the main campus. For many, eating in the dining hall and enduring a social life dominated by Tap is profoundly alienating, and they long for something different.

Dean of Students Ben Lieber acknowledges the role Humphries plays in the community. "It gives people who would otherwise move off campus a place to feel at home and yet still be part of the campus."

The Zoo's physical distance from the rest of the college is a major part of its appeal. Sheldon Cooper '91 notes that the isolation forces the people at the Zoo to form a community of mutual support. Yet if people who choose to live at the Zoo seek refuge from the sometimes monolithic social scene at Amherst, non-residents who attended the same Tuesday night dinner I did expressed their clear preference for life on campus. "I'd never want to live here," said one guest. "I like hanging out in the dining hall and I like feeling that I'm a part of the campus."

Whether by accident or design, the Zoo's spirit of being somehow different from the rest of the campus was present for many years before the founding of the co-op. The Theta Xi fraternity, one of several Amherst fraternities kicked out of their national organizations for admitting black members, constructed the building in 1941. Peter Berek '61, now a professor at Mount Holyoke College, says that when he joined Theta Xi in the late 1950s the members were probably more studious and intellectual than the average student, and were "as counter-cultural as anyone could be in the '50s."

The counter-cultural theme accelerated with changes in the general culture. A frequent visitor to the campus in the early 1970s, and brother-in-law to a Theta Xi member, describes the house as a "den of iniquity," citing the rampant drug use, the vending machine full of beer and the "orgy platform" in the basement (which was apparently named in anticipation of such delights rather than to commemorate them).

By the early 1980s the fraternity was gone and the building was a college residence, though still with an offbeat atmosphere. Stephanie Pasternak '86, the first resident counselor (RC) of the co-op, and Lynn Iler '88, the second, both describe the building, before its renovation, as being funky and very dirty. So does Joe Grygorcewicz, the building's custodian from 1983 to 2000. The guy who went barefoot all winter (he applied leather preservative to his feet to protect them) had long since graduated or dropped out, but someone in the building still chose to sleep in a pile of leaves rather than in his college-issue bed.

Friends visit Erica Pollack '02 in her room 

Following the abolition of fraternities the President's Advisory Committee on Social and Residential Life, of which Lynn Iler was a member, proposed a co-op as part of the new housing system. Not everyone from the "Old Zoo" was happy about the change, but several stayed on in the house during its first year. Others rented rooms nearby and paid for meals at the co-op.

Since then the Zoo has gone through several generations of students. One former resident from the early 1990s speaks of the transitions he observed from "vegan potsmokers to vegan feminists to carnivorous feminists to soccer-playing potsmokers and beyond." But, regardless of the shifts of politics and
dietary preferences, the sense of separation from the campus and an uneasy relationship with campus authorities remains consistent.

One Tuesday afternoon last November, I walked down to the Zoo to find out how much it had changed since my years there between 1989 and 1992.

When I arrived I joined Laura Swearington-Steadwell '04 and Alex Kerr '03 in the kitchen. They were already in full swing making vegetarian tacos, salad, and a dessert of creamed apricots. Both were in their first semester of living in the Zoo.

As I quizzed them about life there at the dawn of the new millennium they put me to work slicing pears for the salad, and when I finished Alex went to the big Hobart refrigerator in the food storage room and came back with a large plastic bag of wilted mixed baby greens. I dumped the greens in a wide bowl and began combing through them, picking out the few leaves hardy enough to survive whatever length of time they'd been abandoned in the fridge.

Alex opened packages of taco shells and set them out on baking sheets to warm. The counters were covered with food. Some of it was in bowls, ready to serve: cilantro, grated cheese, chopped tomatoes, thawed frozen corn. Many of the same items were crusted on the cooking island, along with assorted unidentifiable crumbs and a dirty food processor. Jimi Hendrix played on the boom box above the microwave. One of the two dishwashers steamed quietly as it finished its cycle. "Where's the juicer?" Laura asked as she pawed through a cabinet. "I can't find the juicer."

Alex tasted the taco filling cooking on all four burners of one of the stoves. He wasn't pleased. Together he and Laura searched for paprika and cumin. They found neither on the jumbled shelves of spices. "Here," Laura said, handing Alex a bottle of Tabasco sauce. "Try more of this."

Still picking through the salad greens, I asked Alex and Laura why they chose to live here and about their experiences so far, and as I listened I was struck by how similar their answers sounded to what I've heard from residents from other eras. Despite all the changes it has gone through, this community has stayed somehow the same over time, has remained definably "the Zoo."

At dinner I asked my table mates for their thoughts on how the co-op retains its identity. They didn't find such consistency surprising. "James and Stearns always have the same feeling to them, don't they?" one woman asked. A discussion followed: James is almost always the same as itself, and Stearns is slightly different. Except, of course, when Stearns is a lot more like James and James seems more like Stearns. Soon we're debating the merits of coed bathrooms in freshman dorms, my question long forgotten.

Twenty-two students live in Humphries. The housing office holds seven spaces for returning residents and conducts a lottery for these spaces. The remaining spots, minus the Resident Counselor and the one person he or she "pulls in," are distributed in a general lottery among all interested students. The system ensures consistency in the house even as it creates constant turnover. Some years there are many returning residents. In the '01-'02 year there were only four.

For the shared week-night dinners each person cooks for the whole house, in teams of two or three, once every two weeks. People also have regular cleaning duties, and residents parcel out the various shopping tasks: ordering bulk foods from Northeast Cooperatives; procuring vegetables from Squash Trucking, the local wholesaler, and from the Hampshire College farm; trips to the Big Y supermarket for orange juice and ice cream sandwiches.

So far, so good. But as with every other Amherst College dorm, a custodian comes daily to empty trash cans, vacuum floors, and clean the bathrooms. The sum of money available for purchasing food—pooled from the money that otherwise would have gone to the dining hall—is staggering. Sue Dickman '89, a resident her senior year, says, "I still marvel at the fact that we had a $14,000 budget each semester to feed 22 people. We used to buy wheels of brie and 20-pound boxes of chocolate chips and five-gallon containers of ice cream without thinking twice, something I've never had the opportunity to do since."

So it's not really a cooperative in the classic sense. Residents don't have to worry about making rent payments. Though they can argue about cleaning the kitchen, no one has to decide who must scrub the toilets.

That doesn't make the experience less valuable. Emily Todd '90e, a former RC, notes that the house, while not truly independent, is a great alternative at Amherst because it allows people to create a small community and to take care of themselves to a much greater degree than other Amherst students do. For Catherine Newman '90, the fact that residents are basically playing at being adults, without real risk, and playing at buying groceries and cooking and cleaning, doesn't make the cooperative experience any less real. Even without the stresses caused by money problems and dirty toilets, many issues have to be worked out over the course of a year, and residents learn to express themselves and to be generous to each other.


Sheldon Cooper, who currently lives in a truly cooperative house in Seattle, where some of the residents share income as well as food and chores, doesn't scorn his experience at the Zoo. "It was a great first step. The way it's organized takes a lot of the stress out of group living. It's an artificial and sheltered situation, but it's set up for success, and there's a limited arena of things that can go wrong." Many issues that came up among residents—whether the television should be on during dinner, whether the kitchen is clean enough, whether everyone is doing their share—are the same kinds of issues that come up in more intense cooperative situations, but the structure of the Zoo provides a safer space to work them out.

It's actually not surprising that the Zoo feels the same over time, repeatedly developing a certain kind of community. The rituals of eating meals together, of cooking for each other, of throwing Full Moon parties and faculty wine and cheese parties, all encourage people to come together. Emily Todd points not only to the regular evening meals as community-building times, but also to those moments sometime after 10 o'clock when people would give up on their studying and congregate in the kitchen to make tea and pick at the remains of the night's dessert.

At my urging, Derek Fay '89, an anthropologist by training, takes things a step further. "The structure of the cooking setup creates implicit relationships that involve both reciprocity and competition—someone cooks a great meal and in doing so sets a standard which other people aim to live up to. So when you're first living there, as a relative outsider, you need to show your loyalty to your co-residents by putting effort into cooking quality food. It's not just eating with the same people over and over that builds the relationships, but also being involved in reciprocal exchanges of meals with them."

The Zoo is not a perfect place. More than in any other dorm the students live a major portion of their daily lives with each other, which encourages deep friendships but also exacerbates petty frustrations. The simple act of serving ham sandwiches for dinner can polarize the house, especially if it's done with the intent to mock the kinds of reciprocal exchanges Derek Fay speaks about (and if it's done in a semester when many residents are vegetarians). Cleaning is always an issue, and at times the house splits on eerily gendered lines into the people who want to create a warm, homey, family-like atmosphere and those who simply want to eat their food, get some work done and throw great parties. The house wants to see itself as independent, but residents sometimes "borrow" plates and silverware from the dining hall, and then resent Physical Plant workers for taking the items away.

Still, despite everything, the place works. Sue Dickman notes, "Living in the Zoo wasn't just about learning to cook or even to live in a community but to negotiate adult life in a very safe and protected way. I think it's no wonder the place thrives, especially because there will always be people who might love Amherst for academic reasons but who don't necessarily want to participate in the mainstream social life. There's no question that my year at the Zoo was my happiest year at Amherst."




Zoo or Zü

An American flag hangs on the wall of the landing at the top of the main staircase of Humphries House. It's one of those Spirit of '76 flags with the circle of stars, but it's been modified with fabric paint. Where it used to have the number 76 it now has the word Zü.

It probably looks as if it's been there forever, as if it's an artifact dating back to the early days of the co-op.

It's not.

The Zoo has been the Zoo since just about forever, and it's only been the Zü since sometime after 1993. The building was known as the Zoo back when Peter Berek '61 was a member of Theta Xi. The origins of the nickname are uncertain, though it's possible it's a play on the Z sound of the Xi. Indeed, a quick search for "Theta Xi" and "Zoo" on the Internet turned up several apparent uses of the nickname at different chapters of Theta Xi.

So what happened?

I asked the current residents, but none of them knew. As far as they're concerned, the Zoo has always been the Zü.

As I investigated the mystery, one name kept coming up: Julie Wyman '93e. Wyman, who's been a creative spirit in the Class Notes section of this magazine, admits she probably wrote Zoo as Zü once or twice, but doesn't recall the specifics. "I think I was taking German when I lived there," she explains. But she's adamant she never wanted the name to change, and I get the feeling she's not entirely happy with the widespread adoption of her umlauts.

Beyond that I discovered nothing. So it will remain a puzzle as to which Zoo residents popularized the term to the point where there was no going back.

Which is better? Well, that's a matter for debate. Some old-timers insist on the three-letter spelling. Others see the evolution as lamentable but natural. Others embrace the new reality.

"I sort of like the z-ü spelling," one resident told me when I explained the situation. "It's like a smiley face."

A smiley face. Oh, well.

Photos: Frank Ward