I entered college a long time ago—in 1969, right at the end of a vanishing era in American higher education. When I began, Vassar was still an all-female school, a place that still practiced old-fashioned ways. We had weekly sit-down dinners complete with white tablecloths and proprietary silver monogrammed with “VC.” After dinner, we retired to the dorm parlor for demitasse, which I learned to drink (affectedly) with my pinkie slightly crooked. Then, during the first semester of my college life, a revolution occurred. The silver began to disappear at an alarming rate, apparently into students’ pockets. The college made us eat with our fingers until the silver could be replaced with utilitarian stainless steel. The tablecloths disappeared, too, as did the evening demitasse, and eventually the intimate dining rooms in the dorms gave way to a central dining hall. I now look back with nostalgia at the gentility of our meals. That is, until I remember the food. Reluctantly, I recall chewy Salisbury steak (still being served a century after Dr. James Salisbury first proposed it as a digestive aid); sturdy wedges of iceberg lettuce draped with pseudo–Russian dressing (mayonnaise mixed with ketchup); and wax paper–wrapped slices of orange and vanilla ice cream served up at every meal thanks to a special endowment from some well-meaning alum.
How things have changed! In 2002 Vassar joined Cornell University’s pilot program linking local farms and college cafeterias in an effort to strengthen community food systems. This Farm to School project has since taken off, and campuses nationwide now seek to attract students through the excellence of their dining programs. Yale has received the most enviable press, thanks to Alice Waters’s involvement and the university’s Sustainable Food Project, which advocates seasonal menus based on ecologically farmed local produce. But similar programs have sprung up all across the country. At Vassar, the latest initiative is to use only eggs laid by uncaged birds in order to promote humane farming practices. Over seventy other schools have already joined in this movement.
At many institutions, serving sustainably raised food isn’t enough. Dining hall administrators are discovering that sensitivity to cultural, as well as political, concerns is important, too. With diverse student populations, colleges and universities can no longer operate on the Salisbury steak model. Instead they must cater—both literally and figuratively—to vegetarians, vegans, individuals who keep kosher, and multiethnic student groups. The result is a marketplace style of dining distinguished by different stations at which students can choose from a broad array of foods. Like a food court in the mall, but better.
All of these initiatives are important and good. Yet something is still lacking, something that is less easy for institutions to supply. This missing element is a memory of food cooked at home—an elusive factor that even the freshest ingredients can’t provide. Admittedly, many American families infrequently sit down together for the evening meal, and yet the paradigm still holds sway. Williams College, for instance, runs a program called “Recipes from Home,” for which students and their families submit favorite recipes for a special dinner once a year. The student body votes on the best dishes, some of which then enter the dining service’s standard repertoire. Yet most often food is served cafeteria-style. The same institutions that so carefully examine their food sources might also consider the dining atmosphere they create. Dining hall meals should reflect something beyond a smorgasbord for disparate groups of students. Instead of encouraging students to browse and select their own foods at every meal, why not institute a sit-down dinner once a week, at a scheduled time?
Certainly, the food-court model is the most efficient way to supply healthy calories to busy students with divergent schedules and tastes. But it’s harder to know what’s best for today’s students in the long run. At the risk of sounding like a meddling old alum, I propose that colleges and universities find ways to nurture communities, not just the individuals within. Making the effort to sit down together furthers a sense of belonging in ways that a scattershot approach to eating never can. In my college days, the food may have been dull and heavy, but we ate it together, with ceremony—and perhaps a dash of irony. At the least, shared meals exercise our social graces. At their best, they allow us to belong.