Harvard Dining Halls

Because everyone lives on campus and has a meal plan, a significant chunk of an undergrads life is spent in one of the many dining halls sprinkled around campus.  The meals become a time for relaxing, catching up with friends, and finding things to make fun of.

Every freshman generally eats at Annenberg, the cafeteria with the best location that only first years are allowed to use. It is the largest and most picturesque of all the dining halls.  Too bad it was also the noisiest, had the longest lines and served the worst food. If you came during peak lunch hours there would be a line wrapped around the building.  It advanced painfully slow, because the security to this place was like god damn Fort Knox.  The staff was absolutely petrified that an upperclassmen was trying to sneak in, as if it was every older students dream to relive their freshman glory, one bite of runny eggs at a time.  In contrast, if someone wanted to rob a dorm room, really all it takes is someone smart enough to slide their foot into the door of the building as someone exits. There is one old, tired guard handling dorm security. But, try and sneak into Annenberg, even just to get a glimpse of the decor, and 15 workers are sprinting at you like you breached the pentagon.

I had my own brush with the Annenberg secret police when I got a little too comfortable taking food for later use.  It was always nice to have something to snack on back in the dorm, and you could easily get away with taking cookies or a sandwich.  It was when I attempted to leave with an entire loaf of bread that I got in trouble.  I made it out the backdoor and into the sunlight, thinking it was smooth sailing, when some guy with 2 hoop earrings came bursting outside.  The fact that I was a good 50 feet from the exit by the time this guy got outside to stop me makes me think he saw me leaving from across the dining hall and had to sprint to the exit in order to stop me.  I don’t remember if anyone was outside to watch me forfeit my bounty back to the clutches of my pursuer, but it was humiliating nonetheless.

Anyway, the large crowds made my life a living hell. I am the type of person who quickly gets impatient when people are walking too slow on the sidewalk. I don’t care if it is pouring rain and there is an old lady carrying grocery bags and pushing a stroller while going uphill, if I am behind her I am going to be pissed she is not walking faster. Thus, I was destined to find the lines at Annenberg to be my own personal purgatory. The way the dining hall was set up made it so that there were 2 main areas were the dishes were served.  You either waited in one line or the other.  Now I’m sure being hungry and coming from workouts made me more irritable than normal, but I swear to you Harvard kids must be some of the slowest and most particular about their food choices on the planet.  These lines would inch forward, as kid after kid debated whether to get the chicken or beef.  Worse was when people would get caught up in their conversation and not realize that the line had moved in front of them, which according to my count happened roughly 10 times every meal.  Even worse yet was when the whole line would come to a halt because the one entree that everyone wanted had run out.  Rather than just moving along and eating whatever was there (is that kung pao chicken you’re waiting for reallllly that much better than the freakin turkey breast right next to it?) the entire operation would come to a screeching halt.  And if anyone had bothered to turn around, they might have seen a guy still wearing his over sized winter hat with striped earflaps looking like he was about to break his tray over his head.

I could get through a food line in seconds: huge scoop of meat, huge scoop of rice, huge scoop of dressing, bam, moving on.  But, apparently some people care about their portion sizes and what specific pieces of food they are getting.  They shove around the contents with the serving spoon, lift a piece of chicken up, inspect it, put it on their tray, take it off their tray, attempt to saw a piece in half with the blunt edge of the spoon, then finally put it on their plate.  Another move people pulled was with the vegetables, where they would scoop one piece of broccoli.  Then stop. Then 3 more. Then stop. Then 2 more. Then, after achieving what must have been some carefully calculated ratio of veggies to rice, they merciflly relinquish control of the spoon.  These people were some of my main dining hall nemesis’.

One great Annenberg moment came very early on Freshman year, back in a time when people who didn’t know each other tried to sit together because they were still trying to find their group.  I was lucky to be a part of a team from the second I got on campus, so I usually had people to sit with.  One day there was a skinny kid with glasses who was not so lucky.  He saddled up next to me and a couple teammates during lunch one day and we exchanged the usual niceties. We found out he was from St. Louis, and immediately my friend Erik made a comment about how he must love Nelly.  The kid is confused:
Kid “Who?”
Erik “Nelly! You know, the St. Lunatics, Country Grammar…”
Kid “Uh, never heard of him.”
Everyone else at the table (stunned silence)

I am pretty sure that in 2005 pretty much every person I knew younger than 30 would have known who the rapper Nelly was.  He sold about a billion records, he was always in the news, and he repped St. Louis to the fullest.  You would have had to have spent the last 8 years with your head literally buried in a chemistry book to be from St. Louis and not know who Nelly was. Wait a minute….

Annenberg was also the site of my roommate Andrews fabled clam chowder intake.  To preface this, you have to understand that in general the food at Annenberg really was horrible, so when Friday rolled around and they treated us to Clam Chowder all bets were off.  It was just so exciting to be eating something palatable.  Andrew took this to the extreme, filling up the largest cereal bowls they had with helping after helping of chowder.  He probably ate gallons at a time.  And, when making the walk back to the dorm after the meal, he would sometimes be so overloaded with seafood and potatoes he would just puke into the bushes.  Andrew was the rare college freshman who may have thrown up as many times from eating delicious soup as he did from drinking. Too bad for him these stories got out, and even though he had learned to control his urges he could never again enjoy a bowl of chowder without someone making a joke about how he better use moderation.

College dining was also my first experience having a massive tray, unlimited food, and basically unlimited time.  Pretty much every meal I would pile every kind of food imaginable onto my many plates.  The walk from the food lines to the table was always precarious, as you had to balance 10 pounds of food and 4 drinks while maneuvering through throngs of people to your table.  I don’t even want to think about the amount of food I wasted over the years.  There were times when I would grab, in a post workout induced craze, 5 chicken breasts and only eat 2 of them.  It’s a sad indictment on my ability to portion and a glimpse of what happens when there are no limits set.  I bet you could have fed a small city for a year with all the food I threw away over my time at school.

Things improved come sophomore year when I moved on to Mather Dining hall.  The food was way better and there were far smaller crowds.  But this place was not without its faults, number one on the list being the ornery cook Phil.  Every upper class dining hall has a rotation of 3-4 people who man the grill throughout the day.  They were also in charge of preparing the main dishes that meal.  The grill is where you go if you want a burger, hot dog, chicken breast, or eggs.  You fill out a slip with what you want, leave it on the counter, and voila you had a custom meal.  If the food out on the man line is not up your alley, you go to the grill.  (Yes, I know just going to a school where you always have a cook trying to cater to your every food whim is pretty awesome in and of itself, but by now you should know I can complain about anything.)  So, I never had a problem with any cook when I would eat outside of Mather.  Often we would be running late after a practice and the grill guy would make us a burger even though he had shut down his station already.  But, of course I have to live in the house where the grill guy is a disgruntled, rude, chain smoking grinch.  Phil would often only make you half of what you ordered, if that.  If you put down 2 egg whites and a chicken breast, you’d be lucky to get back one sliver of dried up chicken.  If you asked for a burger you would always receive a burnt patty that was more hockey puck than meat.  On top of his terrible cooking was that he would always have some snide comment. “What, the food on the line not good enough for you?” “There’s chicken right there, why don’t you eat that chicken?” There were people I knew, me included, who almost stopped going to the grill altogether because he was so annoying to deal with.  The worst thing was he would shut down all food making around 7 PM, when everyone knows that the Dining Hall closes at 7:15.  There were many a night when I would be hustling back from practice only to get back to the dining hall and see people cleaning.  In this situation there would usually be a nice worker who would offer to make me a plate of something from the back, but it still doesn’t excuse Phil openly shirking his duties.

Throughout my years I had many an experience eating alone, and it really is not as bad as you might think.  I always enjoyed just reading the newspapers they had available. (Although sometimes I was so desperate for reading material I had to search through the recycle bin, only to find the only suitable thing was a week old issue of the Boston Globe.  The one two punch of terrible, horrific sporstwriting that was Dan Shaughnessy and Bob Ryan was almost enough to make me lose my appetite.)  It was actually much worse to be bothered when you were eating alone than to actually eat alone, like when you have just about finished up and are about to leave and then someone you know sits down across from you.  You always feel obligated to sit with them for a little, and end up wasting 20 more minutes.  But looking back on it, really who am I kidding.  99% of the time I had nothing better to be doing.  Yet, as always, I maintain that I have the right to be bothered by anything I want, so if making small talk in the dining hall when I could have been playing video games gets on my nerves than so be it.  Also, this reminds me of how different an experience you have when you sit with your good friends as opposed to acquaintances who are friends, you just see them less often.  I’ve gone from just talking nonsense about college basketball at lunch to learning about computer programming and robot soccer leagues at dinner.  You kind of have to change your whole demeanor too, going from apathetic jock to interested student at the drop of a hat.  I was able to play both roles to an extent, but there is no denying I was sitting with my teammates playing the apathetic jock the vast majority of the time.

One thing about the dining hall that always amazed me were the group study sessions that would take place.  15 people would crowd around a table, each with their math book and problem set in front of them.  The table would be cluttered with papers.  I would sometimes catch a glimpse of what they were working on, and never once did I have even the faintest semblance of a clue of what it was.  It was always strange to spend 2 hours at dinner arguing over who was better at NBA Jam then walk by a group of people ardently working to find faults in the theory of relativity.

My one instance of group dining hall study came the day before my a final senior year.  It was an art history class, and I agreed to meet up with a couple kids to go over the slides we were supposed to know.  I came in feeling I had a decent grasp of the material and left feeling like I would be lucky to get a 20%.  Painting after painting came up:
Me- “Uhhhhh, Da Vinci?”
Some genius kid- “Caravaggio, Beheading of St. John the Baptist, Baroque Period, 1608. Next!”
This dining hall meeting turned out to be a blessing because it showed me just how much I didn’t know.  Last thing about this art class. I felt even more inferior when I got to the final, tattered notes in hand, and saw the study materials of the girl behind me.  No joke, she had shrunk down all the paintings we had to know and printed them out in color on flash cards, then written the pertinent information on the back.  Damn, how am I gonna compete with that.

A subspecies to those who used the dining halls to work in groups were the people who treated the dining hall as their own personal library that they never left.  Day in and day out I would see the same people huddled at a corner table, staring at a laptop, often with headphones on, surrounded by books.  I don’t know if they didn’t like their rooms, if they felt people would think they were normal if they spent time in the dining hall instead of the library, if they were always hungry or what the deal was.  All I know is that there were a couple of people who spent 18 hours a day in the dining hall. I think I would go crazy, but to each his own I guess.

Another thing that always bothered me about the dining halls was the placement of certain food items in relation to the plastic protector.  Now, I understand you want a little plastic to protect the food from sneezes, coughing and the like, but there comes a point where the benefit you get in germ protection is outweighed by the inconvenience.  The peanut butter was always at the very back of the counter, and anyone over 5’1 who wanted to get to it had to hunch over and crane their arm under the plastic.  They are lucky I never cramped up and got stuck under there.  It would be awful to be making a nice sandwich at one moment and being rescued by the jaws of life in the next. To make matters worse, the peanut butter area was always about 25 degrees colder than was necessary, so you would end up with this un-spreadable brick that ripped your bread to pieces.

And with that, I think I may have exhausted things that bother me about Harvard dining halls.  Actually, it doesn’t.  I’ll just rapid-fire list the rest of the stuff that comes to mind, maybe to be discussed at a later date:
–couples getting intimate in the dining hall, people who sit uncomfortably close to you, the awful artwork in Leverett, the annoying people at Brain Break, the food limits at fly by, getting kicked out of areas for group meetings, the lack of info on the Mather table tents, how the staff got extra super nice around performance review time, over eager workers cleaning something insignificant and forcing you to wait to get your food, and I’m sure there is more I am missing.

Overall, I spent countless hours in the dining halls, and even me with all my cynicism would have to admit it was generally time well spent hanging, talking, and procrastinating.  Plus, I see it as a personal victory that I never got kicked out of a dining hall for launching into a profanity laced tirade when someone took too much time picking croutons.

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