I pile my plate with fresh fruit, and consider what to add. Some toast, some yogurt? An egg or two, fried to luscious, runny order? Cheesy grits sprinkled with crushed bacon and sassed with Cholula? Breakfast in the dining hall rarely disappoints.
Lunch and dinner provide further choices. With a full salad bar, a gluten-free station, a noodle station, two bain-maries of soup, two stations for “traditional” entrees, and a grill-master who makes breakfast omelets to order and fires quick proteins for lunch, any given meal can be customized to one’s appetite. The Executive Chef and his staff prepare upwards of a thousand servings every day that school is in session; and, since meals are included in a teacher’s salary, I partake.
To many, the dining hall represents a near-Utopian bounty, a culinary failsafe for the tired and overworked. Visitors often compliment the quality and variety of foods offered. My dad, whose travels bring him through town on a semi-regular basis, coordinates his arrival specifically for the weekend brunch. (In his teens, he attended boarding school in Africa and marvels that our school kitchen keeps weevils out of its oatmeal.)
The dining hall also provides a rich feast for a writer whose primary passion revolves around the pleasures of the plate. It presents three opportunities a day to connect with others and discover discrete food preferences, which I scribble onto mental notes for later rumination. Its communal setting encourages food voyeurism. One colleague, I’ve noticed, prefers his sandwiches piled thick with vegetables; another brings four bowls of cereal to the table at once, then proceeds to methodically eat the contents of each. My girlfriends try to include a salad at lunch, though whether these salads excite us is frequently left to speculation. Some colleagues are dessert-hoarders, squirreling sweets before they disappear in the dinner rush; others return for seconds by habit, rather than necessity. The dining hall is, in short, a food writer’s wet dream.
However, to quote a former professor, after ecstasy comes the laundry. On certain days, addled by grading or the disappointment of a less-than-stellar class, my lunch consists of French fries, brown gravy, and chocolate milk. Or heaping bowls of clam chowder, chased by sugary mint tea. Or rosemary flank steak and Gorgonzola mashed potatoes. I don’t need ingredient labels to tell me the innate truth. Boarding school veterans know that plentiful foods offer plentiful dietary missteps. The pounds amass where they may.
By the time I’ve eaten breakfast and lunch at the dining hall, it’s the last place I want to return for supper. I shoo away my husband and children – Off to the dining hall and don’t come back until you’re full! – and willingly squander the dinner-portion of my salary to stay home and correct the caloric choices I’ve made earlier in the day. My dilemma is uniquely boarding school-centric and indisputably first world-privileged.
What a situation to take for granted! I start to miss the dining hall as soon as school lets out for break: a week at Thanksgiving, two weeks in the spring, three weeks mid-winter, and the staggeringly long summer. (To clarify, when school is in session, the faculty is on-call 24/7, because our students are our neighbors for the entire academic year. I’m not complaining about the duration of much-needed breaks, only the rattle of the dining hall’s locked doors.) Boarding school life has effectively eroded my culinary stamina: I have to cook for my family? Three times a day? And I love to cook!
Each post-break brunch is a joyous reunion, an affirmation of the power of sharing meals. Like teenagers, colleagues who have become friends cluster around their preferred tables, giggling and exchanging stories that intervened in our absences from one another. Our conversations range wildly and are, to me, resplendent in their wacky, amusing transitions and subject matter. This is, perhaps, the heart of why school breaks feel so hollow. In the dining hall, the food is plentiful and delicious, but it’s the company that ultimately makes the meal.
© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015