Tag Archives: nutrition

Dining Hall Confidential


The early morning scene at the student canteen.

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


Filed under food, literature, travel

The Buzzkill Diet

Life is short. Stop the insanity.

All of the men in my immediate social circle are on diets.  Some of the women are too.  They’re ramping up their exercise routines, and going for longer walks and bike rides.  They’re encircling their biceps, waists, and thighs with measuring tapes.  Shared mealtimes have generated extended discussions about the evolutionary differences between the male and female anatomy.  The men concede that they are, as a gender, luckier than women, who, as a gender, find it more difficult to lose those last few pounds because of the dictates of our respective genes.  It’s a little squirrelly to overhear the guys swapping calorie facts, but overall I respect my friends’ resolve.

I’m pondering their diets as I sit down to a dinner of habanero-deviled eggs, a few slices of Irish cheddar and pear, and a glass of red wine.  I do not diet.  The very word makes me ravenous.  I run when I can, and I try to stand up and move around every hour or so, because I’ve read that this will prolong longevity. My weight remains constant, and I’m okay with a little extra curve.  Heaven help the unwitting soul who makes the mistake of trying to recruit me to a stricter diet and workout routine.  Food is the only variable in life that I can completely control.  I eat what and when I want.

MFK Fisher, my idol and muse, writes: “One of the stupidest things in an earnest but stupid school of culinary thought is that each of the three daily meals should be ‘balanced.’” Fisher, an outspoken opponent of the “sad rigmarole” of “three daily feedings” based on static, uniform “conditioned appetites,” suggests an alternative approach to eating.  “Balance the day,” she writes, “not each meal in the day.”  Moreover, she proposes the radical notion of enjoying the food we eat: savoring each bite; lingering over textures, tastes, and smells with sensual appreciation. I wholly ascribe to her philosophy.  Sometimes dinner is a briny salad of butter lettuce heaped with sliced olives, red onion, tomato, feta, and Dijon vinaigrette.  Sometimes dinner is the cheese course; sometimes a hunk of boule, ripped from the still-warm loaf.  Though I’m trying to eat less meat, I readily partake of the power player known as bacon and indulge in the luxury of a great rib eye.  Since I have yet to contract pellagra or rickets, I believe my diet is reasonably sound.

Is it better to eat three nutritionally-composed meals a day, or to experience the high from eating a terrific plate of what you love the most and filling in the rest of the day with foods that balance it all out?  Sensible is sensible.  But no one receives an award for sensibility.  St. Peter doesn’t slap a golden certificate in your palm when he meets you at the Pearly Gates.  When I die, I would rather my friends remember me for my marathon cookie sessions or my spicy guacamole.  I’d like them to think of all the dinner parties, wine, laughter, and Dance Central battles.

I am baffled by the masochism of ignoring cravings, a twisted agony of will that has caused many a person’s dietary downfall.  I succumb to cravings because I have a relentless single-mindedness about food, and if I do not cede to my cravings, they consume my senses until I do.  I lose touch with reality.  I obsess. If every cell in my body is screaming for a piece of fried chicken, then my body must be in need of this coveted protein.  My cells sing for all kinds of foods: artichokes, Gouda mashed potatoes, mountains of fat blueberries resting on mounds of tart Greek yogurt.  I give in, and it frees me of my obsession.  Peaceful accord restores my glow.

Fisher lived through war, food rationing, and times of widespread hunger.  She makes a strong case for mindful eating from the standpoint of multiple economies: financial, domestic, and emotional.  “Breakfast, then, can be toast,” she writes, offering one example among several other hypothetical meal suggestions for the day.  “It can be piles of toast, generously buttered, and a bowl of honey or jam, and milk for Mortimer and coffee for you.  You can be lavish because the meal is so inexpensive.  You can have fun, because there is no trotting around with fried eggs and mussy dishes and grease in the pan and a lingeringly unpleasant smell in the air.”  I don’t particularly mind frying eggs and dealing with dishes, but I agree with her underlying point.  Simplified, unstructured meals cost less money and demand less clean up.  This, in turn, encourages overall emotional wellbeing and heightened satisfaction from the foods we eat.

If, one summer night, I eat a bowl full of sweet, ripe tomatoes and wash it down with a bottle of my friend’s homemade apple cider, my meal might cost me $2, as opposed to $1.50 for a chicken breast, $3.48 for salad fixings, and $1.69 for a package of dinner rolls.  (Adding the family to the equation complicates the meal plan further, driving up costs and time spent catering to their preferences, but you get the gist.)  Cheese is my costliest indulgence.  It is worth every cent.  You can’t put a price on cheese-related euphoria.

I started writing this essay in response to one particular male, who, in addition to adopting a(n enormously boring) diet, is also fasting twice a week and smells faintly of peanuts.  His approach strikes me as full-fledged lunacy, but it works for him.  (Since he also happens to live in the same house as me, I cringe and bear it.)  I prefer to follow the approach of a gracious grand dame who lived a long, sensual life, eating as she pleased and writing some of the most rapturous, compelling food literature in existence.  I think of Mary Frances every time I raise my glass. “Try it,” writes Fisher of her philosophy.  “It is easy, and simple, and fun, and – perhaps most important – people like it.”


Filed under food, literature, travel