Tag Archives: pleasure

Dining Hall Confidential

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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

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Pleasure Seekers

Once upon a time in a quaint farm town...

Once upon a time in a quaint farm town…

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
– Rudyard Kipling

Once upon a time, in a quaint farm town, there lived a community much like that of any other small town. While the sun crested the high alpine peaks, residents prepared for their days, readying for work of one kind or another, inside or out of the home. Children rode their bicycles to the elementary school. Birds chirped as farmers loaded aging pick-up trucks with hay bales and feed. Cars passed through the town’s only stoplight, heading north to more prosperous cities and south to larger towns: stop, go, stop, go.  And each day, a shadow coursed along in pajama pants, jittering, thrusting her hands, visible one moment and gone just as quickly, as if to convince onlookers she was never really there at all. Except, she was.

*

I can only speak for the town in which I live, but it’s not a stretch to imagine that addiction addles other communities as well. His face and temperament might vary, but he wears a similar outfit wherever he roams: an overcoat of hole-filled secrecy, shoes worn thin from tireless searching for the next fix. Whispers follow him, though few care to look him directly in the eyes. In my town, his name is Meth. He has an alarming number of friends.

*

As children, we’re warned not to do drugs. Our parents admonish us, as do schools and billboards. Culturally, however, we do drugs all the time, often in multiples, each one yielding a specific desired result: pain killers, anti-inflammatories, allergy relievers, anti-depressants, contraceptives, cholesterol lowering agents… Drugs are commonplace and abundant. People use them for leisure, for pleasure, to improve quality of life; others take drugs out of necessity, medical or otherwise. Into our bodies they go, dissolving into the bloodstream, workhorses for end goals. The distinction, then, isn’t that we should abstain from drugs, but that we should avoid the drugs with the potential to destroy us.

*

Problems are easily overlooked when the user has no name, but, in this small town, it was only a matter of time before I would see (and know) my first before-and-after. I encountered her a few weeks ago, hastening along Main Street, eyes bulged, punching the air around her head, cigarette in hand. Did she recognize me? Did she catch my wince before I looked away? Did she register my shock at her haggard appearance? Growing up in Brooklyn accustomed me to unanticipated doses of fright, but it seemed unfathomable that the girl before me was the same girl I remembered from just last year. Today, she is a wiry, crackling, frayed piece of electricity paying a dear price for her pleasure.

*

One of my friends has a strong background in drug and alcohol counseling. Lacking first-hand experience, I consulted with him to round out the research I’d done online, and what he told me helped me understand meth usage from a neurological perspective. Basically, meth floods the brain with dopamine (a chemical tied to motivation and reward that makes people feel really good) for a much longer duration than we usually experience from doing other activities that make us feel good, like eating good food, having sex, or working out. Its biggest danger, he explained, “is that it makes other activities seem pointless by comparison…. When the animal part of our brains know that with a phone call and a quick injection we can feel incalculable pleasure, it makes putting in the effort for going for a run and feeling a little bit better seem like a much less satisfying option. We tend to take the path of least resistance for the highest gratification.”

*

I am an outsider to the world of illegal drugs, but addiction is relatable, because it spills into alcohol, tobacco, exercise, food, creative expression… anything, really, that promises the chance of happiness or fulfillment. Social pressures, genetic inheritances, and slick marketing conspire to weaken resolve.  I understand the human appetite for pleasure.

*

Utah has its highlights and its struggles. As a non-Mormon, I will forever be a minority, a member of the 30% fringe, though I attended college here, live and work here, and, as the only child of my parents’ union and subsequent separation, have enjoyed the state’s natural offerings every summer since I was a baby. Countless observations have shown me that ice cream satiates (and palliates) the appetite of the state’s majority, who abstain from hot tea and coffee, alcohol, and tobacco – and vice in general – as a religious and moral imperative. Ice cream is obviously not a drug, but any child can tell you that its sweet creaminess has its own mood-altering effects.

*

The state has also been scrutinized for its high use of anti-depressants. Some contend that residents are more likely to seek medical assistance because they are forbidden to imbibe in the substances that others typically use to elevate moods, legally attainable or not. An entry in the Mormonism Research Ministry suggests that the pressure of striving for perfection could potentially lead to higher rates of depression. I think winter and relative isolation work in tandem to foster sadness. Winter days crawl along, prolonged nighttime encrusted in snow. Salt Lake City, with its dense population, experiences a thermal inversion that blots out the sun with a dense layer of smog for days and weeks. My town does not experience the inversion and is, for the most part, blessed by crisp, blue skies, but the days are so very lonely and hollow, making the world feel too small at times. How we cope varies. Pleasure is pleasure, and we seek it in whatever ways we can.

*

The minority fringe blisses out on caffeine in the form of tea and coffee, as does a large part of the overall global community. According to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, caffeine is a “behavior-modifying chemical” that “stimulates the central nervous system, relieves drowsiness and fatigue, and quickens reaction times.” And yet there are no awareness campaigns or recovery programs for caffeine addicts. Those who quit consume other, easily acquired drugs until the jitters, headaches, and cloudy irritability pass. The Coca Cola website tells me that there are “34, 750 ways to describe” how the popular beverage makes a person feel.  In 2009, the soda’s motto was “Open Happiness.” Who wouldn’t want to drink in happiness if that was all it took?

*

Once upon a time, in a quaint farm town, there lived a writer who recoiled in the raw face of addiction. Her shock unnerved her. Her mother’s family had lost brothers and uncles to alcoholism. She remembered sneaking outside to smoke in high school and college: those dizzying, intoxicating first drags. She felt the beckoning warmth of a morning cup of tea, black and sweet, radiating against her cupped hands. Even her chosen field of interest condemned her: musings on food and drink, near obsessive in tone, for which she held – and still holds – such reverence. She had peered into the frenzied blue eyes of someone who might under other circumstances be her friend and judged, only to recoil at herself, deeply ashamed by her reaction.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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