Soundings: The meaning of meals

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Kerry Temple

I discovered the dining hall’s free continental breakfast in the fall of 1970.

Winter was dimming my freshman glow. It was grayer, colder and more dismal than any autumns I had ever known. My cavalier approach to school was catching up with me. I was drowning in German class and teetering between D and F in math and biology — the classes I started each MWF with, at 8 a.m.

So one dark, disturbing day, returning to Farley after math class, I sought the solace of food.

I spied happy students — laughing, talking and eating — through the big glass windows in the North Dining Hall. I went inside.

My father had always championed the philosophy of starting each day with a good breakfast, but college afforded me the opportunity to stay in bed till it was almost too late. So I did not know that pans of scrambled eggs and bacon, juice and milk and Cheerios and Frosted Flakes were there for the taking (if I could get there before 9 a.m.).

Better yet, I would learn that day, large trays of donuts, Danish and muffins were there for the plucking. Chocolate covered and jelly filled, sugar coated and cinnamon swirled, glazed, cake and braided. It was a baker’s feast, a glutton’s delight. And no one was counting, or asking a dime in return; or taking the pans away till 10:30 or later, almost 11 — as long as there were takers. I was always one of the last.

So I learned what is meant by “comfort food.” And the trickster masquerades of oral gratification and psychological nourishment, fulfillment and escape. Those solitary days of eating donuts and watching it snow and contemplating my academic demise remain a close memory of my rude awakening from callow youth.

It was a simpler time. We had fewer food choices across campus: two dining halls and The Huddle, a minimal-minded emporium with a spare menu and ambience suggestive of a late-night toll-road stop.

Sometimes we’d go for a bag of Oreos and a carton of milk, then return to our room to watch TV for a bit, taking turns dunking our cookies into the community trough. Or maybe we’d get a fresh loaf of white bread because one of our gang received from his mother regular shipments of Peter Pan peanut butter and Welch’s grape jelly by the case.

The highlight may have been food sales, entrepreneurial ventures that broke out in residence hall basements across campus that offered donuts, candy bars, canned pop and packaged Stewart sandwiches you could heat up in a toaster oven. And pizza. The handmade pizza always smelled great and tasted good but hovered well beyond my nightly budget.

Back in the early 1970s we grumbled some about the food, just as we grumbled about the weather and the schoolwork and the lack of a social life and too few women. But our expectations were so meager.

I remember thinking that the food was pretty good. I appreciated (even then) that I could show up and — through no effort of my own — have a couple of entrée choices and go back for seconds and could fill my tray with glasses of pop or milk, and eat my fill and have someone else clean up after me (even swabbing the deck after the several food fights we raucously and selfishly enjoyed).

But here’s what was best: It was the coming together a couple of times a day with good friends.

We’d gather at a table for lunch, swap stories about something said in class, or who put B. for Question 3 on the Emil quiz that week. We’d talk sports, Vietnam and the social revolutions, tease each other, trade memories about hometowns or family vacations. We’d open up The Observer and comment on campus events or student-administration tensions or the columns written by Father Griffin or Bill Toohey, CSC.

At dinner we’d gather in a room, sometimes waiting for Leo Hool to stop watching the day’s Star Trek rerun, then herd over, stand in line, waiting to be counted before getting a tray. We’d talk about who had what to do that night — a paper, project or exam. Who had time for a pickup game. Who wanted to go out for a beer. Who would be up all night working.

It was family time, the communal coming together twice daily, the hub of interaction as we each traveled our own circuits, with different majors, different agendas, different books and demands on our time. Eating together — whatever we ate, or how much, or how good it was — was the time we came together, coalesced, broke bread with kin, renewed our membership, reaffirmed the solidarity that grounded our singular explorations.

It was like a daily coming home with each other, with friends that served as family when we were all solo practitioners.

Kerry Temple is the editor of this magazine.