“Why should I come to Amherst?” I asked a then-senior, as my admitted students’ weekend approached its conclusion. We stood in the eternal line at Val, where all of the other would-be freshmen and their hosts also waited for a last supper. “Choose Amherst for the academics and the community,” he told me. “It’s hard to imagine a better place for either.”
Having visited a number of colleges, though, I knew to ask more questions. “Why shouldn’t I come to Amherst?” I said, thinking myself exceptionally clever (and even a little profound.) “The food,” he said. “Please, whatever you do, don’t come for the food.” We shared a hearty laugh, knowing that even if our meals wouldn’t be so hearty, we could bask in the glow of an Amherst liberal arts education, graduating with degrees and experiences that would propel us to great heights. When I returned home that evening, I checked the “Joining the class of 2015” box on my admissions letter.
On a campus well-known for its academics and student-professor dialogue, Valentine Dining Hall has a stranglehold on the position of campus punch line. This humor contributes to an Amherst culture that finds fault with Dining Services for two reasons: 1) to stress a disconnect between the dining experience and everything else, and 2) to identify a scapegoat for the range of amorphous, difficult-to-pinpoint problems with Amherst culture. Valentine Dining Hall serves as the visible, sensory representation of the smallness and routine of the Amherst bubble. When I’ve said, “The food sucks here,” I’ve often meant, “I’m dissatisfied with something about my days here, and I don’t particularly like the Jamaican Jerk Chicken, and I have an essay I don’t want to write, and even after I finish, tomorrow will be the same.” It’s easier to blame something tangible.
Dining Services can do little about the scapegoating. But with support from the administration, they’ve made great strides in addressing the disparity between dining and other aspects of the Amherst experience. And that doesn’t always mean improving the quality of the food per se. On a campus that advocates student choice and freedom on the academic level, and offers a variety of residential choices, a “one-serves-all” dining solution seems a part of a different ethos. To improve students’ relationship with food, then, the administration and Dining Services have introduced Frost Café, Grab N’ Go, and extended Val dining hours.
Charlie Thompson, the affable director of Dining Services, insists that these improvements start with student input. “In Dining Services, change is inevitable,” he says. “Dining Services twenty years ago was completely different. Keeping Val open until 7:30 wouldn’t have been practical. These days, though, students keep a wider range of hours and have more varied scheduling needs.” Thompson hints at a broader point about student culture: we’re not only busy, we’re unpredictably busy. In the era before texting and email, students more reliably worked during some hours, ate during other hours and relaxed at night. Now, Mondays can be lighter than Saturdays, and the Tuesday lunch hour can serve as last minute test preparation. Consider finals week. A kind of orderlessness sinks into the hours, as students sleep through the afternoon, pull all-nighters, and have Antonio’s for lunch at 1 AM. Grab N’ Go drives the point home. “Looking at the response cards from our trial run with Grab and Go last semester,” Thompson explains, “We found that a lot of students said that, without Grab N’ Go, they just didn’t have time to eat on some days.”
Frost Café illustrates that we also study differently than earlier generations. Rather than poring over volumes on library shelves, we seem to work in shorter bursts, devoting our attention to a number of projects at once. Frost Café responds to this change. The first floor of the library has transformed: in contrast to the studious quiet that characterizes B level, for example, the first floor serves a place of congregation. People play chess, have extracurricular meetings, drink coffee, hold tutoring sessions, and chat. Above all, the food, tables, and conversation that accompany the Café invite academic collaboration, as well as the kind of casual studying with friends that Amherst students enjoy. Basically, Frost café succeeds in emulating and institutionalizing the ambiance of a place like Rao’s.
As I’ve suggested, the importance of breaking bread goes far beyond physical nourishment and taste-bud delight. I’m hardly an exception in thinking that some of my friendships have formed during the Val lunch hour. Some of my most memorable conversations, too, have their origins in a great dessert that Val offered, which kept me lingering at the table for thirty more minutes. The influence of Dining Services on social life also takes on particular weight because of the difficulties in fostering community in upperclassmen dorms. You may not be able to get students to talk to each other in a common room, but everyone needs to eat. And when you’re not chewing—or maybe even while you are—you’re probably making conversation.
The administration deserves credit for recognizing this. It’s probably not entirely coincidental that, the semester after sexual respect talks, the funding for long sought-after changes has materialized. New sandwich options at Frost Café, world cuisine, and alcoholic selections at Schwemm’s breathe more life into a world where routine is the enemy. Additionally, the introduction of these menu items addresses the growing diversity of student dining need. World cuisine, for example, serves a more geographically plural student body. More investment in the lighter side and vegan options, too, speak to a growing health and ethical culture among students. Overall, Dining Services and the administration have been responding well, albeit a little slowly, to changing student life and culinary interests.
The future looks bright for dining at Amherst. The College has invested in a farm that will one day provide fresh, on-site produce for Val. More funding and a capable, responsive staff will continue to monitor shifts in student interest. As long as the Amherst culture’s difficult-to-define problems exist, though, Valentine Dining Hall will continue serve as the object of target practice for disgruntled Amherst students. And if a prospective student ever asks me, “Why shouldn’t I come to Amherst?” I may very well tell him, truthfully or otherwise, “Don’t come for the food.”