Roll of the Dice
At Harvard, competition is cutthroat, but lotteries are bloodbaths.
Promising an all-star roster of guest speakers that reinvented cooking, Science of the Physical Universe 27: “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science” was a class that could exist only at Harvard. While deep pockets and institutional clout drew the talent to fuel the intellectual burners—including world-renowned chefs Ferran Adrià and José Andrés—only pure chance would fill Science Center C’s 300 seats.
No senior standing. No preference for students looking to fulfill a General Education requirement. And no special treatment for food bloggers. Any one of those would’ve helped me.
And with 700 students vying for 300 spots, I already felt that I’d be barred from the class. The lottery was random. My unbridled, self-serving agony wasn’t.
After I attended three brilliant lectures, the supposedly random number generator put me on the waitlist. I immediately interpreted it as a rejection.
So far, I’ve been rejected from a female social club, a nonfiction creative writing class (twice), an Anthropology reading seminar, two blocking groups, and various final clubs parties. And like everyone else seeking a future after Harvard, I’ve fumbled interviews, seen e-mails bounce back, and checked my voice mail to find calls unanswered.
Now I was in the “top third” of the list of outsiders. I thought back to lectures I had attended, barely holding my anxiety in check. With culinary rock star Ferran Adrià (responsible for the rise of molecular gastronomy) and food science writer Harold McGee teaching, the line began forming an hour beforehand. This at a school where everyone is proudly seven minutes late to everything. Ferran spoke in his native Catalan about cooking from a theoretical angle, asking us to rethink water and the experience of eating itself. Then, with the help of some assistants, he used solutions of calcium chloride and alginate to turn olive oil into a sphere with transparent jellied skin. The audience broke into gasps, then applause.
The chosen few would not have to settle for mere lectures, either; they would be immersed in a culinary world. In labs, they would concoct noodles made entirely of shrimp and apply science chops to molten chocolate cake. And this year’s precise lineup—which encompassed wd~50’s Wylie Dufresne and mini bar’s José Andrés—wasn’t easily replicated.
I wasn’t alone. Almost all of my friends and members of the Harvard Culinary Society also were waitlisted or flat out rejected. Running the Culinary Society means that I’m lucky enough to work with some of the most passionate student chefs and eaters on campus. People who had cooked professionally, attended culinary school in Italy, and brewed their own beer in student kitchens. They were hardcore, and many were seniors who wouldn’t have the opportunity again.
This entirely impersonal rejection made me think about Harvard’s many gatekeepers. The school is like an exclusive club containing a million smaller, more exclusive clubs—a world that thrives on its own inaccessibility. Still, people will generally accept a grueling application process. The judges are human, sure, but more frightening than low acceptance rates is open enrollment.
This process, in contrast, was infuriatingly impersonal. There was no judge—professional or social—only a random number generator. And perhaps that was my lucky break. Because 24 hours after my first rejection, I got an e-mail the next night telling me, equally impersonally, that I had been taken off the waitlist. Several of my friends had as well.
So that’s how I found myself fumbling SPU 27’s first lab experiment with a pressure cooker and six egg custards. By the raising the pressure, I was allowing the food to cook faster at higher temperatures. The science was simple. My path there had been simple. And strangely, I was sad that for once, my entry hadn’t depended on impressing a biased and flawed judge.