The Food Behind the Thought

When home, lunch is a comfortable, casual, well-rehearsed affair. I walk the carpeted hall to my kitchen, open the fridge ...

When home, lunch is a comfortable, casual, well-rehearsed affair. I walk the carpeted hall to my kitchen, open the fridge door, and pull out some pre-sliced turkey, pre-sliced cheese, the jar of honey mustard, and maybe some grapes if I’m in the mood. In a few minutes, when the goods have been added to a base of whole wheat bread, I have a sandwich.

A friend’s mom likes to look at people’s cereal collections because she thinks it says something about the family—those with Lucky Charms tend to be a different sort from those who have only All Bran. Those with both have strong faith in their self-control.

But at school, kitchens and food sources are no longer personal. I don’t have a fridge; I have a dining hall, which, though lovely, isn’t quite as known or as inherently mine as the kitchen that stocked my baby food. And there is something about the predictable quality of my kitchen and the fridge’s contents that I miss.

On Tuesday, I missed it especially. Having allotted too little time to get from my room to Maxwell Dworkin to shop a class, I decided to forgo lunch. But when I got there, I was so hungry; hungry with the sort of hunger that would have prevented my absorbing anything Daniel Schrag, one of Obama’s climate change experts, was about to teach. So instead of moseying in to claim a seat, I entered a personal relay race—I passed my bag to a friend also heading to the lecture and ran toward a white truck pulled up to the curb. It smelled like the perfect grease of lo mein.

Generally the idea of Chinese food cooked on wheels would gross me out, but I was hungry and the food was there so I got in line. A few minutes later—enough later to have undermined my attempt at timeliness—I was handed a plastic bag containing a plastic fork, a Styrofoam box, and 50 cents in change. With that I ran to class.

In some lectures, eating can be a stealthy act. Kids or desks or chairs block the food from the professor’s direct line of vision, and multiple open containers can mask the direction of the food-smell’s origin. But not this class. It was silent, seats were evenly spaced, and the professor, to his credit, made nearly invasive eye contact with everyone in the lecture hall. It was no place to open up a container of chicken teriyaki. As such, my food sat uneaten, and I sat thinking about it.

Until I left the class. I walked out of the lecture to sit alone on a red bench in Maxwell Dworkin’s hallway in order to eat cold skewers of chicken teriyaki from a Styrofoam container. I had not yet seen the food, and when I opened the perspiring lid, I was less than pleased with my purchase. The chicken looked like it had been painted brown, and the veggies were of dubious freshness; they reminded me more of the Styrofoam box than of something that grows from the ground.

But within minutes, the chicken was gone, the rice deemed unworthy of its caloric value and my grumbling stomach quieted. I went on with my day and didn’t think about the unpleasant lunch again. Which is good, because it was just lunch.

But that is not to say that all eating experiences on campus need to be sweaty Chinese food from a truck, or refried beans in a pewter pot, or yesterday’s leftovers plus tofu, all stir-fried. Food here can be good.

The day after my Chinese food experience was Rosh Hashana—the Jewish New Year. While services are one feature of the day, another tradition is for celebrators to eat apples and honey in hopes for sweetness in the coming year. At home, the day involves sitting around a big wooden table with family. On campus, it involves a less formal but equally thoughtful gathering. A smattering of girls in Harvard’s middle years met by Leverett just after sunset and walked to the river. We first tried sitting on the steps of Weeks Footbridge but realized that like we, the bugs had been drawn to the light. We moved to the grass, and around a flowery sheet-turned-picnic-blanket/cutting-board, we sliced apples.

As is tradition, we each grabbed a piece, squeezed on some plastic-bear honey, and went around the circle and stated our goals for the coming year—timely, because even though the Jewish New Year may be abstract, the beginning of a new academic year is quite immediate.

That meal, which wasn’t even a meal, could not have been more different from my solitary Chinese food lunch. This time, I sat in a circle with friends, some in dresses, some in shorts and t-shirts, and me in my gym clothes, along the Charles just after sunset. We were all totally comfortable there, partaking in a tradition that we knew well. The Chinese food meal had been one of convenience and necessity, but the apples and honey were about more, and they were much sweeter because of it.

—Elyssa A.L. Spitzer is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House. She is magically delicious.