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As I stood in the dining room of the People’s House, there it lay. A delicious entree, sitting below Joanna Gaines-esque lighting, flaunting its glowing brown and yellow flakes, its textured contours. In the center, there was a beef patty. Of that I was sure. As visible from where I stood, this patty was fairly thin, moist, and a rich, dark brown, probably cooked well-done. Its shape was not that of a well-crafted circle, as though someone bought a box full of frozen patties from Sam’s Club and dethawed them. No, this was a work of art. It was beautiful: a sculptural take on the centuries-old geometric oval. Oozing over the oval was an orange-yellow film of greasy goodness, sliding down its sides like volcanic lava.
Embracing the well-done, oily goodness were two pieces of enormous, buttery, glutenous white Texas toast, stuck together by the lava-cheese. They hugged the meat — in the awkward, overly-excited-family-reunion-aunt kind of way — as though saying a final goodbye.
These were no ordinary buns, surrounding no ordinary slice of cheese, holding no ordinary meat patty in their core. This, in fact, was no ordinary cheeseburger.
Above the tin tray which cradled its presence was a sign — plain and simple — that read: “BBQ Texas Grilled Cheeseburger”
I marveled. A classic Harvard University Dining Services entree named extravagantly. It. Was. Perfect. As is all HUDS food.
This is a hot take, I know. Most would disagree with such an absolute claim.
Granted, there’s no food like grandma’s or mom and dad’s. Perhaps you know how to fry a meaner piece of fish than Red’s Best Catch. It’s true: Even if it’s a simple meal, there’s something magical about an entree prepared by a loved one, with scents you are familiar with, seasonings curated by your family’s tried-and-tested experimentation, and its own backstory.
So when you approach HUDS food, your experience feels sub-par. I mean, this is Harvard, after all. Annenberg looks like a freaking mess hall from Harry Potter. “But this food?” you think. “This is not it.”
Can I submit something to you?
The problem is not the food: It’s our perception of it. In fact, we live in a foody Matrix of sorts, clouded by norms we inherited at birth and fortified ever since. Free your mind and I will show you the wonders of the HUDS way.
First and foremost, it’s important we recognize — even at Harvard — that HUDS is no restaurant. Oftentimes, when many people “eat out,” they are expecting something fancy, well-seasoned, and hopefully reasonably priced. HUDS is not a restaurant — it’s part of your new Harvard home. Would you feel at home if, every day in the dining hall, you were ordering filet mignon and bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin, perhaps with some truffle fries?
Compared to the average home-cooked meal, in terms of quantity and quality, HUDS food excels. Think about it this way: At any Harvard dining hall, you are granted at least three alternative options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, one of which is always entirely vegan. And these options are not refrigerator lunch leftovers, like mom’s meatloaf from last night turned into an extemporaneous lunch sandwich. No, these meals include grains (like what in the world is bulgur?), legumes (chickpeas are my new favorite addition to any meal, by the way), and vegetables (do you regularly eat okra and beets in your home?). You are also granted a variety of drinks, including literally all of the milks with their corresponding percentages, fruit juices galore, and even an array of flavored seltzer water.
HUDS food doesn’t deserve its critics, but I’m not even mad about it. On the contrary, I’m convinced that the reason it is so widely critiqued is not that it’s bad, but because it accomplishes exactly what it’s supposed to in making Harvard a bit more like home.
HUDS food is the great equalizer for the majority of us on campus — it picks no favorites. Regardless of if your parents are in the top one percent of income earners globally or if you come from a home with food insecurity, you are blessed with vegan creamy pasta with Beyond sausage for dinner and a blondie brownie for dessert.
Most importantly, HUDS food and its corresponding dining halls are sites of rest.
I don’t know where you are in your journey of self-actualization right now, but Harvard is a difficult place to be, which, for better or worse, changes who you are. Many come through here, feeling lost and alienated; ambitious, yet incessantly insufficient; and then graduate to meet a cold world.
So perhaps, at the end of the day, the rage around HUDS is not about HUDS at all. Maybe it’s more about an institution and all the forces around us, shaping and pressuring us to become the world’s next “citizen-leaders.”
So, if our stress around these expectations comes out in the dining hall, that’s quite alright. I know that deep down, you like those dan-dan noodles. When you feel comfortable enough somewhere to complain and critique its features, perhaps what was once a distant, lofty house — an aspiration — has become a home.
Sterling M. Bland ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Sociology and African and African American Studies concentrator in Quincy House.
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