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I’ve never considered myself a foodie, but I can’t deny that eating is one of my favorite activities. There’s something special about sharing a hot meal with people who equally warm your heart. Back home, my sister and I always gorge on homemade meals together over laughter-filled conversations or purposeless movies. Our meals together are some of my favorite memories and one of the things I was most afraid to let go of when preparing for my move to college. I did, however, feel comforted by the flood of anecdotes I heard about the unique freshmen dining experience at Annenberg which I hoped would fill the void.
I never realized how much of home I would actually miss in the dining hall. Whereas before, I could always count on my mother’s comforting food to make me feel at home after a long day, I am now always struggling to find comfort from the once-reliable friend I call food.
My food options have been severely limited since I’ve left home, the one place I always felt I belonged. I am a practicing Muslim who eats Zabiha Halal meat, a distinction that has placed me at a disadvantage in the Harvard dining halls. In Texas, there was no place I felt more comfortable dining than my own home because my family has always catered to our Halal dietary needs. My new home at Harvard has failed to meet this need.
While the College should, in essence, be my home base — the place where I can return with ease and fall back on — I constantly feel like an outsider when scanning my dining options. In contrast to the various entree lines available to most students, Halal residents are restricted to a small, de facto hidden section. As Harvard Islamic Society Co-President Aisha Abelhamid puts it, Muslims simply do not belong here.
It’s not that there are no opportunities for me to taste a piece of home; it’s that those options are sparse and overwhelmingly homogenous. We are offered Halal “alternatives,” which are rarely Halal versions of courses but rather downgraded substitutes. There are always chicken and meat options for most students but often only “Halal” vegetarian or fish options for Muslim students, which is really a poor excuse for an attempt at accommodation since vegetables and fish are always Halal. When we are provided with actual Halal meats, they often barely resemble their non-Halal counterparts. I have also had multiple experiences of waiting for a single Halal option in the entree line while numerous refills were brought out for non-Halal residents.
These same deficiencies haunt other groups with dietary restrictions — the same handful of rotating inadequate options offered under the pretense of inclusivity. How can we all feel welcome when our dining doesn’t truly accommodate every individual regardless of their needs? How can eating continue to be an enjoyable experience for all if some of us are continuously disregarded?
Equally as important as what we eat, however, is with whom we eat. The first time I stepped out of Annenberg’s kitchen and into the dining area, my eyes were so often fixed upwards at the fascinating architecture that I could trail off to any table and have a seat without another thought. My roommates and I liked to describe it as the magic of a new community forming, where anyone could sit with a stranger and strike up a conversation. Unfortunately, all magic comes with a price — or an expiration date.
Now, when I step out of line with my tray of salad and yogurt, I look straight ahead at the daunting game of mental Sudoku I must play to find a seat. With the jitters of the first month past us, most freshmen have settled into their groups. While it is wonderful that people have found peers that make them feel at home, it makes it that much harder to calculate who is open to another member at their table and who is in the middle of a conversation and may resent you for interrupting.
When you enter the dining hall with your group already in tow, Annenberg is bearable — you can overlook the food and focus on the laughter and the fancy chandeliers. But then you are in danger of appearing like those same daunting cliques to students who have just stopped by for a quick meal that didn’t line up with their friends’ schedules.
I am deeply frustrated with the clique culture — real or perceived — that I see in Annenberg. But I don’t think that it is impossible for us to keep the magic of Annenberg alive beyond the breathtaking Gothic arches and technicolor mosaics. It is fully in the hands of students to create a community that allows everyone to feel like they belong in the dining hall even if they walked in alone.
To me, the joys of food are two-pronged: the chance to please my palate and the chance to spend time with those I love. I can’t say I was not disappointed in both these ends at Annenberg. I have realized that it is hard to adjust to a new environment when you are missing such an essential part of home.
The dining hall should not be another place where we feel disconnected. It should be a place where both our stomachs and our souls are fed. I hope we can revive the spark in the dining hall and sanctify the reputation of Annenberg that I used to hear so widely about. I believe that if we try hard enough, eating can be an activity that means so much more than just nutrition; it can mean security, solace, and a sense of belonging.
Labiba Uddin ’25 lives in Canaday Hall. Her column “BeLonging” appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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