For dining hall menus, planning can improve lackluster offerings

Last semester, Yale University Dining Services conducted a survey to assess dining quality. Last month, the Yale Sustainable Food Project collected signatures in favor of the Project’s expansion. Students in residential colleges besides Berkeley constantly grumble about the food on their plates. Let’s face it: We don’t like the food we get in dining halls.

Recent news items, namely the proposed and likely-to-be rejected expansion of the YSFP, have tiptoed around this frustrating fact. The News reported last Wednesday that budget restrictions would probably preclude YSFP expansion, but the article made no direct assessment of the items on Yale College menus (“YSFP is unlikely to expand,” 2/22). Instead, cagey allusions to the “importance” of “food quality” dominated. The closest that the article came to outright criticism of our food was in the anonymous comment of a student who took a survey conducted by Food from the Earth: “Currently the dining hall situation is the only truly negative aspect of being at Yale,” she wrote.

Fine. But I am willing to bet that, by “dining hall situation,” she actually means the food. Since, surprisingly, nobody else has put it in writing, I will: The food at Yale is the single worst aspect of living on campus. And, though I believe that the University ought to undertake a major expansion of the YSFP, an improvement in the taste of the food we eat could be significant even without the higher expense that such an undertaking might necessitate. For a vast improvement in student life, Yale Dining should overhaul its standards, closely patrol the maintenance of those standards and simplify its recipes.

There are two major problems with the food offered in Yale colleges. The first is that certain items upon which the savvy diner comes to rely sometimes seem to disappear. Where did the smooth peanut butter go? Alas, half the “fresh” spinach is rotten and the rest is frozen to the bottom of the container. The frozen yogurt machine is broken again. The toaster is broken again. The skim milk has run out. The coffee is tepid. There’s no tofu!

The second problem, though, is that even if everything were always as it should be, the meals that confront us daily are nonsensical. Let’s take the dinner of Feb. 26, which featured chicken jambalaya, vegan ravioli provencale and the always mysterious goulash soup. Are you supposed to eat all these things together? Too bad there wasn’t any harira or chana masala to heap onto our plates. Then we could have represented another continent or two.

YSFP to the rescue. Luckily, that night’s menu also featured homestyle meatloaf and potato and parsnip puree — not necessarily my favorite YSFP options, but so much more trustworthy than the misguided attempts at variety that appeared alongside them.

It seems clear to me that most students supported the YSFP expansion petition simply because the food in Berkeley tastes better. Let’s consider, then, why that’s the case. Chance alone does not make YSFP dishes more satisfying. Local harvests do not magically arrange themselves into perfect meals. Sure, fresh and wholesome ingredients make for tasty and healthy food, but when it was time to design the YSFP menus, the guiding hand of Alice Waters, one of the best chefs in the world, wrote the recipes.

The food combinations in Berkeley make sense. Grilled leeks, stone-ground parmesan chicken and mixed baby greens make for a good, satisfying meal. What’s more, the individual recipes enhance the ingredients involved instead of ruining them.

The residential college menus could imitate the cohesive dining philosophy of Waters with the ingredients that they already have. Why the sad attempt at chicken jambalaya when they could just bake the chicken? Why smother caribbean blend vegetables with bizarre sauce when they could just steam them? It would behoove Yale Dining Services to reconsider their recipes, if not their ingredients, for simpler, more appealing options.

I believe that Yale should make room in its budget for sustainable food. As Wells O’Byrne, Emily Kruger and Chelsea Purvis argued on this page, the YSFP makes Yale a more responsible world institution, as well as a more competitive college for prospective students (“Expand YSFP to vastly improve student life,” 2/22). In the meantime, though, the University should respect its inhabitants at least enough to improve the standard grub.



Helen Vera is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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