University goes all out for decadent holiday dinners

Amidst the trumpeters, eggnog and gingerbread houses, the doors decorated as presents, melons carved into the shape of birds and breads from all around the world, the annual Yale College freshman holiday dinner has a few key centerpieces: the ice sculptures. Carved out of 300-pound blocks of ice with a chain saw by Commons chef Joe Veronesi, the ice sculptures — which students almost always attempt to steal — are just one part of the University’s elaborate holiday dinner tradition.

While all Yale students will eat a special holiday dinner this weekend, the freshman dinner, which will take place in Commons on Saturday, is by far the most extravagant. The event, which has existed throughout Yale’s history, includes a “Parade of Comestibles” that can draw mixed reactions from students and staff. Although most students said they appreciate dining hall workers’ effort in preparing the procession’s elaborate food displays, some said they think the tradition is simply over-the-top.

Elaborate ice sculptures and enormous loaves of challah bread are among the items featured at past freshman holiday dinners.
Cari Tuna
Elaborate ice sculptures and enormous loaves of challah bread are among the items featured at past freshman holiday dinners.

Dining Services started planning the holiday dinner menu in October to ensure a sufficient supply of food, such as the 2,500 pounds of grass-fed prime rib Yalies will eat over the weekend, Dining Hall Services Communications Director Karen Dougherty said. For the first time in its history, all Yale holiday dinners will be endorsed by the Yale Sustainable Food Project. Many items in this year’s dinners will be sustainable, including the grass-fed prime ribs, Seafood Watch-endorsed shrimp scampi and organic apple crumble pie. But the meal will not be 100 percent sustainable, Dougherty said, because Dining Services has had difficulty finding some organic versions of foods such as red and green jello and international holiday breads.

“That was a compromise,” Dougherty said. “We wanted the dinner to be sustainable, but we wanted to uphold some of the traditions that have been around for a few decades now. We didn’t want to brush them off.”

Historically, the holiday dinner has featured prime rib, but Dougherty said other entrees have been added to accommodate student’s diverse eating styles. In the 1970s, Dining Services introduced the vegetarian entrée, and it introduced the vegan entrée to the freshman dinner in the 1980s.

Dining Services Manager Daniel Flynn said the dinner’s traditional “Procession of Comestibles” costs $1,000 and generally has eight key displays including international breads, cakes, seafood, a gingerbread village, a Yule log, a ham and a turkey display. The last display varies annually, and this year will feature a pumpkin carved into the shape of Cinderella’s coach. Dougherty said she has been told that the procession of comestibles is a tradition stemming from English royalty, but does not know how it became part of the Yale holiday dinner tradition in the 1950s.

Many students enjoyed what they said was a beautifully presented procession when they were at the freshman dinner in past year. But some said in retrospect that the procession was an unnecessary indulgence, and that the holiday dinner would have been better if it had just been a nice meal without all the extravagance.

“It is almost weird how gaudy and in your face it is,” Kezia Kamenetz ’09 said. “Everyone is so smug … It seems like if you went to a state school and told them this happened they would think it is a joke.”

Flynn said the holiday dinner is typically 20 to 30 percent more expensive than a regular dinner. But since about 1,000 students usually attend the freshman holiday dinner, she said, the procession only costs one dollar per person.

Some dining hall workers said the procession is not too ostentatious because it provides an opportunity for them to showcase their abilities aside from cooking average, everyday meals. For past holiday dinners, the Bakeshop has sculpted a cake in the shape of the Grinch and baked 12-foot long Challah bread.

“I’m the one who starts it off,” dining hall worker Nelly Harriott said of the procession. “Waving hands, throw kisses in the air. Being the crazy person that I am, I get a kick out of it. It’s not flashy to me. It could be flashier. It’s about showing off the talent that we have.”

But some students said they were uncomfortable with dining hall workers carrying food into Commons and serving them at the dinner.

“They are so proud and happy of this entire procession, but you do look around and do realize the disparity,” Brimer said. “They don’t get to eat it. It’s not for them.”

Flynn said dining hall workers serve students during the holiday dinner in order to speed up the process. Since Commons will serve nearly 1,000 students, it is important to make every effort to shorten the line for food, he said.

“It is a little weird for you, I imagine, but the lines are really long, and it’s slower sometimes when kids serve themselves,” Flynn said, adding that the system also helps to cut down on wasted food.

Dining hall workers said they did not think serving students was awkward because it is part of their job. But they said they were dismayed by the fact that this year and last year they were asked to wear black and white instead of their usual festive Christmas colors such as red, green and gold.

“Nobody gets into the spirit like they used to,” Harriott said. “We all used to look forward to getting dressed up.”

While in the past the procession of comestibles has featured meats including pâté, galantine and a whole suckling pig, Flynn said, Dining Services shifted to a more dessert-based procession in order to ensure that more foods would be eaten and not wasted. Dining Services has also purposely made smaller gingerbread houses so that it is easier for students to take them back to their rooms, though they still make an impression. Students described the dining hall staff’s intricate work as “glorious and awesome,” evident in gingerbread villages which were more like “mansion-type affairs complete with gated communities,” as Matthew Brimer ’09 put it.

They said the intense nature of the free-for-all that ensues after the procession of comestibles is set down is an experience unlike any other.

“Everyone is all dressed up,” Brimer said. “We are at Yale, in the beautifully decorated Commons dining hall, there is glorious procession of food — all the bells and whistles are there — and all of sudden, there is this primordial turn, and everyone grabs whole villages of gingerbread house and starts taking them apart.”

Dougherty said Dining Services does not condone the free-for-all, but does not know what it could do to stop students from rushing to the table and ripping apart the displays. Although she is unsure how exactly the tradition of the free-for-all began, Dougherty said she believes it spreads through word-of-mouth to each year’s freshmen. She said in the 35 years she has been at Yale, there has been a free-for-all at every freshman dinner.

“Maybe it was toned down a little bit, but I do believe they came up and destroyed it,” Dougherty said. “Maybe they walked quickly as opposed to ran, but the foods that were out there for display were not there afterwards.”

The event was originally called “the Christmas dinner,” she said, but was changed to “the holiday dinner” in the ’80s.

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