Food for Thought: Getting In

At 4:40 p.m. a cluster of Berkeley devotees are lining up for dinner. Their faces are grim. They know what it takes to get in. They know they must face Annette and Christine.

Toby Jackson, a Trumbull sophomore, is used to arriving early — he eats 12 meals a week at Berkeley. “I’m pretty extreme,” he says, his eyes wide. “The people who come here are people with good taste.”

“And lots of time,” remarks his friend.

The expected time of arrival for non-Berkeleyites has migrated earlier and earlier since the Sustainable Food Project started last year, the boys said. The project, and accompanying restrictions on how many non-Berkeleyites can enjoy fancy fare, used to mean that you were safe if you arrived by 4:45. Now 4:40 is standard. 4:35, rare but increasingly advisable.

“The people who care deeply about getting in ensure they get in,” Jackson says with the authority of a college adviser. “And they…” he points vaguely in the direction of the cashier’s desk, “They know who really cares about getting in.”

“They” are Christine Quinn and Annette Tracey. I am here to experience the cult of Berkeley, the food and its followers. And I am here to observe the gurus of the cult. The women whose personalities, and nay-saying power, loom so large over the Berkeley experience that fine-food fanatics are willing to whine and wheedle to win entry. The ultimate symbol of Berkeley’s exclusivity may well be Annette, who is famous for rejections as chilly as fine white wine.

Despite Jackson’s assertion that those who appear early at Berkeley’s gates are “people like him,” the crowd of Stilesians behind him in line couldn’t look more different than him and his wiry friends. Clad in sweatsuits and Yale paraphernalia, the other group’s members are approximately twice the size of Jackson. But they are just as passionate about good food as Jackson is — passionate enough to join our conversation uninvited.

“There’s a discrepancy among campus dining halls, an inequality,” says one. This Stilesian appears often enough at Berkeley to be on a first-name basis with the cashier. “You complaining about us?” Christine asks, a kind-faced woman with intense blue eyes. “Leave my dining hall immediately!”

Fear flickers across his face. But she’s joking.

But in Berkeley, there is no such thing as “of course.” Striding alongside my new, muscular friends, I manage to enter the dining hall without swiping, which is fortunate, since I’m the 11th non-Berkeleyite to enter tonight, and the dining hall caps at 10 visitors within the first half-hour of dinner.

It is 5:02.

The Stilesians are awed by the selection. “Feta, no way!” one cries. Others are more finicky. “Sub-par,” says a soup connoisseur, frowning over the mud-colored pumpkin pear potage. My pleasure defies words. Forgoing my duty as a journalist, I grab a tray.

It is a good night for Berkeley. The peppery lamb patty lightly bites my tongue. The thick, tangy pumpkin pear soup hides black pepper flakes like buried treasure. The brisket is lean and tender. I briefly consider a career in restaurant reviewing. But I am distracted by an exchange at Christine’s desk. “No transfers,” she tells a pale, sodden troupe of students. “Come back in an hour.” They turn slowly and shuffle out.

Other non-Berkeleyites employ patience as their strategy. A fair-skinned redhead waits outside the dining hall for five minutes before someone else appears. She approaches him cautiously, poses the question: Is he in Berkeley? He is. They enter without speaking further. “I’m hosting her,” he tells Christine unemotionally. They immediately head for different tables.

The management of the Yale Sustainable Food Project and the Berkeley dining hall are quite aware of what irks non-Berkeleyites. Melina Shannon-DiPietro, a slight, dark-haired woman who has worked on farms from Maine to Sicily, helps direct YSFP. “I’d like every college to eventually look like Berkeley,” she says, “but it’s not happening tomorrow.” The trajectory of the program depends on student opinion as represented by surveys and by college masters, she says. But even if the Yale population voted unanimously to spread the project to all colleges (and the administration approved), the time required to train dining hall staff, ascertain product supply, and gain funding would be considerable. As a compromise, sustainable food has made repeated guest appearances in the other 11 colleges. I recall those lovely lamb patties from a long-ago night in Saybrook.

John Turenne helps direct YSFP and manages the Berkeley dining hall. He deems the long lines at Berkeley “a nice problem to have,” evidence that “we’re doing a good job.” He sympathizes with students who want to eat at Berkeley and cannot get in, but points out that Berkeley would get overcrowded and its food would run out if no transfer policy existed.

He is interrupted by a Berkeleyite who engages him in a serious discussion of ice cream. After a brisk handshake, he returns to our conversation.

For example, he says, he’s running terribly low on gourmet vanilla gelato.

Gourmet vanilla gelato?

“But you’re welcome to have some,” he says.

He leads me past the grill, through some doors, down some stairs, and into the place where the magic happens. It’s like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, only with more machines (and without a chocolate river). Kalamata olives glisten under fluorescent lights. Huge metal tubs of soup steam and sizzle. Turenne takes me to the freezer, which is slightly larger than my common room. He vanishes within it, only to reappear with a container of gelato in hand. We take a moment to admire it. It is a smooth, pale gold, flecked with vanilla bean. A dining hall worker stops to see what we’re staring at.

“Hey Brian, want some ice cream?” Turenne asks.

“No, man,” Brian says. “That’d blow me up. I got the lactose intolerance.”

I happen to have the same intolerance, but I don’t let it stop me.

Surfacing from underground, proudly holding my gelato, one disappointment of this reporting excursion looms large: I have not found Annette. Annette, the venerated queen of Berkeley. Annette, the gatekeeper of culinary delights. With her gleaming, perfectly curled hair, her chiseled cheekbones, and her weekday command of the Berkeley entrance desk (Christine takes weekends), Annette inspires a variety of reactions in Yalies — Berkeleyite and non-Berkeleyite alike. To many Yalies, Annette is an enigma, her unsmiling refusals of entry symbolic of a mysterious inner life. This mysterious inner life is, perhaps, emblematic of the inner life of Berkeley itself, of this forbidden palace of frittatta and fricassee. Yet Annette is not a mystery to all. Stephanie Bloch, a Berkeley junior, considers her relationship with Annette fairly close. “Annette’s saved in my cell phone,” she says. “We’re going to chill over the summer.” Bloch responds empathetically to Yalies’ indignation over Annette’s brisk rejections: “Annette is just misunderstood. She loves her job and just tries to do it as best as possible. She’s eccentric, but we all are in our own way.”

Like any cooking project, finding Annette takes time and patience. The next time I return to Berkeley, there she is.

Whether or not Annette is eccentric, her speaking style is certainly unique. She speaks quickly, with a slight smile, and repeats herself constantly. When I ask her when she started working at Berkeley, she says, “I’ve been at Berkeley since ’92 — Berkeley since ’92.” She aims to make students feel “comfortable and welcome.” Turning people away is “the hard part.” But she maintains that Berkeley students should be able to sit and eat in their own dining hall. “It’s not an easy thing, but I have to do it even if I don’t want to,” she says.

No matter how students feel about her, Annette feels strongly about students — so strongly that, as she speaks, her clipped, joking manner turns slower, more meditative. For the first time I notice her gentle Jamaican accent. “Students think the sky’s the limit, and I admire that,” she says. “It’s a really wonderful feeling to see them come and go, and admire their accomplishments. I know what studying is like.”

Annette herself never finished school. She began her degree at a college in Jamaica and continues to take courses at Gateway Community College in New Haven. She points at the large oil painting of Bishop Berkeley that dominates the far wall of Berkeley’s dining hall. “I wrote an art history paper on the Bishop Berkeley portrait,” she says, exuding the mixture of pride, matter-of-factness and exhaustion that Yalies know too well.

A dining hall worker calls her, and the spell is broken. Annette resumes her fast, smart manner. “You coming out for my birthday?” she demands of the young man. “You coming out for my birthday?” I assume my time with her is up, that she will wave me out of the dining hall as she so often has. But Annette, I am learning, is not the brisk, cold guru she sometimes seems to be. She relates to her followers in ways I hadn’t suspected. Annette turns back to me. “Have some coffee,” she says. “Make yourself comfortable.”

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Leland Milstein
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