I’m from suburban South Florida, where like in most suburban areas, I grew up eating at places like Olive Garden and TGI Friday’s. It’s your birthday? Red Lobster. You’re getting together with your ex-boyfriend? Cold Stone. You’re going out on a date? Chili’s. When my family is road tripping and looking for a place to stay the night, we don’t look for new, trendy things; we see an exit with a Steak-n-Shake and start yelling “Nirvana!” These are the cities that make us feel comfortable, at home.
When I realized I was coming to Yale and had to leave my really posh ’98 Ford Taurus dubbed “Hot Wheels” at home, I already felt trapped. Over and over I heard that I had nothing to be nervous about. After all, Yale was a wonderful place, so rich with everything from food to culture to shopping that I would never want to leave. And after two and a half years and a summer spent in New Haven, I’m happy to say that much of this is true. The city does have a number of wonderful museums and I’ve enjoyed most meals that I’ve had at New Haven restaurants. However, the consumer market in all respects, but especially when it comes to food, is extremely limited in a way that has bothered me since my arrival freshman year.
I calmed myself down from my car panic by assuring myself that like the schools I had visited in Florida, surely Yale’s campus would be home to a number of fast food and sit-down chain restaurants in addition to its array of coffee and boutique sandwich shops. I’d imagine myself getting homesick and crawling up in a booth at Wendy’s to do my work. Ridiculous, I know. But I guess among all the things I knew would change, I didn’t think that the places I ate at, the places I’d go on dates on, would change, even in an urban setting.
That said, when I came to Yale and found none of these familiar places at my disposal (WHERE MY CHAINZ AT??), I became an expert on New Haven bus routes. Whenever I felt like I didn’t belong, like I needed to be with something I knew, I’d take the bus to Milford and shop around Target and pick up Johnny Rocket’s at the mall. And even now, when I go out with my boyfriend, I’d much rather eat at Wendy’s in my Zipcar in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart than go to the Union League. Call me trashy and unsophisticated, but for one, I think it tastes better, and I also find processed food to be so wonderfully natural to me.
While I understand that the Yale campus works to maintain its quaint, sophisticated college-town vibe, an $8 smoked turkey sandwich with orange-cranberry chutney (I’m talking to you, Book Trader) is unnatural, kind of gross in my (humble) opinion, and catering to a population that isn’t representative of the entire campus (or at least me). I’m not saying they have to start grilling hotdogs, but can’t we just get a turkey and cheese sandwich? The dining hall makes enough weird shit to keep us occupied. Sometimes I just want an inorganic, not-grass-fed burger from Wendy’s.
I’m not suggesting that Yale start soliciting business from every chain in America, and I understand the appeal of a campus of coffee shops and expensive tapas restaurants. It’s pretty, it’s trendy, and to some extent — let’s be honest here — it keeps the neighborhood predominantly Yalie. But what it doesn’t do is appeal to everyone that comes to Yale. Not everyone that goes to Yale grew up going to chic cafes and not everyone wants to. I feel like if I want to have a casual meeting with someone or get a quick snack, I should be able to get fries and a Coke, not just a scone and tea.
When you think about it, the places and things that you eat become defining parts of your lifestyle over the years. If it means something to you like it does to me, you shouldn’t be forced to alter your habits for a simple lack of variety and transportation. If you are what you eat, I want to be Chili’s Chicken Crispers.