When I arrived home for Thanksgiving break last week, I was hungry. Seeking some form of sustenance after a five-hour car ride, I went to the kitchen and opened the fridge to find it rather sparsely stocked — in immediate sight were two packs of bologna, one moldy, the other almost empty; about four slices of American cheese; a pack of Perdue chicken nuggets three weeks past the expiration date; and a quart of milk.
I sighed, closed the refrigerator door and sent a text to my suitemate: “I miss Yale Dining,” I wrote, adding the crying-laughing emoji to the end of my statement to take the edge off my disappointment.
“Ew, why?” she responded. I wasn’t surprised.
Since I first arrived at Yale a few months ago, I have heard many of my fellow students wistfully discuss a mysterious concept with which I have little familiarity: that of the “home-cooked meal.” This topic often arises in dining halls when the food doesn’t quite meet the standards of its consumer or when someone is expressing their excitement to return home for break. Desiring to come to a full understanding of the term, I followed the standard millennial course of action and searched on Google.
“Home-cooked,” according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is an adjective defined as “made and eaten at home.”
Wait, I thought upon reading the definition. I’ve done that before! Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, toaster oven chicken nuggets, steam-in-the-bag vegetables, Progresso chicken noodle soup … those are all made and eaten at home, right?
Apparently — as I have been informed by a friend — none of those count.
Shortly after I left for college, my older brother expressed curiosity about how and what I was eating. My dad responded, “Don’t worry about her. Whatever she’s eating now is probably better than what she was eating before.”
He’s absolutely right. During high school, my previously-mentioned pseudo-home-cooked meals were sandwiched between nights of take-out pizza and fast food, the quickest and easiest options for my family. Given this, it’s needless to say that I have been really excited by the food situation in college. Hot breakfast, vegetables at every meal, meat that isn’t in the form of a burger or a nugget, plenty of food that isn’t fried — this is all new to me. I’ve eaten more broccoli in the past three months than I did in the entire eighteen years before them. And I love it.
Yet my peers at Yale seem to have a different view of the situation. My friends often express surprise at my choices to dine at Branford or Timothy Dwight when I need a less crowded environment to get work done. “Is that even real food?” they ask me. And when I do eat with friends, I listen to whatever commentary they have to offer on the food: The chicken is dry, there aren’t enough spices in a certain dish, the cake has too much sugar in it. Oftentimes, I wonder if I’m missing something; are my standards too low because of my undeveloped palate, bred from years of consuming almost exclusively junk food?
Other times, I do share their grievances. But then I think about home. For some, going home means getting to enjoy that legendary phenomenon of the home-cooked meal. For others, it means being able to consume cultural cuisines prepared accurately. For me, it means McDonald’s and Pop-Tarts.
I sometimes recall my dad’s commentary from earlier in the year, wondering if I should read a little bit deeper into it. While he is at home eating cereal, his daily lunch delivered by Meals on Wheels, and whatever greasy food my brother chooses to bring home at dinnertime, I am here at school, with fourteen dining halls serving buffet-style meals at my disposal three times a day. How do I reconcile with that?
Sure, there are plenty of issues one could have with what Yale has to offer in its dining halls: Meal plans can be pricey, dining hall hours often don’t mix well with busy schedules, the food isn’t exactly gourmet and unused meal swipes disappear into the abyss. But it is college food, and, judging from the quality of food at other schools I’ve visited, it’s comparatively good. Will it ever live up to the ideal of “home-cooked?” Probably not. But how would I know?
Asha Prihar is a first year in Silliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .