Tag Archive: Food

  1. Student teams up with Michelin chef

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    A Yale student and a two-star Michelin chef teamed up to serve 12 guests fine Japanese cuisine Friday night.

    Abdel Morsy ’17, along with mentor and friend Shin Takagi, the head chef of Zeniya, a two-star Michelin restaurant in Kanazawa, Japan, co-hosted an eight-course meal in New Haven Friday evening. The dinner, attended by family, close friends and strangers, celebrated Morsy and Chef Takagi’s upcoming partnership and marked one year of Stickershop — Morsy’s series of art dinner parties held in various locations throughout New Haven.

    When Morsy began Stickershop, he paired intimate dinner parties with musical acts. Since then, he has had the student bands Opia, the musical collaboration between Cole Citrenbaum ’17 and Jacob Reske ’14, and Goldwash, founded by Gabe Acheson ’16, perform at his events.

    Still Stickershop serves up more than musicians and chefs. At each dinner, the Stickershop graphic design team creates a celebratory sticker for the event. Morsy and other magicians have also performed magic at some dinners.

    To begin his dinner series, Morsy brought cuisine experience from both Yale and abroad. During his sophomore year, he created the pop-up kitchen Shuffle in the basement of Ezra Stiles College. Then last summer, he spent time in Japan working at various restaurants, including Zeniya, where he met Takagi.

    While guests enjoyed the eight-course meal, Myles Cameron ’19 performed original music inspired by the food’s flavors and textures.

    “It’s about bringing artists to the dinner table and contributing to the idea of food,” Morsy said.

    He started the nearly three-hour meal with deep-fried sesame tofu, following it with miso soup and sashimi rice bowls.

    For the fourth course, Morsy and Takagi served up boiled and pickled variations of turnips they had harvested at the Yale Farm.

    Afterward, the duo prepared plates of raw seafood, including cod, nodoguro and nyumen, before ending the meal with dessert — chocolate mousse and handmade soy ice cream, both served with candied marshmallows.

    Attendee Nick Brooks ’17 said he left feeling satisfied by both the cuisine and culture.

    “From the first dish to the last dish, it was hands-down amazing,” Brooks ’17 said.

    Restaurants can receive up to three Michelin stars.

  2. New noodle shop opens on Crown and Temple

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    Hungry New Haveners can now head to a hot new food destination in town: Mecha Noodle Bar, a restaurant that serves Asian noodle dishes ranging from Japanese ramen to Vietnamese pho, opened its doors Sept. 25.

    Mecha’s New Haven location at 201 Crown St. is the third franchise to open since the first restaurant was started in Fairfield in 2013. Mecha co-founder Tony Pham said he anticipates expanding into other Connecticut cities such as Stamford and other nearby college campuses in the future. Still, he noted that it is important that expansion does not compromise Mecha’s signature features and values.

    “Our mission is to transform taste and tradition to pride and progress through Southeast Asian comfort food in a fun, communal, high-energy environment,” said Daryl Wells, one of Mecha’s general managers.

    To his fellow staff, Wells is known as “Elm City Sensei.” Each member of Mecha’s team has a self-designated title, including Pham himself: “The Troublemaker.”

    Pham said his initial inspiration for the restaurant grew from his appreciation for the heartfelt, home-brewed comfort food his mother cooked for him when he was a child. The word “mecha” itself is a Vietnamese word meaning “mom and pop.”

    Beyond its food, Mecha also aims to craft a comfortable and “shoulder-rubbing” setting for customers to enjoy their meals, Wells said. He added that the unadorned concrete floor, long communal dining tables and construction-wood blocks that hang down from the ceiling were all deliberate architectural choices made to match a comfortable setting to the many comfort food options offered.

    “We want everyone to feel welcome,” Wells said.

    This guiding principle, he said, is the reason Mecha does not take reservations but still receives a full house and a line extending outside the restaurant door.

    The restaurant aims to recreate the familiar for its customers, but also makes strides into culinary territory foreign to many. On its menu, spiked bubble teas and the unique cocktail-in-a-bowl “The Scorpion” sit alongside traditional Thai and Japanese beers.

    Despite Mecha’s adventurous and diverse menu, Wells emphasized that the restaurant cannot be labeled as “Asian fusion.”

    “We’re not fusing anything,” he said. “We want to embrace all the cultures we represent as they really are.”

    The competition among ramen restaurants today is fierce, Pham noted. In New Haven alone, Mecha joins a tide of recently opened noodle shops, including three pho restaurants and one ramen restaurant in the past two years. And some of the country’s most famous ramen shops are in nearby New York City, including Ippudo and Totto Ramen.

    For some customers, the tendency for comparison is strong. When asked about her experience with one of Mecha’s ramen bowls, customer Aileen Huang ’17 said it was “nothing to write home about.”

    “It’s got a lot of great things, but does it have the same level of depth and complexity as Ippudo ramen? No,” Huang said.

    Pham, however, said the restaurant is not looking to just imitate other noodle shops, and instead will analyze what initiatives are successful in New Haven to best adapt to its new and growing customer base. Wells added that the team will wait and see what “naturally takes off in New Haven.”

    Starting Monday, Mecha will begin holding happy hours between 3 and 6 p.m. each weekday. It also plans to start a late-night program that will combine special menu items and board games such as Jenga and dominos — which are already available behind the restaurant’s bar. Wells anticipates late-night Mecha will be a way for people to “wind down from the business of the street.”

    Though Mecha is a 10-minute walk from campus for most Yale students, Wells is not worried that the distance will deter students from attending the late-night program. Located near the corner of Crown and Temple streets downtown, Mecha is surrounded by bars and nightclubs.

    “If Yale students can make it to Bar and Barcelona then I know they can make it to Mecha,” Wells said.

    Another priority of Pham’s is having the restaurant act as an agent of social change in the country. Pham started in 2015 a philanthropic initiative called Eat Justice, in which the Fairfield Mecha location makes a fractional contribution to a chosen cause with every noodle bowl sold.

    The restaurant is supporting breast cancer awareness and making donations to the Norma F. Pfriem Breast Care Center. Pham has plans to expand the program to Mecha’s other two locations as well.

    Mecha’s second franchise is in South Norwalk.

  3. Strawberry ice cream, and why it’s the worst


    You walk into the dining hall and you know something is wrong. You have a leaden feeling in your stomach. You do not yet know why, but you make a beeline to the ice cream. You open the lid. You look down. Strawberry. Another lid. Strawberry. A third lid. Strawberry. Fourth. Purple; but still, the damage is done. People of Yale, have we not all experienced this horror, this atrocity?

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that everyone hates strawberry ice cream. “Foucault once said ‘Strawberry ice cream is the worst,’” Grace Phillips ’15 said. An extensive survey of YDN readers concluded that 97.7 percent of people despise strawberry ice cream, and the remaining 2.3 percent have neutral feelings about it (data falsified). And strawberry ice cream is particularly pernicious because it prevents us from fully enjoying other flavors. While a cookies and cream tub lasts about two hours, a strawberry one stays in the dining hall for three days, stealing precious real estate from other, more popular flavors (Fig. 1).

    These statistics may seem frightening on their own, but the effect of strawberry ice cream on the collective Yale psyche is even more frightening. Students interviewed all revealed that the dangerous overabundance of strawberry ice cream in dining halls had ruined their days, weeks and even semesters.

    Shikha Garg ’15 recounted her experience during reading week in Dec. 2014. She had hoped to find relief from the stress of finals in the dining hall, but instead found only strawberry ice cream in the ice cream bin. She immediately collapsed to the floor, letting out a wail, as a single tear fell down her cheek. Garg was willing to share this painful experience because she knows she is not alone. Indeed, 69 survey respondents reported experiencing intense pain as a result of the strawberry ice cream epidemic on campus.

    However, not everyone hates strawberry. Jackson McHenry ’15, campus cultural critic, mover and shaker, says, “Strawberry ice cream is not that bad.” He is wrong. Because data (Fig. 1).

    All is not hopeless in the land of frozen dairy desserts. There are avenues for change, though they may be fraught with obstacles. Recently, the Yale Dining survey arrived in your inbox. YCC elections are approaching. In other words, the time has come for us to demand that Yale Dining give us more of the ice cream we want. The time has come for us to ask — no, insist — that YCC President Michael Herbert speak on our behalf.

    But even outside of the typical, shopworn systems of power, individuals can find ways to enact change. If you see strawberry ice cream in the dining hall, bring it to the dish return. If you see strawberry ice cream, carve “I hate this” into its surface. If you see strawberry ice cream, remove it from the dining hall entirely.

    You may think that this is a trivial concern. You may believe that there are more important dishes on the proverbial menu of stressors afflicting our student body. This is not the case. Change begins with the smallest of actions, the quietest of statements.

    Let our voices be heard. Let our palates be satisfied. Let our taste buds be freed.

  4. Mamma’s Girl Goes out to Eat

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    Today was a really big day for me because today I went and ate at a restaurant (good décor, mediocre curtains). I only ever went to a restaurant once, with Mom and Dad (loving parents Amy and William), so this was really a big deal. I was totally independent and on my own (not all it’s cracked up to be).

    My first dish, an appetizer of course (know that from when I went with Mom and Dad), scared me at first, but I got over it quickly. It was just food as always. The first bite was delicious through and through. It was Palle Risotti (yes — it’s as hard to pronounce as it looks), which is basically (as the menu reads) breaded Parmesan encrusted risotto croquettes, vodka sauce (woohoo!), with a truffle oil drizzle. I ate it, to say the least. I loved its crusty, warm heartiness, to say the most.

    It came time for me to have my entrée (second thing between appetizer [antipasti] and dessert [dolce] {new things I learned on my own}). This was delicious to eat. It was eggplant parmigiana and was spicy but not so spicy that it overwhelmed the other delicate flavors of the dish (lemony and olive oily). Reminded me a lot of that time I went to a restaurant with Mom and Dad because I ordered something that had spices in it back then. Then the waitress poured me some water, which I thought was nerve-wracking. I didn’t know whether to talk to her or just sit there silently. So I did the in-between, which was a faint mumble of “thank you” (it went over just fine).

    Lastly, (not firstly because it was last), I had the best dessert of my whole life — even compared to the time with Mom and Dad. That time we had pie but this was instead a plate with cookies, whipped cream and ice cream on it. Which are three things, not just one (like the pie). Three whole things on a plate just for me (Rachel). I ate the whole thing, and I know she didn’t say this (like Mom and Dad would) but I think the waitress was proud of me for finishing my whole plate clean.

    I just got off the phone with Mom and Dad. Now I am home (a dorm room with a dorm bed I am sitting on) and just reminiscing (thinking, remembering, pondering, etc.) about that time I went (drove) to a restaurant (Tre Scalini 100 Wooster Ave.) all by myself (made it out alive even haha) and how it started off scary (that antipasto!) but how I didn’t need to be scared by the end because the waitress (the one that was proud of me) was so nice and the food (croquettes, eggplant, and cookies) was so good (or buono [“good” in Italian]). So I learned that I can do almost anything (if I have to), but I don’t think I’ll be going to another restaurant without Mom and Dad anytime soon. Thanks and I hope you (my readers) all (every one of you) go to a restaurant alone (no one with you) just to experience it (but know it is always better with Mom and Dad).

  5. Off the Market

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    When I lived in New Haven for a  month after my freshman year, I decided I would live as an adult. That meant no Yale housing, and no meal plan. Despite my covert attempts to cadge pizza from the Morse dining hall during lunch (“I’m just here with some of my classmates”), when I got home, I had to cook for myself.

    I was presented with the insoluble problem that faces many Yalies roughing it in the off-campus universe: Where do I buy my groceries? Although this was before shopping at Gourmet Heaven became an ethical dilemma, I still didn’t think a late-night convenience store suited my alimentary needs. So I opted for a different market that I had heard people talking about: Elm City Market.

    Elm City Market was unexpectedly hippie-dippie, with a bougie streak to boot: rows of raw milk from regional dairies; dispensers full of raw pecans and roasted pecans, walnuts, oatmeal, muesli and grains with other, obscurer names. You had to pay a pretty penny — I once bought a small bag of mini-biscotti for over five dollars — which is why I was surprised to learn that the market’s model was cooperative.

    According to this model, anyone is welcome to become a member after applying and paying a $200 fee. Applicants with demonstrated financial need may also be “eligible to have part of [their] ownership paid by the Membership Fund,” according to the membership application. Perks of membership include discounts, deals, and a small stake in the company. Since its opening in 2011, over 2,200 people have joined Elm City Market as members, which is itself a member of the National Cooperative Grocers’ Association.

    This democratic approach hasn’t stopped students like Emma Soneson ’16 from identifying the store with upscale organic markets. Soneson, who lives off campus, says: “[Elm City Market] is kind of like a mini-Whole Foods, which is good in the sense that it has a lot of organic and fresh produce, but it also comes with similar prices … It’s not really feasible on a student budget.” Several other off-campus students I interviewed shared these sentiments; only two of the dozen students and New Haven residents I spoke with said they shopped primarily or exclusively at Elm City Market.

    Maybe it’s this shortage of consistent customers; maybe it’s the pricey offerings; whatever the reasons, Elm City Market is facing liquidation in the upcoming weeks. The market is looking to switch to an employee-owned model after the cooperative dissolves. Between its uncertain financial future and Gourmet Heaven’s projected closure in 2015, markets are becoming scarce in downtown New Haven.

    * * *

    When I went to Elm City Market this week, it had the signs of a healthy market. Shoppers were milling around — some for the first time, others who had been members from the beginning. Some of the employees said they had just started working there.

    Then I noticed some things I hadn’t noticed when I shopped there in the summer of 2013. At least half of the dispensers full of grains, nuts and other dry goods were empty. An entire Dasani refrigerator was being used to preserve three corsages. The rotisserie chicken heating station was empty — either a sign of popularity or neglect, I wasn’t sure.

    Cordalie Benoit, a Wooster Square resident, is quick to point out other structural flaws of the market: a check-out line that spills into the store’s busier areas; unpriced or double-priced items; understocked staples like bread. So I’m surprised to learn that she’s a member — #359, in fact — and that she has no regrets about joining. Even though she needs to supplement her purchases with trips to other neighborhood markets like Stop and Shop, she considers it a “privilege” to have the market in her community.

    She and five other shoppers cited the mismatch between the market’s prices and its demographic as Elm City Market’s biggest problem. The store sells expensive organic, local and slow food in a poor neighborhood. Ana Keusch ’16 puts it matter-of-factly: “I think the only reason I haven’t gone to [Elm City Market] is I heard it was overpriced.” Keusch opts instead to go by car to Stop and Shop.

    Shari Hoffman, an occasional shopper at Elm City Market and New Haven native, used to do the same thing. She previously had access to a car, which allowed her to go to Stop and Shop and other markets more within her price range. Recently, however, she hasn’t had access to a personal vehicle and depends on New Haven’s public transit. She says she has now resorted to Elm City Market more out of necessity than desire.

    “I’m buying certain things that I really can’t afford,” Hoffman says, “because they’re convenient.” For a person like her, dependent on disability benefits and without reliable access to private transportation, Elm City Market becomes the only viable option.

    The viability is self-evident: the store is near a heavily frequented bus stop on Chapel Street, and the even busier central zone along the New Haven Green. Other than Edge of the Woods and Stop and Shop, there aren’t many comparable alternatives within walking distance downtown.

    In spite of these advantages, Elm City Market has failed to resolve its persistent financial struggles. The co-op defaulted on its $3.6 million loan from Webster Bank in May. Benoit chalks up the market’s financial woes to an identity crisis: “They’re trying to be everything to everybody, and that’s always a recipe for failure.” Hoffman agrees: “They don’t know who they want to be.” She adds, “We can’t afford to shop in a store like this, so I don’t think it’s appropriate that they plop themselves in an area where most people can’t even touch the products because of the prices.”

    The precise future of the market’s structure remains unclear. In an email sent Aug. 23, the Board of Elm City Market notified its members that imminent liquidation (“friendly foreclosure”) was a strong possibility, but that there was an alternative of “restructuring” debt. The National Cooperative Grocers Association would “loan [Elm City Market] an additional $700,000, and a group of member-owners and others [would] put up an additional $300,000.” This $1 million in capital would be used to pay off the market’s immediate creditors. Then, once it got back on its feet, it would have to pay off the NCGA and the secondary creditors.

    But this alternative was not compelling to the immediate creditors, Webster Bank and Multi-Employer Pension Trust (the landlord), who ultimately had control over the market’s future. The plan recommended by the Board depended on the optimistic notion that, after another loan and some assistance from the NCGA, the market would go from being in the red to in the black, despite years of financial insolvency.

    The market’s creditors opted instead for a plan of their own devising, which involved the United States Department of Agriculture. The Elm City Market Board of member-owners was given no advance notice of the plan, which they said had “deeply disappointed” them. In short, the market and its assets will be liquidated under what’s colloquially known as a “friendly foreclosure.” The money recouped from liquidation will be deducted from the $3.6 million loss and apportioned to the creditors; 80 percent of the remaining loss will be paid off by the United States Department of Agriculture at taxpayers’ expense.

    According to the Board’s email, under this plan “the market will then be sold, debt-free and without members, to a private investor, a nonprofit foundation that plans to continue operating it as a grocery store to preserve jobs.” Once this plan was finalized, the Board issued another statement Sept. 11 bemoaning the move: “Member-owners, other investors and creditors,” read the email, “all will lose.” American taxpayers will also lose by this plan, in which whatever of the $3.6 million isn’t recovered will be paid for by the USDA, a federally funded (and therefore tax-dependent) department.

    Jennifer Lerch of the USDA explains that this is no extraordinary occurrence. Lerch, director of business and cooperative programs for Southern New England with World Development (the branch of the USDA that deals with loan guarantees for new businesses and cooperatives) says, “Nothing that’s being done now is unique. It’s all being done in conformity to U.S. standards for a government guarantee.”

    In spite of the Board’s dissatisfaction with the course of action taken, parties on all sides have expressed a shared desire to keep the market open. Nedra Rutherford, a Bridgeport commuter-shopper unaware of the new developments, says she plans on becoming a member in the future. None of the members I spoke to expressed regret at having joined. They all point to the value the market brings to a community that is sorely lacking in supermarkets.

    * * *

    When I was 16, our neighborhood market, Hows, announced that it was closing. Part of me knew the market was simply not doing enough to attract and keep customers. Its prices were middle-range, its produce mediocre, its selection limited. Part of me felt a sick sense of justice knowing that an overpriced establishment wouldn’t be making a sucker out of me anymore. But then I thought of the people who were losing their jobs. I thought of the enchilada sauce we could only get at Hows. I remembered the time we found out Michael Jackson had died and all of us in the checkout lane looked at each other and said, “Can you believe it?” And although I’m not native to downtown New Haven or partial to Elm City Market, I know exactly what Caroline Sydney ’16 (a columnist for the News) means when she says, “It’s nice when you’re going through checkout and you see your professor’s face on the wall, and there’s this maybe real, maybe not real sense of community. “

    Sydney, who lives off campus and generally cooks for herself, prepares farro niçoise while I talk to her — in layman’s terms, a grain-based salad. Although it’s a simple dish, the ingredients have come from all over. The lemons Sydney bought in bulk from Elm City Market; the farro online from nuts.com; the tomatoes from a local farm called Waldenfield; the eggs from the New Haven Farmers’ Market; the canned tuna from New York.

    Rumors have been circulating that Whole Foods has its sights set on New Haven, with plans to move into the construction site on Howe and Chapel Street, next to Miya’s Sushi. Work on the over 6,000-square foot construction site is underway, but the status of the future building is unclear, and it is unknown whether Whole Foods will build there. A sign posted in front of the site has the following suggestive, tantalizing tag line: “Preserving New Haven’s past for a sustainable future.” The job-listing aggregator Simply Hired includes multiple entries under “Whole Foods Market, New Haven” on its website, including cashier, cashier assistant and meat production team member, all of them posted within the past nine days.

    But Public Relations and Public Affairs Officer for Whole Foods in the Northeast region Michael Sinatra denies any immediate plans for Whole Foods to enter the area. “While we are a growing company and are consistently looking at additional opportunities throughout the country,” Sinatra said over email, “there are no plans to open up a store in New Haven at this time.”

    Although she says a nearby Whole Foods would prove convenient, Sydney concedes that it may not be the best thing for New Haven. “I have mixed feelings, [as] with all the upscale chains that are coming to New Haven,” she says. “For me, personally, yeah a Whole Foods would be great.”

    She pauses. “Is it what New Haven needs? I don’t know.”

  6. The Tragicomic History of Commons

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    They say Hogwarts’s Great Hall, home to treacle tarts and pumpkin juice, was modeled after it. That’s not true — the honor belongs to the dining hall in the College of Christ Church at Oxford University — but it may as well be. High, cavernous ceilings; lights strung around the interior as if it is never not Christmas; long, dark auburn tables; and portraits of mythical (mostly) men who have had some affiliation with the school. Commons is the wizarding world come alive for a few hours a day; it’s the Harry Potter series of dining spaces — some patrons are diehards, others poo-poo the popularity, but everyone recognizes the cultural importance.

    Now, it’s no longer serving you pancakes.

    On July 9, Yale Dining announced in a statement to the News that starting this academic year, Commons will end its breakfast service. The change comes as the University tries to make whatever cuts it can to chip into and eventually eliminate its $39 million deficit. Ezra Stiles, Morse, Branford, Saybrook and Silliman will now each provide hot breakfasts — eggs, pancakes, etc. — filling Commons’s former early-morning role.

    The change brings Commons down to serving one meal of its former three. When residential college renovations ended in 2011, Commons closed for dinner. In response to that announcement, students started a Save Commons Facebook group and a petition urging the administration to reconsider.

    “It’s kind of fundamental to Commons to be this neutral gathering ground,” Sophia Sanchez ’13 told the News. “Not every meal you eat has to be encapsulated within a college. We’re not just students of Davenport or Calhoun; we’re students of Yale College.”

    But the dining hall remained closed for dinner.

    Commons isn’t new to controversy. A dive into the Yale Daily News archives pulls up grievances small and large — food fights, management-student animosities, and gripes about cleanliness and the quality of food — each dispute fueled by a sense of collective ownership. Commons was the first building to unite an otherwise then fragmented community, and since its founding in 1901, everyone has felt like stakeholder.

    But while students have formed their own social structures within, and attachments to, the shared space, for most of Commons’s history, the administration has had the final say. From 1901 to 1969, students were required to wear a jacket and tie for meals. Recent, sometimes temporary, closures — in 1991, 2011, and 2014 — have come down without student consultation and to various forms of dissent.

    From Bread to Bourges

    “You may complain about braised beef and assorted cold meat, but the present fare in Freshman Commons is a far cry from the starvation rations served there in times past. Early in the eighteenth century the staff of life lived up to its name in Commons, where bread and apples formed an almost unvarying menu.”

    So reads a November 1938 Yale Daily News article headlined “Worms, Dirty Dishes, Graft, ‘Slum’ Have Caused ‘Food Wars’ in Commons” looking back on the history of the building, and the various shared eating spaces (dubbed “the commons”) that preceded it.

    In the early 1700s, the piece reported, “slum” — “an incongruous mixture of leftover food from the day before, ‘fried to a consistency which baffled digestion’” — and a quarter pound of bread constituted breakfast. For lunch, students had to drink cider straight from shared pewter pitchers because their peers insisted on stealing cups en masse — on average, 600 per semester — from the dining hall (some things never change).

    A hundred years later, the situation wasn’t much better. All freshmen were required to eat in the commons, while upperclassmen dueled with the administration over whether they too had to eat there. In 1819, the students staged a mass walk out, refusing to eat meals because, they said, “the steward had been drunk, the ham stank, the dishes were not washed clean, loose and mixed company was entertained in the kitchen, and the steward was involved in ‘graft,’ selling pies to outsiders.”

    Though the faculty responded by “conducting an inquisition” and giving a “sharp shake-down” to the culinary staff, 10 years later, the problems had gotten worse. In 1828, students staged another walk out, also refusing to take the classes that were held in the shared space. This time, the faculty didn’t budge. A large number of students simply up and left school (the majority later returned under parental pressure).


    When the building we now think of as Commons, with a capital C, was built for the University’s bicentennial in 1901, students found options a lot more appealing than slum, but expectations that ran higher as well. At the time, students lived in boarding houses scattered throughout New Haven. They slept there, ate there, and socialized there. Opting into group meals at the dining hall was one of the few ways to unite an otherwise fragmented social scene.

    It wasn’t only that students lived in different houses, grouping with those they already knew from Andover, Exeter and Choate, said Professor Jay Gitlin ’71, who teaches “Yale and America.” It was also that the Yale undergraduate population divided into two groups: the Academics (“ACs”), the equivalent of students graduating with a B.A. today, and the “Sheffs,” the equivalent of students aiming for a B.S. While the ACs spent their days on the south side of campus, the Sheffs largely remained in the SSS and Silliman region, home of the Sheffield Scientific School.

    Gitlin said Commons was supposed to link these different spheres, “It served as a bridge where everybody could meet.”

    But the new dining hall, built in at the same time as Woolsley Hall to form the Hewitt, or Bicentennial, Quadrangle, got off to a rocky start. There was a spiffy new building, but students weren’t up to its standards.

    On May 2, 1902, the News published an editorial referring to “the disturbance at the University Dining Hall.” The piece never explicitly mentions what the disturbance is, but calls it a “continuance of a practice indulged in at the Old Commons … decidedly out of place in such a building as the new dining hall.” Though the editorial never named the details of the event, the piece was followed by several explicit reports of food fights in the paper, and was probably the first of a years-long trend.

    Then, in October of 1903, a “Mr. Tyler” sat down Commons’s regular boarders for a spiel about the dining hall’s student-management relationship, which, never great, had soured. Tyler was less interested in laying down the law than having a constructive discussion. At the root of less-than-stellar service was a tipping issue, he said. Some students were tipping, some were not; the latter were, unsurprisingly, less satisfied with the service than the ones who were quick to hand over cash. Instead of individual tipping, students ought to pool their money for all the waiters at the end of every term, Tyler said.

    Tyler’s democratic management model also extended to the food fights. Students would elect representative from each table, who would negotiate between dining hall management, school administrators and their peers. It seemed to work. A few days after, the News published an article announcing that, for the first time, a food fight perpetrator had been punished.

    With the enforcement of order, came higher expectations of etiquette. There were waiters, assigned seats, pre-determined and uniform meals, and strictly enforced dining hours (you didn’t walk in and out whenever you pleased; failure to show up on time meant demerits). This lasted for over half a century.

    “Until my junior year [in 1969], there was a coat and tie rule,” professor Gitlin said. By that time, students were serving themselves buffet style, but they weren’t yet bussing their own dishes.

    Still, the signs of post-war counter culture were starting to show. Commons hosted a junior prom every year, and the big name bands during Gitlin’s time—the Byrds, Wilson Pickkett—played in the main hall, “much like Spring Fling.”

    Meanwhile high society continued upstairs. A band played in the President’s suite on the second floor of Woolsley Hall, where “everyone would go and dance the Foxtrot or some old romantic dance.”

    The affair lasted from Friday until Sunday night, when Commons switched back to a traditional dining hall that at least had the potential to unite everyone from across campus — though not in the way the administration might hope.

    “Honestly, Commons was a place we all avoided,” Gitlin said. “Nobody liked it much. You couldn’t hear anyone. The acoustics are God-awful.”

    And Back Again

    If there’s a Commons of old and a Commons of new, Gitlin’s years at Yale, from 1967–1971, were bifurcated by the two. The Commons of old served up staid dinners, punctuated by outbursts of immaturity, while the Commons of new became the home of those left out by that very society.

    In 1969 Yale simultaneously admitted women and relaxed the formal dress code in the hall, paving a trajectory of increased inclusivity. Meals were no longer a boys club, and they didn’t have to follow club rules.

    So in 1991, when Yale Dining announced for the first time that Commons would no longer be serving dinner, the loss of a common space was acutely felt by certain groups.

    “Minority and gay students often congregate in Commons,” the New York Times noted in its surprisingly detailed coverage of the event. “Nikki Montgomery, ’92, explained why she enjoyed dinner at Commons, ‘It is one of the few times on a daily basis that you get a lot of black people sitting down together to really talk because there aren’t that many black students in any given residential college.’”

    Commons only remained closed for seven years. In 1998, the administration, beginning its renovations of residential colleges, chose to restart dinner service to accommodate those students who were unable to eat in their own dining halls. But as before, Commons became a home to Yalies of every college.

    In 2011, Commons ended dinner again. This time, the announcement was over email, and the student reactions over social media. According to a News article published in May 2011, more than 800 students joined a “Save Commons Dinner” Facebook group, and more than 300 signed a petition by the next day asking Yale to reconsider.

    As before, strong reactions came from those with affiliations that crossed college lines. A member of the fencing team noted that Commons was the only place that could fit his 15 teammates at once. And then-freshman Paavan Gami ’15 appealed to a sense of larger community.

    “There is truth to the idea that cross-residential college friendships can and are formed and developed at Commons,” Gami wrote the news. “Dinner is the perfect time for freshmen to be integrated into the Yale community.”

    But as much as collective dining influences student life, the administration makes decisions based on many more factors. In 1991, then-dining hall director Alan R Kenney cited the need to cut the dining budget by more than $1 million in a letter to students. More recent news has a financial bent as well — University President Peter Salovey and Provost Benjamin Polak have asked departments across the University to cut what they can from their budgets to make up a $39 million deficit. In a statement to the news in June, Director of Residential Dining Cathy Van Dyke cited “limited options for mitigating operation cost increases,” but in a recent email, she wrote that “the decision to close Commons for breakfast was not financially focused; rather the key driver was the opportunity to facilitate planning for its future renovation” and to make the “operational footprint” of the food service in the hall small enough for renovation to be feasible without impacting students’ food service.

    But while Van Dyke also acknowledged that Commons is a “precious and important resource” for the Yale community, these changes have been made without student input. Yale College Council President-elect Michael Herbert ’16 said he was not told about the decision to stop serving breakfast until the administration issued a press release.

    Commons will remain open for lunch, now from 11:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., and several residential colleges will offer hot breakfast in its place. The shift is nowhere near as large as when the dress code was imposed, or when women got a seat at the table, but for those who liked the experience of pancakes in Hogwarts’s Great Hall, a little morning magic is gone.

    For others, it simply won’t matter. As Jay Gitlin said, perhaps capturing the experience of a large segment of Yale’s undergraduate population, “I never made it to breakfast.”

  7. Gà kho gừng: Ginger-braised chicken

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    At Yale, we write, dance, worship, paint, imbibe; we do all things that celebrate our humanity. Yet, despite being the only species that cooks, we don’t always find the time to. Darwin considered language and fire the two greatest accomplishments of men. Fire sparked off cooking, which revolutionized the feeding of the brain, the organ that generates culture and language itself. Levi-Strauss’s metaphor of “le cru et le cuit” pinpoints the threshold where the raw became the cooked, beasts became men. Cooking is indeed both a hallmark and a giver of our humanity.

    Still, at Yale, I’ve been told that my appetite for cooking is “feminine,” “wonderful” or “domestic.” I wish, on catching a whiff of my culinary industry, that people would instead say: “Look at you, being all human and stuff!”

    * * *

    Vietnamese cooking is often just a lot of watchful waiting. I like to think of the stove as a stage, the real cooking a theater of nature, and my pretense at it an exercise in patience and faith.

    Cooking for me is everything I want to be at a given moment: communal or solitary, reveling or grieving.

    My late father used to make ginger-braised chicken for me. Amidst warmly spiced, glisteningly brown molten fat, floats mahogany chicken dressed in crackly skin. My teeth would linger on the silky, fork-tender goodness, my tongue bathed in the heady yet hearty juice.

    Gourmet? Không có âu! It’s a commoner’s food — economical, efficient, easy. Tough meat in lean times, leftover vegetables — everything cooks in one pot and everybody digs in. Last night I dreamt of my dad recasting a cookie tin into wall sockets. My house, like the braised chicken, is a patchwork of reincarnated materials, an ever-present celebration of his thrifty resourcefulness.

    * * *

    To show you how easy it can be, here is a four-serving recipe that requires only $4 worth of value-pack industrial broiler chicken and 20 minutes of your limb coordination. Ingredients can be sourced from Stop and Shop and Hong Kong Market. Swap chicken for mushroom or seafood as desired, though to my fellow lapsed vegetarians, I’d say, go with the chicken.


    Have one nice pound of thighs with both bone and skin chopped into two-inch chunks. Skin and bone are needed to anchor the meat, keeping it chewy and moist.

    Make nuoc mau (bitter caramel sauce) by mixing three tablespoons of sugar and ¼ cup of water in a pot on medium-high heat. Watch it caramelize in the next 10–15 minutes. For a creamy alternative, caramelize coconut juice.

    In a bowl, mix your homemade nuoc mau, sliced ginger and nuoc mam (fish sauce) — use ¼ cup each. Add one tablespoon of sugar. Add chicken. Massage the marinade thoroughly into the flesh. Feel the naked chicken between your fingers — it’s good! Work it like you want to make the chicken feel good too. Watch out for sharp bone edges. Stick the marinated chicken in the fridge for 20 minutes, or longer if you can wait.


    Pick a heavy pot for slow and even cooking, and turn the heat on high. Lather the bottom with one tablespoon of oil. After 30 seconds or when the oil has become uncomfortably hot, dump five cloves’ worth of minced garlic and one diced sweet onion.


    When the garlic browns, convey the chicken into the pot piece-wise. Exclude the marinade. As the meat stops sweating, brown crust will form to lock in moisture. Flip the chunks sideways to ensure an evenly seared exterior. After two minutes, remove the chicken and set aside.


    Add the marinade to the emptied pot. Scrape caked bits off the bottom. These bits are jam-packed with flavors; exploit them!


    Replace the chicken into the pot. Add just enough water or chicken stock to half cover the chunks. After bringing to a boil, skim off fat and froth. Cover the skillet, and simmer for another 15 minutes. Stir occasionally.

    Add spring onions and ground black pepper to taste. Garnish with a zingy confetti of fresh parsley or cilantro to lighten the gravy-ty. Spoon the sauce over rice — jasmine, brown or glutinous — and serve.

    Trouble-shooting notes: 

    If scorched, add water; if too watery, add flour and melted butter.

    Bonus tips:

    Stick the leftovers in the fridge for some ga dong (“winter chicken”). Jelly chicken may sound dubious, but tastes solidly positive.

    Add cider for a bright sweet note, dry wine for a deep tone, or both to create a jolt of zest.

    * * *

    Fine juliennes of ginger carry a tinge of sweet heat — the signature taste of the dish. In oral literature, the good old pungent ginger symbolizes the Vietnamese self-identification as a long-suffering people, having lived through the millennia of Chinese rule, the French protectorate and the Vietnam War. But we also pride ourselves on making sweet out of the bitter. For us, “When life gives you ginger, make ginger-braised chicken.”

    Tay bưng dĩa muối chấm gừng

    Gừng cay muối mặn xin đừng quên nhau

    This internally-rhymed, harmonically resolved couplet of folk sung poetry, or cadao, celebrates the unlikely union of salt and ginger, each of which denotes its own flavor of hardship. Metaphorically, the couplet sings of the dutiful love between long-married husband and wife braving life’s trials and tribulations together, a kind of tenderness and devotion that is seasoned like salt, warm like ginger. 

  8. A Growing Taste on Campus

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    Last semester, if you happened to pass by the Davenport buttery on a Friday night, you would’ve found the space transformed into an Izakaya, a drinking and snack den common in Japan. “Irashai-Mashei!” A group of dedicated student cooks would’ve greeted you from the kitchen as they served up Miso Stews and Tom Yung Tacos.

    This was Nom, the second kitchen studio started by the student organization Yale Pop-up. The brainchild of Lucas Sin ’15 and Kay Teo ’16, Yale Pop-up is a culinary project aimed at bringing together a community of chefs, bakers and gourmets to open one kitchen per semester. So far, they have introduced both Nom and last spring’s Underground Noodle Collective, which specialized in ramen. This semester, Yale Pop-up is back with Fortnight, which offers a more refined take than its predecessor and will serve a new five-course menu every two weeks. The operation, from interior design to kitchen-duty, is entirely student-run.

    “We want to focus on developing a chef’s culinary curiosity and being able to experiment and test out things that you wouldn’t be able to do in a professional or student kitchen,” said Carolina Rivera ’16, who will be running Fortnight alongside Sin this semester.

    The opportunity to try on a chef’s hat is a boon to many interested in exploring the culinary arts at Yale, as there is both wide student interest and administrative support. The goal for many food entrepreneurs, therefore, often lies in honing that experimental energy, while resisting getting lost in complexity.

    * * *

    Students interviewed consider Yale’s campus a more than ideal environment for a food start-up to thrive, given the copious resources offered by the University and a student body with a wide variety of culinary and entrepreneurial skills.

    But, like any business venture, location comes first. Yale Pop-up was given permission to use the Davenport Dive, a crucial factor in their success.

    “Without the Dive, we would not have been able to function,” Rivera said. “Not having to pay rent puts us on an entirely different playing field.” Property taxes and utility bills do not factor into the restaurateurs’ concerns.

    Barriers to entry are low. Unlike in the competitive Elm City restaurant scene, Pop-up does not need to stake its own territory. There will always be students who are enthusiastic about food.

    The members of the Pop-up team represent a wide and diverse range of interests and backgrounds. Pastry chef Abigail Reisner ’14, a psychology major, iced cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery in New York, attended cooking school and worked on a farm in Greece and tested recipes for “Cooks Illustrated.” Business manager Angeline Wang ’16 is a literature major, who “reads books almost as voraciously as she reads menus.”

    It is the interdisciplinary nature of the food industry that makes it so accessible and versatile. “Food is such an interdisciplinary domain,” Sin said, “you can apply your expertise into the food world, it’s so open-ended.”

    * * *

    Just as there are multiple ways into Yale’s food scene, there is no single career path out of it and into the culinary world.

    Rivera, a pre-med history major, was never a self-proclaimed foodie, but after three summer months waiting tables at her hometown Olive Garden, she unexpectedly stumbled upon Nom and loved it.

    “I get this thrill, this rush from people coming in, having to solve a million problems,” she said. “It’s super stressful but incredible.”

    Now she is seriously considering business school and culinary management, potentially fusing her experiences with her broader public health interests.

    Many successful foodies have followed a similar trajectory — those who have achieved success have found the intersection between food and other disciplines, Sin said.

    Sin pointed to Rene Redzepi, a Danish chef whose food combines traditional scavenging techniques with scientific innovation; David Chang, a chef and entrepreneur who aims to reinvent how Americans experience Asian cuisine and Michael Pollan, an expert in food politics.

    “Most people who follow the traditional approach to the food industry — starting as a dishwasher, moving their way up to be a head chef, get up to a certain paper ceiling,” Sin said. “You need to have a creative approach to an area that people have been messing around with since the beginning of time.”

    Many of the pathways into and through the food industry will remain uncharted, but Yale’s administration has shown interest in supporting students in their endeavors. The Yale Sustainable Food Project first partnered with Undergraduate Career Services three years ago, when YSFP brought the founders of Good Food Jobs to campus. The large turnout proved that they could segment these sessions by job sectors, and, since then, UCS and YSFP have developed resource guides for each sector related to food.

    The two organizations now co-host a series of career workshops providing advice for Yalies wanting to convert their passion for food into jobs in the field after graduation. These workshops are geared toward specific interests related to food and not just the restaurant industry, such as food writing and food justice and education.

    According to the YSFP’s Events and Outreach Manager and Programs Manager for International and Professional Experience Jacqueline Lewin, these sessions have been growing in popularity. While Lewin could not give exact statistics as to the number of Yalies entering food-related jobs, she did say that the number has steadily increased over the past few years.

    “In part, I think the increase has to do with the visibility of problems in our food system right now,” Lewin said.

    She noted that the food system is a “complicated beast,” and solving its problems requires collaboration across several disciplines.

    “You can’t get a tomato to a plate without addressing soil ecology, immigration, labor, transportation, communications, marketing, engineering, design, even physics,” Lewin said. “Students see the myriad ways in which our system is broken — failing communities, human health, and the environment — and they want to fix it.”

    But there is also the opportunity to create for a living, rare among jobs Yalies often pursue.

    Sin noted that there is something incredibly appealing about the productive nature of making food — the idea that you are creating an end product that is tangible, “rolling up your sleeves and just doing things.” When you need ingredients, for example, somebody has to go to the grocery store and buy it.

    “It’s not like a consulting club where you sit around and move chess pieces around a board,” Sin said.

    * * *

    While Yale Pop-Up has moved from start-up to established, another Yale culinary venture is still in its nascent phase, and its recent arrival not only indicates an expanding culinary presence on campus, but also how students must grapple with the organizational and business side in the process.

    Every Saturday at 7:30 a.m, a small group of students labor over baked goods in the Jonathan Edwards basement. A couple of hours layer, as the JE chefs continue baking, students across campus slowly begin waking up to the realization that it is not yet 11 a.m. — and dining halls aren’t open for brunch.

    “We saw a gap,” said the founder of JE Room Service Hall Rockefeller, referring to the time gap between waking and eating. “We thought we could fill that gap with food.”

    With that goal in mind, JE Room Service delivers baked goods on Saturday mornings to those who place orders through a Google document on their website. The menu includes carrot cupcakes, cinnamon scones, banana bread, a weekly special and coffee, and its logo is an apt modification of the JE crest: the dragon holds a spatula and a rolling pin.

    Starting at 5:30 p.m. every Friday evening and ending at around 8:30 p.m., the Room Service chefs whip up batter in the JE basement, said Margaret Shultz ’16, the business’s sous-chef. Fewer than 12 hours later, they’re back in the kitchen, pouring the scone and cupcake batter, baking all orders in a single oven and navigating the complicated business of making sure everything is still hot when it makes it into the customers’ hands.

    “We have a strategy every week,” said Jenna Kainic ’16, who is in charge of web design and programming. “We have to figure out timing, do a bit of finagling, and work on the division of labor.”

    So far, the number of weekly orders has averaged in the mid-teens, with a business record of eighteen orders placed last week.

    Rockefeller echoed Sin’s sentiments about a growing culinary presence on campus. “This food network is something that’s emerging and emerging quickly,” she said, rattling off names like Northern Greening, a baking and catering service run by two students, and The Reading List, a former service that delivered boxes of gourmet pancakes, complete with glaze and sliced fruit as well as Alice in Wonderland quotes perched on the box straight to students’ doors.

    Still, things connect back to Sin, and to Yale Pop-up.

    Sin has played an integral role in expanding the network of food entrepreneurs on campus, Rockefeller said. He has been extremely encouraging to students who are considering their own ventures, she added.

    In fact, JE Room Service was spawned from a simple comment from Sin. “You should really do something with this,” Sin said after tasting one of Rockefeller’s concoctions. From there the wheels started turning.

    Room Service now has it sights set on expanding. The business lacks swipe access to many other colleges, so they cannot deliver to rooms outside of JE, or bake in their kitchens. But if demand grows, and people from other colleges sign on to help with delivery or baking, JE Room Service may no longer be based solely out of JE.

    “But we’d have to change the logo if that happened,” Rockefeller said.

    Ultimately, the key to their model is simplicity. Rockefeller mentioned that The Reading List offered orders that were incredibly complex — chocolate ganache and candied walnuts — hand delivered all over campus. “That’s something we aim not to do,” she said, adding that this kind of strategy felt “ambitious.”

    For now, the group is settling into its niche, feeding Yalies before the doors to brunch open and adding to students’ expanding culinary entrepreneurship on campus.


    Yi-Ling Liu contributed reporting.

  9. Today's Menu

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    In the grand scheme of analysis there are two schools: the empiricists and the intuitionists (who knows if that’s actually true, but it sounds good, like a David Brooks column). Here at WEEKEND, we tend to favor intuitionfreedom, art, lovebut every once and a while you have to embrace your Apollonian side. So, for the love of food, for the love of reason, please enjoy our incredibly accurate ranking of all the bestand worsteats at Yale.

    Screen shot 2014-01-31 at 2.01.16 AM[media-credit id=11498 align=”aligncenter” width=”1156″]


  10. The Real Fight This Saturday: Food or Beverage?

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    Between Thursday night celebratory dinners (because thankfully, our break starts now), Friday night mixers and Saturday’s tailgate, students and campus visitors will be forced to navigate a confusing matrix of food and drink options, maximizing calorie consumption without sacrificing the drunken buzz of Harvard-Yale.

    Thinking about hitting up all your favorite New Haven pizza places in one short weekend? Think again. According to my thorough and highly scientific research, high-protein foods like cheese soak up the alcohol fastest.

    And what about those cozy tailgate classics, like hot chocolate and cider? The many wikiHow guides to Not Getting Drunk suggest alternating booze with nonalcoholic beverages or caloric foods. I guess neither hot chocolate nor cider will get you very far — unless you add some spirits.

    To help you avoid making mistakes like these, here’s a comprehensive guide:


    // Friday Night //

    8:00 p.m. – Eat a hearty dinner filled with complex carbohydrates to give you stamina for the marathon ahead. Pasta or a brown rice Chipotle burrito will fuel you until brunch tomorrow and soften your Saturday morning hangover.

    (Calories: 1200 — who knew?)

    10:00 p.m. – Meeting up with Harvard friends for dessert? Don’t waste the opportunity to begin your big night out. Classic Yale spots like Yorkside and Ashley’s give you a chance to experience decadence on a Cheesecake Factory level: the spiked milkshake. Bring some rum or chocolate liqueur in your nifty Game flask and start your night off in the most glorious way.

    (Calories: 1300; Alcohol: 2–3 shots)

    For a seasonal alternative, impress your friends with apple pie shots, a liquor treating fall favorite I dream of incorporating into my daily life. Mix vodka or rum with apple cider and garnish with cinnamon. Serve hot after placing a dollop of whipped cream in the recipient’s mouth.

    (Calories: 100 per shot; Alcohol: ½ shot)

    12:00 a.m. – PSA: Assuming you will be out till 2 or 3 a.m., this is the point in the night when you need to stop mixing your drinks. Otherwise, beware a nasty game day hangover, according to crowdsourcing from a few GroupMes I’m on.


    // Saturday Morning //

    7:00 a.m. – Rise and shine! Tailgating starts at 8:30 this year, and you need to cure your hangover fast. Because no Mexican restaurants in this city are open that early, success means planning ahead.

    While the classic solution to a hangover is the mimosa, which combines a light touch of alcohol with the restorative properties of Vitamin C, I suggest filling your sugary drink quota with something a little more potent. Consider instead the significantly more aggressive “Corpse Reviver,” equal parts gin, lemon juice, an orange-based liqueur like Cointreau or Grand Marnier and Lillet. Add a dash of absinthe if feeling edgy. Bartender Harry Craddock, who invented the cocktail, famously said that four Corpse Revivers can un-revive your corpse again. With the second day of Harvard-Yale coming up, this sounds like citrus calories well spent.

    (Calories: 210 per glass; Alcohol: 2–3 shots)

    7:30 a.m. – It’s hard to survive a cold New Haven day without a good breakfast. Start the day off right with The Deconstructed All-American Breakfast, aka spiked eggnog. Does your ideal fall brunch consist of a few eggs, sugary sweet baked goods and a glass of milk? Then turn to this breakfast option, which combines the most delicious and caloric parts — egg yolks, sugar, spice and milk (whole, of course) — with some early-morning rum. Not only is the dairy delicious, it will also line your stomach to prevent you from feeling sick as you drink more.

    (Calories: 290 per cup; Alcohol: 1–2 shots)

    8:00 a.m. – It’s time for a pick-me-up with a crisp autumn stroll down Chapel Street to the Yale Bowl. Bring along a toasty beverage to prevent yourself from freezing or, more importantly, from walking off your morning boozy bliss. Buy a box of hot chocolate (yes, you will want a whole box) from the Dunkin’ Donuts at Park Street and grab a few takeout cups. Stop every few blocks to pour and garnish with a flavored liqueur of your choosing — perhaps Peppermint Schnapps, or, for a little more kick, Fireball, tequila or brandy. The truly adventurous will choose some combination of the three. You’ll have finished the box before you reach the tailgating area.

    (Calories: 400 per cup; Alcohol: 1–2 shots)

    8:30 a.m. – This year, no hard alcohol will be allowed at the tailgating village. While beer may appear to be the more obvious accompaniment to football, opt for white wine (or sweet, cheap red wine) instead. Watery beer will come as a sudden shock to your system, but tailgate wine will warm you up and refresh your body with its strong resemblance to fruit juice.

    (Calories: 100 per glass)

    Wine will also leave you more room to enjoy those yummy tailgate foods. The best of them — cornbread, mac and cheese — are the starchiest and thus the biggest enemy to your drunken stamina. But if, like me, you can’t imagine passing on these foods, just make sure to keep pace with your wine or take some pieces of cornbread to go.

    (Cornbread calories: 175 per piece; Mac and Cheese calories: 200 per serving)

    12:00 p.m. – Game time! Whenever you’re ready to leave, cap off the weekend with brunch at one of the delicious Westville cafes, Bella’s or Lena’s, on the other side of Edgewood Park. With the game over, it’s finally time to give into all your cravings for carby indulgences like Cannoli French Toast with chocolate chips and ricotta cheese or bagels galore. Just in time for that Saturday afternoon nap …

    (Calories: 500++; Alcohol: optional)

  11. Treat Yourself

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    In “Love Ireland: Foodies,” Regina Levin layers magazine cutouts over a picture of Irish cliffs. The glossy produce and skinny models are bright against grey and mossy bluffs. Levin’s work is artful and jarring: When set against a dull backdrop, the pears seem too juicy, the watermelons too pink, the women too thin. Stare at the collage and remember why you hate magazines — the manicured hands and glossy lips are only plastic. Our aesthetic ideals are only plastic. And what a brutal thought to have in such a lovely cupcake shop.

    But “Visual Treats: Syntax,” the newest exhibit in Katalina’s Cupcakes — the pastry shop up the street from Timothy Dwight — is rarely that rough. The Syntax Artists, eight local women working in mixed media, have created an engaging, thoughtful display. Forty-four pieces decorate the shop’s walls and shelves, ranging from slight to substantial, dark to vibrant, pencil to encaustic. Order a coffee, pick up a flyer — a list of artists, titles, media, and prices — and then peruse the offerings.

    By the cream and sugar, you’ll find another collage by Levin, “Untitled.” With buttons and bits of scratch paper, the work has a subtle charm, a balanced composition that’ll make you linger and stare as you stir your coffee. Despite their different styles, the Syntax Artists all claim the same mission: to “combine a variety of media in unexpected ways” and to “educate the viewing public about the extraordinary possibilities offered by mixed media art.” Further along the wall, discover these possibilities: Jan McLean’s acrylic faux encaustic, Kelly Taylor’s mixed media, Karen Larocque’s watercolors. Wander around, pick a favorite piece, perhaps number 34, “Soul Finder.” (Anne Doris-Eisner traces an oak leaf over a crimson and gold medallion.) Finish your coffee.

    But the thoughtful “Love Ireland: Foodies” is at the back of the shop, hidden in shadow. A massive refrigerator hides Diane Ward’s bright collage, “Playing with Karen.” The lighting is bad, and walls are either crammed with art or empty. Some works are askew on their hooks, and pairings seem random. Why hang Kelly Taylor’s “Leaflet Serenades” next to Doris-Eisner’s “Soul Finder”? The busy “Leaflet Serenades” distracts, detracts from “Soul Finder”’s quiet grace. Taylor’s “Tree Alchemy,” along with a few other pieces, hangs behind the cupcake counter, far from other works. The cluster looks forlorn, an artistic island lost in a blank, yellow sea. In brief, “Visual Treats: Syntax” isn’t quite balanced. This isn’t thoughtful curatorial work.

    And the art, too, looks for balance, toes the line between “pretty” and “kitschy.” With swirling pastels and fragments of cursive, McLean’s “Wordscapes #1” and “Reflections #1” are cute but trite. This is inoffensive art and the formula’s simple — combine pink and purple, hint at a sunset, pick an evocative title. (If you’re feeling brave, sketch a few music notes or draw a few flowers.) Taylor’s two “Leaflet Serenades” strike a similar chord. The colors are garish, the images stale. And Gretchen Wohlgemuth’s “Remembrance of Snow” would make a nice screen saver, bright and easy on the eyes. Much of “Visual Treats: Syntax” looks like intricate scrapbooking, and while the artists find inspiration in the natural world, their work is often bland.

    Despite this prevailing Etsy aesthetic, some pieces, such as “Love Ireland: Foodies,” are thoughtful and complex. They’re not dull romantic images; they’re not just trees and leaves and beaches. Instead, they suggest an elaborate artistic vision. In her three “Undulations,” Doris-Eisner captures wood grain, drawing whorls and eddies as perplexing and perfect as fractals. She does all this in black acrylic, with not a hint of green or brown. And in “Aspens,” Jean Swanson transcends the average woodsy landscape. With strips of black and brown paper, she creates a textured, vivid piece. These quiet works, plain collages and simple paintings, are most compelling. They do not try too hard.

    While the display is far from perfect, and the pieces sometimes trite, “Visual Treats: Syntax” grapples with many themes in many media. And the exhibit is extensive, giving viewers a chance to explore each artist’s technique. The possibilities on display aren’t quite as extraordinary as the Syntax Artists claim. But while you tour around, grab a chocolate cupcake — it’ll make the art feel less vanilla.