Looking back at my college years and many more years as a college professor, memories almost always circle around food. A dinner bell brings people together as nothing else can. Happy college evenings spent lingering over coffee in the dining hall and more friends pulling up chairs and delaying their departures…students breaking bread over good conversation in faculty homes and forever changing the classroom dynamic…parents coming to visit and picnicking with a group that expands with every wave of a hand… As a college professor, hearing the expected request after just a few weeks from students wanting to fix food for the class, thereby making a large group more intimate…study sessions congregating over potluck dinners and nervous pre-exam breakfasts…dinner parties celebrating semester’s end and contact information exchanging…
Today I glanced at some of my upcoming book events and once again plates are passing—in Maryland to meet with educators and parents, we picnic—at the University of Virginia, students and I have dinner before the evening’s discussion—local eateries in Charlottesville supply their specialties, and a philosophizing afternoon takes a festive turn.
Here’s what culinary guru Alice Waters knows: “Our full humanity is contingent on our hospitality; we can be complete only when we are giving something away; when we sit at the table and pass the peas to the person next to us we see that person in a whole new way” (In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn By Heart). In contrast, I know far too well, from far too much student testimony and personal observation, about the damage done by reliance upon technological substitutes for genuine human interaction. Heads bowed as students walk down hallways, cell phones clutched…the discomfort when a text message sounds during our conversation, not because of the interruption but due to the mounting anxiety to check it immediately…earbuds tuning out the person in the adjacent desk, also waiting for class to begin…social media postings unraveling with unforeseen and unfortunate consequences…
The best college meal plan is to make one. Whether your field of study is engineering, business, chemistry, or philosophy, you can make the commitment to join with others and pass the peas. Be smart about the technological revolution that brings with it so many wondrous advances—don’t allow it to replay the isolation and loss of community that was wrought by the industrial revolution.
Some possible meal plans for you and old and brand new friends: Bring your lunches to a set place on campus at the same time, every week, and enjoy the familiar routine and camaraderie. Cook together one night a week. Choose a setting and a time frame—and any morning know that there may well be friends there to share coffee or tea. Find a place in town, with prices that suit every pocket, and reserve a table twice a month. Get outside when possible—cookouts and picnics, complemented by walks, ball tossing, a board game. For the school year, set aside one night a month to assemble a feast from different cultures, with everyone contributing something.
What happens at dinner, among other things, is the sharpening of the art of conversation. When we are glued to things rather than to each other, we easily lose the ability to listen attentively, to reply thoughtfully, and to give discussions room to breathe. We need to practice—and chewing, swallowing, and passing the hot soba noodles and the yakitori naturally slows us down. Conversation finds its rhythm.
When your college years are memories, what will matter, after all? Forging relationships…belonging to the world and to each other…feeling part of life’s unfolding. I love the way renowned chef Yotam Ottolenghi, a native of Israel, reflects on his craft and his partnership with Palestinian-born Sami Tamimi: “It takes a giant leap of faith, but we are happy to take it—what have we got to lose—to imagine that hummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together if nothing else will” (The New Yorker, December, 3, 2012: “The Philosopher Chef” by Jane Kramer).
Study, laugh, and eat. Pass the hummus, please.