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I ate in the Middlebury College dining hall for four years, and the experience had its ups and downs.
Middlebury treats its students pretty well. The food is good – you’re more likely to find rice and beans or sauteed vegetables than you are to find tater tots or burgers – unless, of course, it’s Hamburger Friday.
But eating mass-produced food gets old long before four years have gone by, and eating in a loud dining hall doesn’t begin to compare with, say, your small but warmly-lit dining room at home, with a selection from your father’s large CD collection playing in the background.
Recently there have been times when I’ve longed for the dining hall. Especially when it was hot out, the last thing I wanted to do was to go to the grocery store, decide what to make, go home and cook it. Unlimited food and no washing dishes? Yeah, I missed college a little bit.
So I’ll admit it. On Monday I was back on campus, enjoying my Labor Day vacation (and gloating, just a little, to my less fortunate friends who began classes on the holiday). I ate in the dining hall, figuring that all the times I’d slept through breakfast on the weekends meant I deserved a few extra meals.
I discovered that eating in the dining halls again was a surreal experience, to be sure.
There were precious few familiar faces as I walked across campus, and I felt very strongly that I didn’t really belong here anymore. The people I did know stared at me, confused, and asked, “Didn’t you graduate?” And although the dining halls were my old haunts, the scenes of three-hour long dinners and countless good discussions, they had changed quite a bit since last May.
Atwater dining hall, for one, only offers breakfast these days. Even though it was the newest dining hall, it was the first to get cut out when budget issues came around.
Ross dining hall was expanded over the summer. The “pit” used to be sunk a foot or two below the rest of the room, surrounded by short walls – a great place to sit while doing homework (or trying to avoid someone). But the pit is no longer. The walls are gone, and Ross’s floor is a uniform height.
Proctor dining hall is the biggest shock. It was closed for renovations all of last year, reopening just this summer. Back in my day, the doors were made of pale, chipping wood, there were assorted chintzy stained glass panels on the walls, a large plaster panther crept across the top of the drinks station and curtains with huge pink flowers hung over the windows. It wasn’t much to look at, but on a cold winter morning it was like nothing so much as your grandmother’s kitchen (except that the radio in the dishwashing room was usually tuned full-blast to 106.7 WIZN – or maybe your grandmother also listens to “classic rock that really rocks” while washing the dishes).
I once heard someone describe Proctor as your most comfortable pair of slippers. Yes, they might be worn through on the bottom, but they’re too dear to you to replace.
The new Proctor is bright and shiny. It looks vaguely like the old Proctor: the stairs to the upper floor of seating still run up either side of the room, and the conveyor belt for dirty dishes still chugs along on the far wall.
But now the dish conveyor is surrounded by blue mosaic tiling and the stairs have sleek wooden banisters. The salad bar is polished and well lit, and the servery looks a lot less like your grade school cafeteria and a lot more like a high-end barbecue joint.
Even though the new Proctor fits around 200 more people than the old one did, I’m still a little bit in mourning for the old Proctor. I remember meals I had there – the fluffy, warm rolls on Sunday nights, the maple-balsamic vinaigrette, the waffle makers on weekend mornings.
More, though, I think I’m in mourning for that chapter of my life. The dining halls are never going to be the same to me, not because of construction but because I don’t belong in them anymore. In graduating, I traded convenience for responsibility. It’s only natural to look back fondly on the days when all I had to think about was schoolwork – no rent, no grocery shopping or cooking, no monthly bills.
But it’s not something I can return to, no matter how much I want to. And to be honest with myself, I don’t really want the dining halls back. The real world – and cooking for myself – is a whole lot quieter, and now I have more time to sit back and enjoy the food.