For Harvest Dinner, Dining Services throws down the red carpet

Nothing fills the hearts, souls and stomachs of Williams students quite like the Harvest Dinner. Every year, the staff members of the College’s Dining Services, operating under the somewhat skewed maxim “if you serve it, they will come,” outdo themselves to dish up the best of what New England has to offer.

I attended this year’s dinner – my second, so far – not as a student, but as an experienced food critic. Coverage of what Emily Miyares ’06 likes to call “good eatin’” appears below.

The best of what New England has to offer, obviously, is not native to the Berkshires: it is fresh-steamed lobster imported from Maine. And make no mistake: it is fresh. As Record photo editor Mary Catherine Blanton ’06 bit into her first piece at Driscoll, she was careful to point out that her lobster “was probably still alive at 2 o’clock this afternoon.” The opportunity to indulge in fresh lobster is what draws hordes of students and the occasional townie to the dining halls. In fact, the Harvest Dinner is also referred to as the Lobster Dinner by some and the white lobster bibs handed out at the beginning of the meal make suitable souvenirs.

The novelty of eating lobster in a dining hall aside, students had differing opinions on the quality of the lobster served. Though definitely fresh, Pamela Good ’06 admitted that it was not the best lobster she has had. For other students, including myself, the Harvest Dinner is the only time I eat lobster, and I require explicit instruction on how to dissect it. I thought the lobster was quite tasty, despite the hassle mine caused me. Miyares, perhaps the most experienced lobster-eater I know, concurred: “These are some gorgeous beasts,” she exclaimed as she started to take apart her fifth lobster of the night, four of which were gifts from admirers of her enthusiasm.

Alternatives to lobster included grilled sirloin steak and Hudson Valley chicken, which Phoebe Fischer-Groban ’06 sampled and decided had a nice flavor, though she found it a bit dry. One could also make a meal of the numerous side dishes. The roasted potato bread was pleasing and moist, and the Ritz Cracker stuffing – which certainly tasted like Ritz Crackers and was a little too dense – was entirely satisfying. I counted four different varieties of local cheeses, all of which had a good flavor. The roasted butternut squash salad earned the distinction of being the least-favorite dish at my table, however.

The vegetable sides, most of them procured from local farms, were a success. True to the harvest-themed menu, Dining Services provided plenty of local corn on the cob. The choice of salad was a bit more unexpected, but the combination of vitamin-rich mesclun greens with herb goat cheese, beets and pecans offered a welcome change in taste and texture from the normal salad bar options. Fischer-Groban described the herb goat cheese as “flavorless,” but the beets were “fine,” depending, of course, on one’s taste for beets in general.

Fresh Vermont apple cider was the drink of choice. Unlike the very tart apple cider I’m used to, this cider was smooth and mild. For dessert, we had a number of options. The Boston cream torte was not as rich as I would have expected; I much preferred the apple crisp. The layer of sugary crisp suffered from being a bit bland, but this was less noticeable when paired with a scoop of Berkshire ice cream. The two desserts together topped off what was, for Dining Services, a truly extraordinary meal.

Simply altering the menu, however, does not distinguish the Harvest Dinner from the ho-hum everyday. Dining Services is careful to treat the dinner as an experience, rather than just a gastronomic occasion. One of the great and understated pleasures of the Harvest Dinner is walking into a dining hall transformed by tablecloths and corn-husk decorations. Members of Dining Services emerge from behind the counter sporting specially-made Harvest Dinner t-shirts to clear tables of overflowing lobster discards and to chat it up with students: “Having fun? Getting messy?!”

When I asked John Bennett ’06, a native of Austin, Texas, his opinion of the dinner, he replied “Yankee food is nasty.” Holding Dining Services to too high a standard is tempting but, ultimately unfair. My feeling is that any dining hall meal that warrants advertising and can attract a townie or two is worthy of praise. If you like Yankee food (even if you do not care to admit it) it is difficult to deny that the Harvest Dinner ranks high on the list of perks available to Williams students.

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