I’m sure that all of you, in the naiveté of your high school years, heard the same horror stories about college food that I did. I thought college cafeterias could only go one of two ways: tasteless, colorless goop was plopped down onto our waiting trays, constant deep-fried delicacies giving rise to the Freshman 15. I was ready to kiss real food goodbye when I came to the College. Needless to say, I was happily surprised.
Here at the College, our dining is taken to the next level. Not only is the College cognizant of gluten-free, lactose-free, meat-free and allergen-free diets, but the different dining halls actually provide quite a bit of variety in their meal offerings. Meatless Mondays at Driscoll and Indian and Thai food nights at Mission have become highlights of the school week. But with the collaboration between various student culture groups and Mission Dining, the dining experience at the College has become a community experience, rather than just a shared space.
On Tuesday, the South Asian Students Association (SASA) hosted a dinner at Mission Park that celebrated both the Muslim holiday Eid and the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali. In light of these festivities, I spoke to Gayle Donahue, manager of Mission Dining, to get her thoughts on the program. “Every time we do a fundraiser like this, it’s a lot of fun for the staff,” she said. “We enjoy bringing [the students’] visions to life.” These dinners are by no means novel – Mission normally holds two or three every semester. The Williams African Students Organization hosted a dinner last May and Vista has a dinner coming up at the end of November. Despite their relative frequency, however, the dinners are always packed. Without fail, Donahue said, they are “hugely successful events. It really doesn’t matter what country we do; there is always an outpour of students.”
When asked about the amount of student involvement in these events, Donahue said, “Basically, the students drive the charge and we try to accommodate what they want,” she explained. “The students come up with the concepts and either send us recipes from home or find links for recipes on the Internet.” Tanzim Milkey ’15, SASA’s publicity coordinator, gave us an inside look at the student end of the partnership: “We came up with a preliminary menu, with each of us submitting ideas for dishes. We brought those dishes to the meeting and discussed which ones we wanted to make,” Milkey said. Like Donahue, Milkey emphasized that the dinners were executed through collaboration. “We also received input from Chris [Abayasinghe] in Dining Services, who helped facilitate discussion and gave suggestions of his own,” he said. “He really allowed us to expand the breadth of the menu to include more countries. We wanted to be comprehensive and include more cultures in the celebration of Eid and Diwali.”
Such dinners allow the members of these student groups to share the food that they grew up with friends here at the College. Milkey says that the dish he’s most looking forward to is the chicken biryani, adding, “My mom makes it on semi-special occasions, as well as on Eid, of course. It’s the comfort food I grew up with.”
When asked if replicating dishes so close to students’ hearts was a daunting task, Donahue sounded up to the challenge: “Authenticity is a really big concern with our food,” she said. “We try to make our food as authentic as possible, which has become a lot easier with our new food purveyors and sourcers.” Once, she recalls to me, the Mission staff was tasked with an authentic Scandinavian dinner; the only problem was that the lingon berries and flat Swedish lefse bread, vital to the menu, were nowhere to be found locally. “I ended up ordering them on Amazon,” Donahue recounted with a laugh. “They shipped them overnight.”
However, the events are of course, in Milkey’s words, “more than just the food.” The dinners allow students to share aspects of their culture with the Williams student body in a way that increases both cultural awareness and the number of satisfied bellies. “We made a really sweet playlist of awesome Indian music,” Milkey said of SASA’s dinner itinerary, “and we’re obviously going to have lots of candles, since Diwali is the Indian festival of lights. We’re also having a surprise performance that will include some killer beats.” Great food, great music and a great atmosphere: It’s the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in the comfort food of another culture. And the next time you’re feeling homesick? Well, go talk to Dining Services and bring a little bit of your own culture into Mission Park.