Although dating culture is dead at Bowdoin, food culture is immortal. By the time students graduate, they have attended four Lobster Bakes, eaten 256 Bowdoin Brunches and drained 150 PolarPoints far too quickly each semester. Thanks to the fantastic Bowdoin Dining staff, we’ve feasted on goat cheese paninis, seafood scampi and pumpkin chocolate chip muffins, while our peers at other colleges, as Malcolm Gladwell is quick to mention, either suffer through four years of greasy pizza or abandon meal plans and school dining hall culture entirely.
This past semester, we ate most of our meals in Moulton or Thorne, but, along with four other friends, decided to designate each Friday night to a home-cooked meal. We six chefs operated on a rotation, each cooking about two meals over the course of the semester. The chef of the week chose recipes, picked up groceries and spent an afternoon basking in sheer domestic bliss. Come dinner time, we sat around our creaky, wooden kitchen table in Pine Apartments and shared a home-cooked meal, unusually pleased not to be sitting in a dining hall.
Though our food wasn’t any better than that of Moulton or Thorne, cooking together, in a home, made these meals feel different. We quickly grew to love this tradition, looking forward to Friday nights and honoring them as almost sacred. Sitting down at a dinner table is similar to buckling into a roller coaster. You committed earlier, waited your turn and now you’re locked in for the ride. Drinks first, then dinner, dessert to follow and then dishes; four D’s that can take about two and a half hours. The formality and ritual of sharing a home-cooked meal brings intimate conversation. Sometimes these conversations turned outward. As students of varying disciplines and now unburdened by the time constraints of a class, we considered whether it was possible to separate artists from their work, discussing Kanye, #MeToo and Woody Allen. Other times these conversations turned inward. Friends shared vulnerabilities, bringing up topics generally hushed elsewhere on campus. And many nights we sat around the table laughing at dramatized accounts of weekday happenings. We were all at the mercy of the ride.
The spirit of hospitality was central to these dinners. Our weekly rotation allowed us to let go of Venmo culture and its refrains of “I owe you this” and “You owe me that.” As lonely juniors, out of the reach of ResLife’s social engineering and with half of our class studying abroad, we welcomed all new social interaction, inviting others to join on Friday nights. The size of our dinners expanded, as we were excited to extend a more personal “You should come for dinner!” rather than the hackneyed “Let’s grab a meal!” This ethos allowed us to make new friends during a time at Bowdoin that’s often considered isolating.
Upon taking the first bite of each meal, we’d all blurt out almost excessive compliments: “best thing I’ve ever eaten!” or “It’s all in the texture—you’ve done it. You’ve done it again!” Our ridiculous ethos of congratulations (and self-congratulation) lent the sensation that we’d finally created something with our own two hands. As an institution of higher education, Bowdoin prioritizes pursuits of the mind over those of the body. We spend our weeks constantly reading, writing and analyzing; it’s easy to overlook opportunities to build or create. Cooking, though a daily task for many, offers one of those rare opportunities for Bowdoin students.
After an analytical week, we all welcomed creative expression in the kitchen. To call our food art feels disingenuous, but we can liken it to a sort of artistic pursuit. Think toddler and stick figures rather than Monet and water lilies. Grapefruits gently skinned to maintain their form, pears patiently browned to achieve the perfect caramelization, queso deftly sprinkled to allow the proper carne-to-queso ratio and music, soft during dinner, cranked up once we got started on dishes. In the words of our hero, Julia Child, “In [Pine Apartments], cooking is a serious art form and a national sport.”
Lastly, much like the bing of the Student Digest soaring into inboxes across campus at exactly 11:11 a.m. every day, cooking offers us all consistency. No matter what happens during the week in Reed House basement or the Oval Office, the mushrooms will always brown goddamnit. The routine, the reliability, the simplicity of returning to a faithful recipe brings comfort. Like Proust and the madeleine, certain flavors will always taste like home.
Having spent a lot of time thinking about what food means to us, going forward with this column we aim to explore what food means to others. We will both cook meals with new friends and chefs, interview people for whom food and food production is a central part of their lives and learn about community food practices and food-related religious rituals. Sophie, studying abroad in Jerusalem, will dig into a new cuisine. Meanwhile, Eliana will indulge in the best of Bowdoin Dining, both of us exploring how food shapes culture and community. Because food is one of those few things that we all have in common, here begins our journey studying The Common Food (käm?n f?od).