So last year I was on a Fulbright in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Setting aside all good judgment I agreed to rent a room in an apartment with a group of “mature professionals and graduate students.” Because, conveniently, none of them were home at the time I visited—which was already the first of the month—I had no opportunity to assess for myself just how “mature” was being defined. It turns out that the landlord’s working definition had little to do with age or any demonstration of responsible behavior. Walking erect and verbal communication seemed to be the only pre-requisites for residence, and even these skills were frequently chemically eroded. On my second day I went grocery shopping. By the third day half the food I had purchased and stowed on my shelf in the kitchen had been moved and the other half was just gone. And on the fourth day there was an outbreak of cockroaches. On the morning of the fifth day, observing the kitchen from behind the large bags of overflowing trash and empties that mostly blocked the doorway, I determined that it was going to be a long year of eating take-out! And so it was.
Needless to say I was happy to get back to Maine where I had access to a kitchen again. I don’t consider myself to be a gourmet by any means, but I am someone who is interested in food from a number of perspectives—the obvious nutritional and culinary aspects, manipulations of nutrients and flavors—but also the social and cultural roles that food plays in our lives. Good food shapes our health in very tangible ways and affects our energy levels, our attitudes and moods, and our general outlook on every other aspect of our lives. We need to eat. But food also provides an avenue through which we interact with one another and with our academic communities and our local and regional ones as well. Place-based identities are often very much tied to foodways. I live in Maine, where our cultural connections to things like lobster and wild blueberries is perhaps stronger than the culinary one. These foods are often as important to our identity as to our actual diet.
When you go to grad school, your orientation to a new place and new people is every bit as important as your orientation to a discipline. Food, whether we choose to realize it or not, is very often at the center. You’ll find that the time you spend at the bar with those in your cohort and even some of your mentors will be as important, and usually more so, than the time you spend in labs or seminar rooms. As such you’ll likely consume a healthy quota of wings, burgers, pizza, and anything that can be deep-fried. Beer is, of course, also an important social lubricant. However, one thing that for many of us will distinguish graduate school years from those that have come before: you reach a cruel point in life where these things actually do start to make you FAT!
Everything in moderation they say. While I remain a strong advocate of a good pub, let me also suggest some alternatives that might be substituted on occasion. Communal food preparation gives an opportunity for everyone in a community to express themselves and to share recipes, or even just ingredients, that are special to them. Often these are traditions borne of families and/or geographic regions or foreign cultures. When my friend Adam moved to Maine from Virginia it was important to him to share his beer can chicken. Once a year, my Irish housemate makes meat pies. Everyone has their respective specialties, be it grilling, lasagne, bean dip, baking, or what have you.
A pot luck is a nice, and fairly common, opportunity for everyone to showcase their culinary creativity. But what can be even more fun is to have gatherings where you actually prepare the meal together. I’ve found this provides a nice opportunity to cook things we might not otherwise because they take longer, are more labor intensive, or yield greater quantities of food (or require larger quantities of rare or expensive ingredients that we might not otherwise feel justified in buying) than we typically have mouths to feed. A group enterprise solves all these problems. It can also be a great opportunity for those who love to cook but, due to living situations common to graduate students, just don’t get the chance. When I was a masters student some friends and I inaugurated risotto nights. Risotto is a personal favorite that many people overlook because they think it’s too difficult or decadent. It’s really not. What’s great about it is that there are a million variations of it—it can be made with meat or without, and with largely local ingredients. It can be a side dish or a main course and it’s very rich—a modest quantity will fill you up.
For places with long dark winters like here in Maine, tending your sense of community and avoiding isolation can be very important for your own mental health, especially as a graduate student. Getting together to prepare a chili, or a stew, or a nice heavy cream soup can be just the ticket—warm atmosphere and slow cooked, warming foods. I like all of these because you never have to worry much about precision—much like grad school it’s a forum for experimentation and improvisation. As the dinner simmers on the stove and the smell of the herbs fills the space, you can float ideas, troubleshoot research challenges, share grading woes, and talk about the things you’re reading. If you’re like me, your brain works a lot better in these types of settings than it does in a seminar room.
University towns often have great farmers markets and CSAs. As a new member of the community, these present opportunities to connect to others outside your immediate academic circle. It’s also an opportunity to experiment and explore locavorism and build connections to the culture and produce of your new home. Farm reps at the market will always have ideas, tips, and recipes for how to prepare and serve their produce and generally they are only too happy to share. You could even encourage your department’s grad student organization to coordinate a group to purchase a share of a CSA, which would further facilitate food-centered gatherings, strengthening ties to each other, to local foodways, and local businesses.
You can find the recipes referred to here and a few others that have played supporting roles in gatherings of colleagues and friends at my other blog, Stillwater Historians.
Does your department share a communal kitchen? If so what benefits have you seen, and more importantly, what’s cooking?
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