Magazine article The New Yorker

Immovable Feast

Magazine article The New Yorker

Immovable Feast

Article excerpt

IMMOVABLE FEAST

I never minded eating in the dining halls. This was at Phillips Exeter Academy, in the early eighties. Let's be clear: I didn't love it--nobody could, unless you were clinically insane or had just been airlifted there from the Soviet bloc. The food was not good. But, then, it wasn't meant to be good, at least not by the standards of the outside world, and surely not compared with my mother's cooking, which would cause my nose to sweat, or compel me to haste so that I scalded my tongue. Her braised pig trotters with sweetened gochujang could make me giggle and cry.

The dining-hall fare was mostly New England-inflected, heavy and creamy, unpredictably salty or sweet. Still, my dorm mates and I would find ourselves wandering across the quad and arriving at the dining hall just after the doors opened, at 5:30 P.M. We were fifteen-year-old boys, and we were hungry. If weekly menus were posted, we never looked at them. Why bother? There were two dining halls, one at each end of the campus, but somehow they cloned the food perfectly, and there was no choice but the one meal on offer. You could fix yourself a basic salad or a bowl of cornflakes, but I always wanted hot food for dinner, and still do. A cold supper, for me, is like being dipped in a melancholy sauce.

We pulled our trays from the stack and shook off the excess dishwater; the tiled floor there got slimy by the end of the meal service, and if you rushed in late you could end up on your ass. It was calmer early. We moved down the line, wondering what the wombats would dole out to us. That's what the dining staff--all older ladies--were called, after the rotund, earth-burrowing marsupial. Apparently, there used to be tunnels connecting the dorms, where the meals were once served, and the staffcarted everything back and forth underground; thus the name. The cooks were all men, salty, grater-voiced dudes whose jeans hung loosely below their aprons as they smoked butts outside.

Their repertoire, I came to learn, was classic. Baked-haddock squares with a bright-orange crumb topping. Chipped beef on toast, a.k.a. shit on a shingle. Fried-clam strips that could double as a kind of seafood jerky. The mains were always accompanied by a form of potato or other starch and a spent, long-suffering vegetable. The Irish stew was pretty tasty, perhaps because I imagined that it was laced with stout. I always ate two cheeseburgers, no matter that the meat was studded with hard nits of gristle. …

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