“Heady, nervy and intellectually exciting,” boast a series of banners hanging from John M. Greene Hall, on my college’s Northampton, Massachusetts campus.

Now gearing up for my fourth and final year at Smith, I can attest to the heady, nervy and intellectually exciting nature of the place and the young women who call it home. Brains and ambition are a given at Smith, but, as any anxious prospective student will tell you, there is more to a college than academics and leadership opportunities. Housing, facilities and, yes, the food; these too must be considered when shopping for colleges.

Sixty years ago, when my grandmother and two great-aunts attended Smith, each of the college’s 30-some residence houses had their own kitchen and dining staff. This practice, which resulted in the sort of tight-knit camaraderie that might stereotypically be expected of a women’s college, represented much of what made Smith a unique and empowering environment for young women.

The Haven House dining hall at Smith in 1904. Linens and candlelight every night, y’all!

Photo credit: the Smith College Archives

Decidedly more casual in 2005 in the Wilder House dining hall.

Photo credit: boston.com

Enter the late nineties, an era of budget cuts at colleges and universities across the country. The hugely popular Ruth Simmons left her post as president of Smith to fill the same position at Brown, and Carol Christ (rhymes with ‘twist,’ folks), former provost at UC Berkeley, came on board.

It is no secret that many students dislike President Christ. According to past and present Smithies, Christ is to blame for everything from the Gulf oil spill (kidding about that one) to hacking away at precious Smith traditions, one of which being individual house dining and the strong “house community” that it yielded.

In a drastic cost-saving measure beginning in 2004, Christ closed the dining halls of more than half of the college’s residence houses and implemented a system of “theme” dining. In place of 36 houses serving the same meal on any given night, each of the remaining 15 dining halls became known for a particular style of dining.

Comstock and Wilder serve “Asian” food. Northrop and Gillett serve vegan and vegetarian cuisine, an option that is, in my highly unscientific estimation, one of the most popular on campus. Kosher and Halal food can be found seven days a week in Cutter-Ziskind, while Lamott serves Mediterranean-style food. The variety of dining options is a major draw for prospective students, yet it seems that nearly everyone on campus has something disparaging to say about Smith dining.

Some bemoan a loss of quality over the course of their four years; others criticize an overabundance of carbohydrate-rich foods. The food is too greasy, too bland, too unlike Mom’s home cooking. The complaints go on.

As for myself, I try not to complain about the state of dining services. While it is easy to point a finger, many students’ complaints do not take into consideration the universality of these tough times. Fewer still realize that we Smithies are much better off food-wise than the majority of American college students.

I recall eating dinner with a friend and a high school acquaintance of her’s my first year at Smith. Katie went to nearby Westfield State, where all six thousand undergraduates ate in a central dining hall. Students were not allowed to take food out of the dining hall, and, as Katie noted, the quality of the food was edible at best.

At Smith, students are free to take leftovers in tupperware or other such containers we supply ourselves. Kind dining staffers are often willing to lend students some eggs or butter in the event that an urge to bake a batch of cookies strikes. While it would be difficult for the staff at each of our 15 dining halls to memorize the names of every student they serve, it is not at all uncommon for students and staff to be on a first-name basis.

True, it is unlikely that we will ever again see Cornish Hens on a dinner menu (an occasional treat up until a year or so ago), but Smith students would do well to count our many blessings.

Between classes and friendships with students at the other colleges in the Five College Consortium, I have eaten at Amherst, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke and UMass Amherst. There are positive and negative aspects of the dining experience at each of these four very different campuses, but there is something to be said for returning to my own campus, where I know exactly where to dispose of my leftovers and recycling, and where I can look forward to favorites like vegan Caesar salad at least once a month.

When I graduate Smith, I will be more than happy to trade the noise and chaos of the dining halls for a home-cooked meal, but I do not doubt that I might occasionally wax nostalgic for breakfast, lunch and dinners available when and where I desire them.

Haters be damned, I’m not afraid to admit it– I’ll miss that vegan slop.

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