UChicago is a very special place, and if you know anything about our housing system, you know that it’s a big part of the magic. Housing at UChicago gives students more than just dorms and living spaces, it gives us a community and a home base. House culture influences many parts of the UChicago experience, but one place it is particularly noticeable is in our dining halls.
Although all students have access to all campus dining halls, each house has a house table in one specific dining hall. To get an idea of what a house table looks like, picture a long, Harry Potter-esque (I promised myself I wouldn’t use that word, but here we are) table. In addition to allowing you to get to know your housemates, the dining hall tables also give you a way to bond with residential staff (Resident Heads and Resident Assistants). House tables mean that when it’s 12:30 p.m. and you don’t have lunch plans, you won’t end up eating alone. This was really important for me because I’m used to having very communal meals, and I love talking to people over food.
Another great thing about house tables is that you’re not restricted in where you can sit. This past year, I lived in Renee Granville-Grossman Residential Commons, and ate most of my meals at Cathey Dining Commons with my house (shoutout to Delgiorno House). I remember my first night in RGGRC, which was terrifying because I had been unpacking all day and hadn’t met anyone yet. I was nervous but excited to get into Cathey and start meeting people. When I got there, my house table was full, so I ended up sitting at the adjacent table, which was a great way to get to know people from outside my house. We talked about gender roles and the idea of merit vs. birthright in Harry Potter (and I haven't even watched Harry Potter or read the books). At some point, I felt comfortable enough to introduce my theory about how funnel cake is an accurate edible representation of American culture. It wasn’t even my house, and I was technically not at the right table, but I met some amazing people and instantly felt welcomed.
For some people, house tables are a go-to, but every dining hall has two and four-person tables if you want to have a more private meal or work while you eat. For me, what makes dining halls special is that there’s always someone there. Even if you go to “fourth meal” (the 9 p.m. - 12 a.m. meal session), you’re bound to find someone to talk to, study with, or just spend time with. But what’s even more special is that anyone can sit at your house table, and you can almost always count on someone bringing along a friend from outside the house. This helps you meet new people, and you’re bound to learn something new from every single person. You’ll meet people who think different things, who have different experiences, and who aren’t afraid to talk about their opinions. You can also spend your time with friends bonding (or fighting) over which Cathey muffin is the best—raisin bran for the win, no room for argument!
Dining halls are one of UChicago’s trademark scenes, and many of the intellectual conversations that happen at UChicago happen in our dining halls. Some of my conversations include:
- A table-wide argument about whether NY pizza is a standard for all pizza or a subset of pizza, and whether deep dish is better or worse than NY pizza. And by table-wide, I mean that almost all thirty people at the table were engaged in this argument. And by engaged, I mean passionately and loudly drawing everyone else’s attention. (And, in case you were wondering, deep dish won.)
- Arguing about whether it’s possible that the earth is a thick cylinder of sorts, and not a sphere. We developed a meta-flat-earth theory and determined that if the earth was indeed a short but very large cylinder, the reason nobody falls off is that the “circumference forces” push you backwards once you get too close (none of us are astrophysics majors).
Dining halls are also a learning space because they give you an opportunity to try new foods. Coming from an Arabic home, English muffins have no place in our kitchen. The first time I saw someone eating an English muffin, I asked what type of bread it was, and I was quite baffled. My brain is hardwired to get excited when I hear the word “muffin,” but I was met with average-tasting bread that was dry, airy, and unusual. After much persuasion, I tried a toasted English muffin with some onion chive cream cheese, courtesy of Bartlett Dining Commons. I was immediately hooked and had an English muffin for breakfast every day for the next month.
I’ve also learned new things about foods that I was already familiar with. For example, I didn’t know there were so many ways to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I’m a proud member of the “Spread PB on one slice, J on the other, then put them together” club. Through house table breakfasts, I’ve seen some people eat their PB&Js on bagels, others put both components on the same slice of toast (absurd!), and I even met someone who likes their PB&J topped with a pinch of salt.
Dining halls are what each individual person makes of them, and I love to use them to spend time with friends over meals. During Winter Quarter, I realized that aside from having daily breakfast together, I wasn’t getting the chance to spend as much time with my close friends during the week. I decided to institute a new personal system, called “exclusive meals.” Basically, I’d set up at least one one-on-one meal with each of my close friends every week, which gave us a chance to catch up on our own, get to know each other even better, and just spend some time taking a break from our busy class schedules. One of my friends really liked the idea, and we started prepping for our exclusive lunches, finding intriguing open-ended questions to ask each other. We know each other well, so it was rather difficult to find questions we didn’t already know the answer to, but we managed to make it happen. One of our favorite questions was: “If I were a fruit, what fruit would I be?” Our conclusion was that I am a passion fruit: weird upon first impression, and more tame, but still a bit weird, once you get to know me.
As you can see, dining halls are a very important part of student life at UChicago, and they’re a great place to socialize and eat. Everyone has a favorite dining hall, and a favorite place to sit in that dining hall. Our dining halls facilitate interaction and give us a great opportunity to meet and interact with new people—and to try new foods! Things will be different this upcoming year for obvious reasons, but I’m looking forward to getting back to the UChicago dining halls with my house once it’s safe to do so!