In defense of dining halls

Opinion by Terence Zhao
May 11, 2018, 5:00 a.m.

Once in a while, we get an article in a campus publication complaining about the food at the dining halls. And, I have to admit, after almost three years, I’m still a little taken aback every time I read one of them because, frankly, dining hall food isn’t bad at all.

I know that this is a fairly unpopular opinion. So, before this starts to feel like something that RD&E paid me to write, I will just say that I am by no means claiming that the dining halls are without flaw. The rice is almost never cooked right; the texture of the Arrillaga chicken remains absolutely inexplicable; I still hate the sadist who came up with the half-mushroom, half-beef burgers but not as much as I hate the other sadist who somehow managed to come up with beet hummus and made me accept it as a normal thing … I can go on like this for a while. But these are ultimately minor annoyances rather than major issues. But I feel like I assign greater significance than they warrant simply because they seem to be the only experiences that allow me to come even remotely close to rationalizing and making sense of folks’ criticisms of the dining halls.

And frankly, I mostly like dining hall food. My first encounter with it was during the summer of my sophomore year of high school when I had the privilege to be at Stanford for a summer humanities program and ate at Arrillaga for three weeks. Years after that, when I found out that I would be able to come back to Stanford, Arrillaga food was actually one of the things I looked forward to — a sentiment that seems to defy the very being of this campus.

But I’d like to think I have good reason to believe this. Without a doubt, I’ve never eaten as well in my life as I have at Stanford. Of course, I’ve had better meals at restaurants — but those only come so often; eating out every night is not a sustainable thing to do — or is it? I have no idea anymore. All I know is that as far as a long-term dining arrangement goes, I really can’t conceptualize a significantly better one. Maybe I feel that way because of the horror stories I’ve heard from other places (i.e. live insects in the salads), or maybe it’s because the nine years of grotesque, ketchup-counts-as-vegetables free and reduced-priced school lunches didn’t set the bar very high.

When I first came to Stanford, I was hyperaware of my class background in the context of such ubiquitous (and unfamiliar) privilege and wealth. So, like I did with many other things I saw, I viewed all the dining hall hate through the lens of class and classism. To an extent, I still do: To complain about what is often considered one of the best college dining programs in the country while 1 in 8 American households are hungry and 1 in 6 Americans do not have access to fresh produce really is the peak of privilege.

But that quickly proved to be surprisingly unsustainable because if that were the standard, we would not be able to complain about anything. And since we have to complain about something, Stanford Dining inevitably becomes a prime target for mockery: It’s something everyone is compelled into participating in, and it is bound to displease everybody at some point (incidentally, the exact same things can be said of PWR, and look how everybody enjoys that). It’s notoriously difficult in terms of sheer logistics to cook for large numbers of people. When combined with the fact that there’s always going to be people not particularly happy with the selection or is missing the food from their favorite restaurant/hometown/grandmother, I would actually argue it would be a minor miracle if there weren’t complaints about dining hall food. RD&E declares that dining halls “play a key role in this mission of community building” — which is true, in the most ironic sense imaginable, because they do so partly by allowing students from every walk of campus life to bond over their complaints about the Arrillaga chicken.

Even though, chicken aside, we could all do a lot worse than Stanford dining.

Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’


Terence Zhao '19 originally hails from Beijing, China, before immigrating to the US and settling in Arcadia, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles. He is majoring in Urban Studies, and promotes the major with cult-like zeal. In his spare time, he likes to explore cities and make pointless maps.

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