Culinary Postcards

Food has always been a contentious topic among undergraduates.

Illustration by Olivia Holden

In 1766, Harvard students staged a demonstration to protest the College dining halls’ butter, back then a sour staple. Asa Dunbar, grandfather of Henry David Thoreau, is said to have begun the battle cry with, “Behold, our butter stinketh!—Give us, therefore, butter that stinketh not.” That eighteenth-century bash remains the first documented instance of student protest in what became the United States. The culinary discontent—and ensuing civil disobedience—continued through the years, from an insurrection over rotten cabbage soup in 1807 to the uproar over breakfast abridgements earlier this year.

While food still occupies a central role in student life, much has changed. The student bodies of Harvard’s early years showed little diversity by way of race, ethnicity, geography, or class, and thus the food on offer remained similarly confined. More than 200 years later, however, our dining-hall menus feature everything from Bajan-style plantains to Middle Eastern pilaf, offering many students their first forays into the cuisines of different cultures.

It is worth noting the often-stark contrasts between authentic dishes and their Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) counterparts. Some of the strongest critiques come from ethnic communities, which perceive whitewashing in corrupted spice indices (which guide the pungency and heat level of certain foods), altered ingredient bases, or dishes morphed altogether. I once encountered the banner of “samosas” accompanying what was clearly some species of burger. Still, our dining experience has presented us with a globe-trotting menu. It is clear that profound cultural change has swept our institution through a simple measure: food.

A look back through digital archives reveals the extent of Harvard’s culinary transformation. In April 1997, for instance, the menu for undergraduate dining appeared quite different than it does today. Written in a grainy font, the vintage menu boasted items such as flour tortillas and taco shells. Italian dishes showed up almost daily.

These menus also featured occasional East Asian dishes, such as kung pao chicken, moo goo gai pan, and the rather questionable “Oriental Vegetables” prepared on Saturday, April 26. Notably, however, dishes sourced from South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Caribbean remained sparse, with the few exceptions including pilaf, Moroccan stew, and mulligatawny soup, served the prior Monday, through which HUDS gave a nod to Tamilian cuisine and the colonial influence of the British Raj on South Asian cuisine. Some food items with local roots—like the New England clam chowder—have remained a staple through the decades.

Harvard’s offerings in the 1990s reflected contemporary trends in the college food industry. But since then, there’s been significant investment in college food services, allowing for more options tailored to students’ tastes.

Crista Martin, HUDS director for strategic initiatives and communications, joined Harvard in 1998. “HUDS menus are defined by the tastes and needs of students, and they’re ever-evolving,” she says. “The diversity of the student body feels to me enormously different than it was 25 years ago....Each new class of students comes in, and we learn and grow with them.”

The current freshman class includes students from 94 countries, explains HUDS managing director Smitha Haneef. “And you can imagine, every dimension of diversity is embedded and is living and thriving within that class. So, for us, it’s then: how do we take our menu program and make it cognizant of where our students are coming from?”

That cognizance surprised me at first. Coming into Harvard, I was most taken by the sheer variety of grains featured in the meal offerings—from long-grain Basmati rice and Egyptian farro to bulgur wheat, in addition to the more widely diffused modern staples of quinoa and couscous.

Sarah Ramberran, a sophomore from Trinidad who identifies with the Indo Caribbean diaspora, says that most Caribbean dishes served by HUDS are Latin-influenced and thus not what she is most familiar with at home. “I’m more connected to when they serve South Asian food, which kind of does excite me, but it does worry me sometimes because I know it could be a hit or miss. I know when I’m gonna have chole in the dining hall, I get really happy because I actually kind of enjoy it.”

I myself spent my first Harvard year avoiding Indian food like a fever, worried I would get sick of the cuisine that shaped my own palate growing up. This year, however, I gave in to the temptation and found that the HUDS renditions of rice, channa, and naan were quite good. Of course, I learned to appreciate dining-hall cuisine on its own terms, separate from the flavors I would taste at home in New Jersey, where my family always lived within a few miles of an Indian grocery store.

The chole, along with the naan and the butter chicken that often accompany it, may not be completely faithful reprises of home-stewed dishes, but they are comfortable approximations. HUDS dishes—even the most diverse ones—still contain the stamp of a collegiate dining hall. Some students have attributed that to the sheer quantity of food served daily; others have attributed it to the dilution of the cuisine’s most distinctive ingredients to maintain a tolerable spice level. Still, students express appreciation for the good-faith effort to include rather than ignore.

A necessary component of creating representative menus, Haneef says, is engagement with students. She meets frequently with members of the Undergraduate Council, Food Literacy Project Fellows, and other students interested in food preparation at Harvard. The Food Literacy Project Fellows include one student from each House; as a group, they engage with questions of sustainability, diversity, and nutrition through peer-to-peer education and programming. So far, those programs have included a “Food and Culture” month, tasting sessions, and cooking lessons alongside HUDS chefs on everything from climate-friendly cooking to Parisian gnocchi. “It’s a strength of the Food Literacy Project,” says Gwen Koch, the project’s manager, that every student in the program “has different experiences with food.”

Haneef also listens to messages from students about HUDS. In particular demand have been the edamame and vegetable potstickers—a dish students rave about. Originating in China under the banner “jiaozi,” potstickers are a type of fried dumpling with notoriously sticky wonton wrappers which often attach to the wok or pan. “Anytime our chefs make that at Annenberg,” Haneef says, “there’s like notations in capslock, ‘Bring it back, loved the dinner!’”

The comments help HUDS curate students’ favorite global meals. “Diversity is also about fun. It’s not prescriptive….Fun is important,” Haneef says, recalling a recent dinner she ate at Hillel, where chef Aquila Rosa prepared salmon with fingerling potatoes.

I’ve felt that same sense of culinary exploration while eating HUDS food, both as a first-year and since my return to campus last fall. During my New Jersey quarantine, I would admit somewhat sheepishly that I longed for HUDS’s Bajan-style fried plantains, a sweet-and-sour staple that offered me my first food foray into the Caribbean. Back on campus, I’m delighted again to experience international flavors, such as the ensemble of yuca fries and homemade aioli served at Pforzheimer House.

Many dishes come from HUDS chefs themselves, drawn from the recipe books of their childhoods and the regional staples of their homelands. In HUDS’s World Food Day celebrations at Mather and Dunster House dining halls, chef Ernie Quinones drew from family heritage as he designed his own “Abuelita Chocolate Sauce” served alongside crispy cinnamon and sugar churros. Chef Arlene Richburg, who oversees food preparation at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, piloted a yellow split-pea soup alongside cornmeal dumplings and a salted cod known as Buljol. Richburg’s mother used to prepare this split-pea soup for her when she was a child in Trinidad coming home after school. It contained notes from a variety of cultures—Indian, Italian, and indigeous Caribbean among them—that were all part of her community. “It was generally served on a rainy day,” she says. “It was a warm-your-heart-and-soul, get-out-of-the-rain kind of feeling.” Students resonated deeply with that feeling. “I made about 10 gallons and it took an hour and a half and it was all gone,” Richburg says. People still plead for a reprise of the dish.

During summer planning sessions, chefs come together to assess the menu offerings for the coming year, relying on both student surveys and industry research. The rest of the summer is spent in what Haneef calls “research and development”: learning different recipes and offerings. Many student favorites, from the Indian-inspired butter chicken and naan to the Latin-inspired shrimp quesadilla with mushroom and chimichurri sauce, emerged from these sessions.

Crafting diverse menus means looking within the United States as well. Chef Justin Cassidy, whom Haneef calls “a rock star in barbecues,” introduced more uniquely Southern flavors to the menu at Harvard Law School. “For me, diversity within the American cuisine is also an important factor,” Haneef says, “recipes such as fried green tomatoes and peach jams and cheddar jalapeno biscuit with preserves....I love my aloo chole”—a Punjabi chickpea-and-potato curry—“as much as I love my blackened fish.” Her favorite cuisine comes from Birmingham, Alabama, heavily featuring okra, black-eyed peas, and collard greens.

HUDS chefs have also kept their eyes open for opportunities to celebrate cultural heritage months. In preparation for Native American Heritage Month in November, HUDS forged a partnership with the Harvard University Native American Program, working with members of the local Wampanoag Tribe to serve indigenous dishes alongside educational material.

Still, the dish reflects the pantry, as the move toward diverse food choices begins with ingredients. Haneef says: “Diversity, in the way we think about it, is, ‘I have an Indian-inspired menu, or a Latin-inspired menu, or a Guyanese-inspired menu,’ but it’s also about the underlying ingredients’ diversity and biodiversity.” This recognition has aligned with HUDS’ effort to move dining at Harvard toward a model built upon both diversity and sustainability (harvardmag.com/eating-green-19).

As for Haneef, her favorite HUDS recipe remains the miso-glazed eggplant, a Japanese dish traditionally referred to as “Nasu Dengaku.” “I had never had a piece of miso eggplant prepared in that way,” she says. “I have so many favorites, I can keep going on.”

Richburg, meanwhile, continues to experiment with the food that ends up on students’ plates. She remembers arriving in the United States and visiting a grocery store for the first time, standing in front of aisles and aisles of ingredients she had never encountered in Trinidad. “It was that experience of just experimenting and looking for different things that I had never had before.” Richburg’s passion is evident whenever the subject is cooking. “It’s a matter of just … food. It’s all of it,” she says. Students in the dining halls feel the same way.  

Swathi Kella ’23 is always on the lookout for her next dining-hall adventure.

Read more articles by: Swathi Kella

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