“When do you want to eat?” your pal from down the hall asks, as he makes the rounds knocking on the doors of your floor’s mealtime clique. “Want dinner tomorrow?” you text your Furnald friend, while mentally compiling a list of who else might respond should she be busy. “Let’s grab lunch?” a new acquaintance offers, shuffling out of lecture alongside you.
In the beginning of my first year, I exercised my culinary scheduling muscles to the extreme. With so many people to meet and friends to make, stories to hear, and bonds to weave, why would I want to miss out on these precious intervals? I could even fill those awkward 40 minutes between two classes with a snappy, animated lunch. Eating is a communal experience, I figured. There is nothing better than filling half a table with floormates and extended friends, after navigating the narrow dining hall aisles with sheepish grin and Olympian dexterity.
And so it went—I planned meticulously, sometimes even schemed, to fill my intervening hours of gustatory gratification with the company of others. It felt imperative. I relied on my closest companions for regular mealtime assembly, with the occasional variation to keep things fresh. The pattern assured me that we—ultimately utterly social creatures, regardless of individual predilection—are meant to eat together.
But then I slipped. A plan fell through last-minute, my memory lapsed, or I decided for change: Somewhere, somehow, I sat down to a meal in John Jay by myself.
It doesn’t sound important—actually, it might sound pretty trivial. In my high school years, though, eating alone reflected pure circumstances, never desire. That is not to say I saw no merit in culinary solitude—I consistently enjoyed that isolation immensely—but it always transpired when no alternatives existed. Eating alone was never a matter of choice.
That definitely was not a universal life experience—but regardless, Columbia’s mandatory first-year meal plan system enforces those values just the same. Some, in a rush or a solitary mood, might take out food from their plastic containers. The rest encounter a dining hall constructed around an emphasis on community. Even the physical space aggravates our awareness of social ties. Unlike Lerner, for example, the dining halls encourage happenstance reunions and the meshing of groups on long tables. Though the crowd might be thick and zombie-like, though the six of you might not find more than two adjacent empty chairs, you never begrudge the fellow Columbians hogging invaluable real estate. They represent the conviviality of communal dining, and make you feel at home, of sorts.
But anyway, I found myself eating alone. So there I sat, fork in hand, waiting to delve into one of Wilma’s omelets, with nary a comrade. Nothing to divert my attention, no one to expect performance. So there I sat, eating, watching, listening, waiting, thinking.
And what peace I felt! In sync with all other solo gastronomes, introspecting outward, I wondered at this option. It was still social, even if I had to imagine the community in degrees. It was still informative, though now of a passive, private type. It was still, most importantly, fulfilling in a meditative sort of way.
I do not want to overplay this event as some existential moment, or a pivot upon which a great realization tipped. In college, many find it difficult to locate themselves devoid of immediate pressures, whether they be academic, extracurricular, or civil. I simply believe a serene meal alone, not necessarily in exile but rather in focus of the self, can proffer such a territory for that enterprise. The dining halls, in their emphasis on one extreme, can prepare us for the other, should we choose to take advantage of that perspective.
So there I sat, amid the hubbub of a bustling room, in joy of the quiet that we so rarely admit.
I find it funny looking back on those John Jay days. As a sophomore in McBain, unaccompanied Milano dinners permeated the year. As a junior in Ruggles, I often consume kitchen-cooked concoctions in solitude. Time, energy, and fortune permitting, I like sitting down with a friend to a leisurely meal, or eating on the go as we rush to go somewhere together. I still plan ahead, still seek out connections to share under the auspices of quality culinary endeavor. The difference lies in the lack of exigency. The overbearingly social dining halls, once inverted, showed me their major flaws—and there I learned the unbound potential of dining alone.
Ben Rashkovich is a Columbia College junior majoring in creative writing. He contributes regularly to The Canon.
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