I consider myself a big sleeper—I try to get 10 hours of sleep every night. I have absolutely no FOMO (fear of missing out) when I leave a party early to sleep, and I always finish my homework by 10:30 p.m. Always. Do I sound cool yet?
But I’ve heard stories. I know there is a whole world out there, thriving in the night while I am tucked away in my bed: a culture of the Night People, defined, amongst other things, by late-night food. Intrigued by this foreign culture, I decided to leave my sound machine and eye mask and journey out into the cheese fry and chicken wing-encrusted dusk.
Walking into John Jay, I pass the sign that blocks the stairs into the currently ruined JJ’s Place. I stop for a moment of silence because it feels like I should. Entering the dining hall, I immediately stumble across a watch party of sorts: A Minnesota vs. Indiana basketball game is playing on a tiny laptop screen. Minnesota wins at the buzzer, making it a one-point game. The four students absorbed in the game have just come back from playing basketball from 10:00 p.m. to midnight and are now here to eat as much greasy food as possible.
Even I know that JJ’s is an iconic late-night food option on campus—so legendary that starting in the fall of 2017 it will be open until 10 a.m. I’m not sure why someone would want a burger at 5:00 a.m., but I also believe in a diversity of eating habits.
A large part of JJ’s icon status stems from the dining hall’s reverence for grease and sugar. JJ’s is not the exception, but an example of a more common rule: late food everywhere seems to mean only junk food. When someone says they ate at 3 a.m., I never picture a lightly toasted quinoa salad—I picture a bag of chips (and not of the kale variety). What, I wonder, is the inherent connection between eating late and eating unhealthily? What makes it so universal?
Dr. Drew Ramsey, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia, studies the intersection of nutrition and mental health. He offers insight into the seeming universality of late-night cravings. “I think that late at night, when you're stressed, your body is craving pleasure and sugar. Pleasure in the form of sugar and simple carbohydrates,” he explains.
I decide to approach the basketball boys and question them about why they come here for late-night munchies after playing. “I mean, it’s a little relaxing after you sweat a lot. You know, you exert a lot of energy. You wanna just chill out a bit,” Mark Dijkstra, a sophomore in the School Engineering and Applied Science, explains. “You get hungry after you do something physical.”
I try to do as few physical things as possible, so I wouldn’t know.
Dijkstra’s plate of 10 naked chicken wing bones rests in front of him. “I'm hungry in the morning, but my appetite is pretty trash,” he explains. “In the morning, I do more carbohydrates, and later on in the day, I just try to stack as much protein as I can.” He continues to add to his protein collection by grabbing six more wings.
But this late-night culinary excursion does not mark the end of Dijkstra’s night. After what seems like a competition against himself over how many wings he can eat, Dijkstra plans to do more homework and then get another snack at around 3:00 a.m. at a halal cart before going to sleep at 4 a.m.
But it isn’t all about the unhealthy food for the basketball boys: Even though the entire watch party enjoys the highly greasy options at JJ’s, they all agree that if the choices were more similar to those available during John Jay hours, they would be just as satisfied. But because JJ’s is convenient, they will eat whatever is offered. I wonder how true that holds for the rest of campus—would we be eating healthily at night if JJ’s were healthier?
A study conducted between the Columbia University Medical Center and St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center carried out functional magnetic resonance imaging scans on 25 men and women to analyze the science behind people’s cravings. While the volunteers looked at pictures of healthy and unhealthy foods, the researchers observed the blood flow in the volunteer’s brains who had slept nine hours for five nights. They then compared them to the brains of those who had slept four hours for five nights.
One of the researchers, Marie-Pierre St-Onge, of the medical center’s Institute of Human Nutrition, told TIME, “The results suggest that, under restricted sleep, individuals will find unhealthy foods highly salient and rewarding, which may lead to greater consumption of those foods.”
Nevertheless, Ramsey argues that if students had healthy options available to them at night, they would choose them: “Students crave food that gives them an intense experience in the midst of a lot of stress that's highly accessible. If students had access to kale chips, bell peppers, and spicy hummus, my sense is they'd be happy to snack on that. It’s just that we're not finding those in vending machines.”
But JJ’s currently closes at 1:00 a.m., leaving many students who are not on a meal plan or who want bites even later to look off-campus for late-night choices. And so my quest to delve into the mozzarella stick-filled underbelly of late-night eating continues.
As soon as I enter Tom’s, I find a large group of students laughing in a booth. There are three on each side, so there isn’t really room for me, but they make some anyway. After a long night of rehearsing for the 6Days Theater production of “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” the group has decided to come to Tom’s for an after-rehearsal snack.
By the time I join them, they have finished Oreo milkshakes, cheese fries with extra cheese, a burger with a side of sweet potato fries, and an actual order of sweet potato fries. Plus two orders of mozzarella sticks.
To an outsider, their dynamic is filled with energy. The entire meal is made up of fast-paced one-liners. I try to follow every thread, but it’s close to impossible. Even though their chemistry is evident and their laughter fills the diner, they tell me that this is the first time the cast is sitting down for a late-night meal together. In Tom’s, the thespians bond over a common appreciation for diner food.
This is only 6Days Theater’s second show. Barnard senior Isabel Bailin performed in many shows throughout her college career. She declares that she wants to be Kate McKinnon, an actress on Saturday Night Live, as she impersonates her. She quickly takes it back and then takes back the fact that she took it back. “I apologize to SNL,” she says. Columbia College sophomore Alfredo Dominguez announces, “6Days Theater bashes SNL.” I remind them that SNL will not be reading this article. (If you’re reading this article, SNL, then I guess I apologize as well.)
Their dynamic is so welcoming that I join in and compare the pickle on Dominguez’ plate to his “pickle” downstairs, and more of the high brow comedy ensues. Bailin continues the tomfoolery and announces her romantic relationship with Dominguez. He squirms and denies having any relation. Later, Bailin suggests that she would make crêpes for the cast at night. To this, Dominguez says he will marry her. Woah, slow down. Crêpes do not a successful relationship make. But, I guess, late-night snacks do have the power to unite.
“I'm glad we're comfortable enough with each other so we can make pickle jokes now. I'm very glad we're here,” the stage manager, Barnard junior Catherine Sufiyarova, says. Me, too.
But where Tom’s may have been just a setting for late night food, for some, the place itself is the draw.
In John JJ’s, I also spoke with Columbia College junior Julio Henriquez, who introduced me to his favorite late-night food place: Hamilton Deli. “The people are really great in that establishment,” he says. “If you go there at 3:00 a.m., they’re always really nice to you.”
Then he steps the praise up even further. Henriquez tells me he made an “iconic duo” meme about the deli’s owners and posted it to columbia buy sell memes. The post received around 600 likes, and Henriquez modestly clarifies, “It’s all love for them, not me.”
In the underground cavern chock-full of snacks, Columbia College juniors Max Gumbel and Robbie Staenberg stand next to the counter, awaiting their sandwiches. The plan for the night is to grab sandwiches and then power through take-home quizzes for their Symbolic Logic class.
Varsity Show rehearsal kept Gumbel awake, but he argues that even without rehearsal, he would be up. “I like having my night, you know. I’m a night person.”
Gumbel and Staenberg frequent HamDel. When they hear the words “late-night food,” HamDel immediately pops into their heads. "I mean, it's kind of the late night spot. Right? Like, what else is there?" Gumbel ponders.
I can attest that there are many late-night spots, but Gumbel’s inability to name any solidifies his attachment to HamDel. Gumbel turns to Staenberg and reminisces, “Do you remember coming here when we were moving out of Wien?” Gumbel was doing laundry, so he went to the deli wearing only a white robe.
They were done moving out by 4:00 a.m. Staenberg states, “There's always some question of whether it's open Sunday nights, and I don't have a straight answer on that.” Gumbel adds, “I like the mystery of it.” Not to ruin any surprise, but Google tells me the magic number is 9 p.m.
HamDel seems to provide a more diverse array of choices that allow students to potentially pick more nutritious options. “I mean, honestly, what's good about HamDel is you get the good mix,” Gumbel tells me. “I've never had a place where I can get a pretty good chocolate pudding, a pretty good burger, and also all of these Clif bars, you know?”
Tom’s and HamDel have lives during the day, though. They weren’t started on the premise of serving students late at night. Insomnia Cookies, however, was founded on that premise exactly.
In 2003, University of Pennsylvania student Seth Berkowitz founded Insomnia by baking cookies and delivering them to students’ dorm rooms. This business model has since taken off at Columbia.
Seated on stools facing the window that looks onto Amsterdam’s quiet streets, two Columbia graduate students share a box of warm assorted cookies. Before talking to them, I swallow a yawn. Medical center graduate student Sam Bargas had not eaten since 2:00 p.m. She dragged her friend Geanette Foster, a first-year Law School student, to accompany her to Insomnia for some sustenance.
Bargas knows Foster because her girlfriend goes to Dartmouth, which is where Foster attended undergraduate school. Situated in Hanover, New Hampshire, Dartmouth could only offer students limited late-night food options. Foster recalls there being one late-night spot called Collis that every student went to or ordered junk food from. “It was the only place that delivered that late, and no one liked it. It was never good, but we still ordered it,” she says. Places like Insomnia clearly built on this market.
The market conversation takes us back to where we started: unhealthy food. Thinking back, Foster questions why late-night places in her college, and now, in graduate school, only have unhealthy selections. Bargas jumps in, “No, but that’s not a function of the demand. That’s a function of the provider. That’s a function of the supply. So the demand conforms to the supply.”
Bargas tries to speculate into why businesses would choose to serve the options that they do late at night. “As a business I'm interested in making bottom line, and my bottom line only affords me a certain portion of my menu.”
Although it may seem like it’s more economical for businesses to sell unhealthy food, which is often processed and easier to make,Dr. Ramsey says that the idea that unhealthy options are cheaper is a myth. “In the most recent study of food being used to fight clinical depression, the participants who ate healthier food saved a hundred dollars a month,” he argues.
Still, Foster argues that if the salad restaurant Sweetgreen was open, they would be eating there. Cookies to salads. It does not get more literal than that.
“’Cause I'm in the library studying, and I would really like something that is not a burger or not like, super fattening,” Foster rationalizes. “Something that actually has some sustenance to it that I could eat while I study that might make me feel less gross or less full later so I can keep going.”
With a half-eaten s’mores cookie in her palm, Bargas sums up her experience at Insomnia: “It's not the perfect place to go, but it's the place that's open, so as a consumer, economically, you have to work with the places that you have at your disposal, and then you decide from there where you want to be.”
Still, if I had the option between eating a salad or cookies at 2:00 a.m., I would always choose to sleep. Nonetheless, I learned that at night, students crave the unhealthy and convenient option. Had I had gone to sleep at my bedtime, I would have never examined late-night eating through bonding, or meme-making, or the lens of health, or the perspective of economics. A world exists while I am asleep, and I’m glad I got to peek in for a night. (And then woke up at 1:00 p.m. the following day).
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