College dining is the secret to Oxbridge’s success

Comment University/Local Issues

Image description: Kellogg College dining hall with bottles and cutlery

Picture this: it’s a Wednesday in fifth week and you’re back in hall again. You may be sitting in a centuries-old hall designed by some very well-known now dearly deceased architect, with the roof high above you held up by beautiful dark beams that criss-cross in a breathtaking medieval design. The walls are covered edge-to-edge with portraits of past benefactors, but the slop on your plate tastes just like the stuff they served you in Year 8.

After being hustled through the food-collecting process in a kitchen seemingly crammed into a 16th century walk-in closet you sweep the hall looking for someone, anyone to sit next to. It’s exactly like those American high school movies where your choice of lunch partner is a direct measure of your social capital. Your anxiety rapidly rises as you hesitate with tray in hand and curse your friends for leaving your ‘College lunch?’ text on read.

With relief you spot someone you sat next to in a lecture last week. One awkward, ‘hey, how’s it going? Quantitative Methods, right?’ later and you’re digging into your Iceland peas. Then you realise your ex is sat two seats down. Now you really do wish you were still in Year 8.

The idea of students having a canteen exclusively for them that serves daily breakfast, lunch and dinner, which includes several formals per week in black tie and/or gowns, is not normal in this country.

Putting aside Oxford’s strange inverse relationship between beauty of hall and quality of food (which has Christ Church serving you Richmond sausages and St Cross serving confit of duck), we all know that college dining plays a huge but overlooked role in Oxbridge life. I say Oxbridge because I assume Cambridge also charges students up to £59,490 for the right to eat fish fingers in very old buildings.

The idea of students having a canteen exclusively for them that serves daily breakfast, lunch and dinner, which includes several formals per week in black tie and/or gowns, is not normal in this country. I came from Exeter University’s Cornwall campus before starting a Master’s in this city of dreaming spires and kebab trucks.

Like pretty much every university in the country except for the best two, students are largely left to cook for themselves. For better or worse, we were forced to eventually graduate from oven pizzas in first year to homemade chilli in final year. An accommodation block burned down near me because someone left the oven on too long. The smells we were used to in Falmouth were seaweed, weed and pasties, not that of four-course meals and fruity port.

The key difference that college dining makes is the sense of community it fosters. Eating together is a fundamental human behaviour that we need as social beings.

In fact, as a much (much) younger student I’d heard from friends who’d gone to Oxford for undergrad that no one cooked: it’s all catered. I was surprised. Learning to look after your own diet is a huge part of student life, I thought. And it is – I gained cooking skills that I will have for the rest of my life. The thrift we used in preparing good meals as a broke student is going to serve us well as broke grads.

But once I came to Oxford and sat down time after time with others to eat in our brightly-lit college hall, I soon came to understand the significance of this simple ritual.

When your workload is so heavy you have to factor in the time it takes to prepare one of those third-year chillis the Tuesday formal halls are a godsend. When your revision schedule is too punishing for a homemade panini, when the effort of thinking ‘what am I going to eat tomorrow?’ is one effort too much, the prospect of college taking care of it for you is such a relief.

Of course any busy student in any town in Britain can walk out of their house and pick up a Tesco meal deal. In fact I probably did that so many times during both my degrees I could give you 5,000 words tomorrow on the subtleties of Chicken, Bacon and Stuffing versus the Cheese Triple.

The key difference that college dining makes is the sense of community it fosters. Eating together is a fundamental human behaviour that we need as social beings, alongside sex and peeing in the sink (don’t lie).

In an era of limitless instant personal entertainment at our fingertips through streaming services, the art of idle chatter with flatmates is withering.

Some of the best conversations I’ve had in my whole degree took place not in tutorials or seminars, but in our hall. Talking to people I know well and people I know less well, from all over the world and from all kinds of backgrounds, I would always learn something. I would walk back to my room with my stomach full of goulash and my head full of ideas.

Eating and drinking with your friends, in addition to being pretty much the only form of socialising left to us as adults, is something student society is losing its grip on. In an era of limitless instant personal entertainment at our fingertips through streaming services, the art of idle chatter with flatmates is withering. I witnessed it personally.

Why should I sit in my (usually very messy) kitchen, eating my cheesy pasta, waiting for someone to come along, when YouTube is waiting for me in the blessed privacy of my room? It’s not an indictment of the interestingness of my former flatmates by any means. But if I’m not forced to sit down at a long table with lots of others in order to get some food, a semi-introvert like me isn’t gonna go out of my way to socialise. Most people, myself included, will tend to take the path of the most entertainment with the least effort.

It’s true that just as food works as a tool for inclusion, it can also work to exclude. The pomp and procedure of formal dining is bewildering.

Sharing meals promotes bonding. From Arthur’s round table to the conferences that ended the world wars, food has acted as a powerful social tool. In the world of work, clients and capital are wooed with lunches. Networking, which can make up the bulk of some careers, is done over canapés and wine for a reason.

At Oxford, you eat, drink and study with all the same people, cloistered in one college community. While this can easily lead to a kind of horrible claustrophobia, it is also one of its most wonderful features. It’s a blueprint for communal spirit, a sense of shared identity – how many conversations have you had about this college’s food versus that one’s? My college was once famous across the university for its £5 three-course lunches, member or not (now a far less persuasive £11 for non-St Crossers).

From Arthur’s round table to the conferences that ended the world wars, food has acted as a powerful social tool.

In addition to the social benefits of communal dining, some of my best memories are from traditional formal dinners, like on Burns Night. Seeing a giant haggis paraded around, accompanied by bagpipes and incomprehensible poetry, sipping whisky, marvelling at the sheer amount of cutlery – I was amazed by such things because I’d never seen them before.

It’s true that just as food works as a tool for inclusion, it can also work to exclude. The pomp and procedure of formal dining is bewildering to someone who hasn’t grown up differentiating between soup spoons and fish knives. I had to ask repeatedly which heavy, shining implement I should use for which course, and half the time the person I asked didn’t know either. Exclusive dining clubs, such as the P Club or Bullingdon, sum up the wider public’s disgust with Oxbridge class-soaked excess.

If your college community isn’t as friendly as you’d hoped, or for those struggling with their mental health, the intensity of such close personal contact on a daily basis can be smothering. If you don’t have the financial means to splash out on formals, let alone all the wine everyone seems to be enamoured with, you can really miss out. Subsidies only go so far.

With this in mind, however, my memories of great meals in college with even greater people have helped sustain me throughout the lockdown. As we progress into a socially distanced summer and autumn, with so much of what makes Oxford great in question, we would do well to remember how important the little things are.

Image Credit: Sarah Hagaman, Oxford Student

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