There have already been four blog posts this month about or involving food at Oberlin! So it's a bandwagon now. I wrote this in September as part of my blogging application, which was before Umami opened (or at least before I had tried it?). I ended up loving Umami's sushi, bowls (they have poke/chicken/tofu), and sometimes other refrigerated meals and snacks. Other than that important addition, I endorse my past claims about my food experiences at Oberlin.
It's the night before Labor Day, and thunder booms in my ears as if it had swooped in through my open window. Half-asleep, I can almost see it, heavy, electric, roaring, filling the space between my bed and my desk. I am exhausted. My consciousness drifts away from me. The deep sound awakens me again several hours later, for good this time. I've slept later than normal because my east-facing window, usually flooded with sunlight by 7:45am, lets in only a little light today. All morning I work on assignments inside, and by the time I'm hungry for lunch the campus still looks like one big waterfall.
The lunch options on my radar are Stevie (the main dining hall, called "Stevenson" exclusively on this website), DeCafe, Clarity, and Heritage Kosher Kitchen (which is a mouthful, so I've just been calling it by Talcott, the building it's in). I live at the north end of campus, so Clarity and Talcott are both around an eleven-minute walk from my dorm, while Stevie and DeCafe are much closer. If I wasn't already sick of Stevie's and DeCafe's food, they would be the obvious choices, but I'm not a huge fan of either. I prefer the food at Clarity and Talcott, and I find venues with fewer people less stressful. (Very few people have been going to these two because they weren't Campus Dining Services locations pre-covid, which means they've been quiet and don't have long lines. I'd call them hidden gems.) Besides, I'm one of those weird people who doesn't always mind getting soaked, who delights in the sky's fits of passion and rage and the way the world outside my window turns a misty white.
After weighing my options, I decided it'd be perfectly fine to walk eleven minutes across campus in a flimsy raincoat to Talcott and eleven minutes back clutching a sogging cardboard container.
I don't regret my decision. I was one of four students getting food at Talcott, and I had a brief friendly conversation with the staff member who served me tofu, fried potatoes, and a deliciously-dressed quinoa salad with many vegetables in it. There was also grilled chicken, vegetable soup, and pasta salad. Talcott and Clarity feel more familiar to me as a former member of a coop (whose operation is on pause because of covid). At Talcott and Clarity, the food tends to be less processed, vegetarian options seem to get more attention, and it was made with a smaller number of people in mind than Stevie, so I can usually trust that it wasn't too complicated to get the proportions and seasoning right. Since there often aren't many people in line behind me, the person who serves me is much more likely to start talking to me. A couple days ago, when no one was in line behind me at Clarity, the person who served me— Geoff, with a G, who knows my name now— told me all about what it had been like starting the allergen-sensitive kitchen, accommodating needs, and trying to get the word out to the general student population. Though I'm not directly a part of my food systems as more than a consumer at the moment, it feels important for me to listen to whatever stories I can that bring me closer to my food, because knowing who is serving me is one step closer to the level of involvement in my food systems that I grew to love over the course of last year.
In Oberlin dining cooperatives, students cook and clean for a few hours a week in exchange for two home-cooked meals a day, at a lower price than the meal plan and with a consistent group of people that hopefully feels like a supportive community. My coop wasn't the only place where I got to be in a food system as more than a consumer. In Environmental Studies 101, my ongoing group project throughout my first semester at Oberlin was to help a third-year Environmental Studies major with her capstone by working at the George Jones Memorial Farm, which is actually one of the coops' local food sources. In a shabby Eden, my group mates and I bonded over the excitement we share about vegetables and pretty much all plants. At the same time as I joined a dining coop, where I cooked and cleaned, I was also farming on a regular basis for the first time ever. One of my main academic focuses and personal passions is food sovereignty and regenerative agriculture as solutions to several crises we face globally, so being involved at multiple points of a local food system at once was stimulating and compelling. The opportunities I've had at Oberlin have given me a sense of closeness to my food that was much harder to come by growing up in Brooklyn, NYC.
At Oberlin, there are options. Not everyone wants to major in Environmental Studies with a Food and Agriculture Studies pathway, or scrape garden dirt from under their fingernails, or spend hours cooking, or even eat food that's slightly less greasy. And it is perfectly possible to avoid any and all of that. But I get to consider: do I want to be in a crowded place or a quiet one? Do I want to eat quick food that I know nothing about or get to know the person serving me? Is it more important to me that I stay dry and walk for less than five minutes, or am I okay with getting soaked if it means a meal less heavy and more in line with my tastebuds that leaves me feeling more energetic?
I'm walking through my hall and water is dripping from the crevices in my food container. I'm unlocking the door and everything is sticky. I'm back in my room and peeling off anything stuck to my skin. My rain jacket, my socks, my corduroy pants. I sit down at my desk with a fork and exhale. I smile at the colorful plate in front of me, satisfied.