Commencement Address: Alison A. Rau '04
Story posted May 29, 2004
Food for Thought
by Alison A. Rau '04
May 29, 2004
President Mills, fellow members of the Class of 2004, faculty, staff, students, parents, and friends, I have a long-kept secret. I really hate lobster. I know we kick off and end the year with a full-out lobster bake to take advantage of the fact that we're on the Maine coast, but as crustaceans go, I think they're the absolute worst. In spite of this personal bias I do think there's something special about food and the experience of food at Bowdoin, and not just because the Princeton Review has...rated Bowdoin number one for college food in the country. I think the part that Bowdoin food plays in our everyday lives is evocative of how Bowdoin students approach life in general, and I'd like to give a rundown of three major parallels to convince you of my theory. First, creativity, second, commitment, and third, quality of life.
The first parallel between Bowdoin food and Bowdoin students is the common denominator of creativity. Since the Class of 2004 began its College careers in the fall of 2000, the Dining Service has become increasingly responsive to student opinion and even more dazzling in the breadth and depth of their culinary offerings. We now find display cooking of everything from homemade pasta to California rolls in the dining halls at least twice a week. Theme meals are rampant, "Poetry Bites" adorn the tables, and holidays involve a flurry of special menus, decorations, and costumed servers, reflecting the innovative capacity of the Dining staff. Before I leave, I need to ask for the recipe for that penne pasta with eggplant and feta – it's amazing! Bowdoin students are very similar in one of their most defining characteristics – their passion and interest in creative pursuits. One of the things that I noticed immediately upon arriving on campus my first year was that cultural events here are packed – tickets to the student dance shows and theatre events sell out rapidly and student art openings flourish. I have never yet encountered a Bowdoin student who wasn't passionate about some aspect of their College life, be it studying amoebas or singing a capella. One's personal creativity is rewarded here; just as the tomato-basil-mozzarella panini gathers rave reviews, your original research, writing, art, or athletic performance is recognized and relished.
The level of commitment seen in the Dining service at Bowdoin is also comparable to that of its students. The new environmental initiatives at Moulton and Thorne, such as the composting project or the "Farm Fresh Connections" program that integrates locally grown and organic food into the Bowdoin dining experience demonstrate a commitment to the ideals of sustainability and good taste. The Maine organic purple scalloped potatoes are out of this world, but I wish that there was more free-range meat available, personally! The Dining Service's commitment to traditions, to honoring religious and other dietary restrictions, to providing a welcoming working and eating environment is always exemplary. Instead of rushing you out at the stroke of seven, dining hall staff will instead approach your table and ask if you'd like more coffee or deserts before they're removed! In a larger sense, the commitment of Bowdoin students to the common good, to their principles, to the things that matter, is seen through many dining-related actions. Meetings of every political persuasion and interest group take place in the halls, in the café, in the pub over nachos and Coronas. Students here take the time to have lunch with their professors, to discuss an independent study idea or to ask for advice on a project. We are committed to academic excellence – around exam period you'll see dining hall tables covered with notebooks and flashcards, friends quizzing each other on the Tokugawa dynasty, Spanish vocabulary, and international law cases over a plate of fries.
You can't walk through Smith Union without being accosted by tables offering cookies, candy, the opportunity to sign letters for Amnesty International, to give blood, to learn about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, The Vagina Monologues, the Bowdoin lacrosse team. Even when Bowdoin students are not eating, they often don't for a reason, such as the Oxfam hunger banquet to raise funds for emergency food programs in developing countries. Bowdoin students take their activities as seriously as they do their preference for macaroni and cheese and Maine-grown carrots, which is to say very seriously indeed. Offer food and drink at a meeting or forum and you'll get half the student body there, and what if it isn't as much due to the thirst for knowledge as for the physical attraction of the scrumptious? Food too is an important part of our education! At Bowdoin's first Parliamentary Debate Tournament for decades back in February, the teams from Brown, Fordham, Bates, Brandeis, and Amherst raved about the food in between arguing cases such as: Be it resolved, Adam should not eat the apple.
The final parallel aspect of the Bowdoin food experience and Bowdoin students is that of quality of life. Since eating is usually something you do every day, it often becomes easy to remain on autopilot and breeze through meals. Not at Bowdoin. If someone did a study, I'll bet that Bowdoin students spend at least half an hour more time at meals than any other student population in the entire country. This isn't just because of the fantastic food; it's also because meals are where students relive our universal ancestry as social omnivores who probably developed speech while ripping into roast mastodon legs around a fire. Over our food we find a common language of respect and appreciation. Meals at Bowdoin provide good food, stimulate the production of good ideas, and allow people to share the experience. We spend more time at meals, savoring the moment and ultimate sin cake. I can't tell you how many times tables of students will spontaneously burst into song, laugh hysterically, or start discussing some obscure passage from a book they're reading. To these loquacious students, to paraphrase Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, I would say, "if conversation be the food of love, speak on." Meals are that downtime between classes where the ideas sink in – we don't just talk about our paper due in two hours, but we argue about the existence of "to aardvark" as a verb, discuss the love life of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his wife as expressed through their letters, get incensed about new environmental legislation, and sometimes make history. On one notable occasion, a friend of mine ate one hundred and one mussels, five servings of steak, two servings of broccoli, one serving of pasta, and a piece of cheesecake during a two-hour dinner. Personalities emerge from the intensely social ritual of eating, lifelong friendships are made, possible significant others are courted and love blossoms over delicacies such as curried carrot soup. In fact, when I was studying abroad in Kenya, I found that the most romantic thing that you could say to your lover in Swahili was "nakupenda kama nyama choma," which translates as "my love for you is like roasted meat."
Bowdoin was the first college I ever toured, and two things about that tour really stand out in relation to Bowdoin's quality of life. My tour guide told us she wanted to "major in her professors," and said that they invited students over to their houses for dinner. That connection made all the difference for a person who reads Bon Appetit for fun and gets excited about courses in environmental politics. Nowhere else did I get such an enthusiastic response from tour guides, or anyone I talked to, about the quality of academic, social, and edible life on campus. Indeed, many of my best memories of Bowdoin have involved amazing professors and dinner conversations with friends that lasted for hours and ranged in topics from ostracism to Monty Python to ancient Greek ceremonies. Our luck in being a member of a community such as Bowdoin provides the privilege to partake of the spicy diversity in thought and experience that is Bowdoin's distinctive culinary and societal flavor.
I'd like to close my remarks today by quoting Henry David Thoreau, in one of his more controversial passages in his acclaimed book Walden. In the chapter titled "Higher Laws," Thoreau writes "I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for that wildness which he possessed." Although Thoreau himself was classically contradictory in describing and analyzing this impulse, I would urge Bowdoin students to continue to imbibe, offer libations to, and consume that wildness of mind, emotion, body, and spirit that empowers us all, in whatever fashion we choose and for which we are best suited. Keep nibbling on the delights of academic enrichment, sip the nectar of the common good, and inhale the aroma of fully baked ideas. All of these are glorious consumption in the metaphorical sense. Bowdoin has kept you alive and healthy to enjoy the fruits of your labors; honor its academic and physical nourishment as you continue on from this "small college in Maine." Enjoy your lobster.
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