Exercises in Thought: I Love Eating in Val!/Eat in Val: It’s good for you.

Exercises In Thought Columnists Joe Sweeney ’25 and Tim Carroll ’25 contemplate the pleasures of eating in Val in our post-to-go box era.

Sweeney: "I Love Eating in Val!"

I love eating in Val!

How terrible to-go boxes were. Well, I shouldn’t say that. There are a great number of reasons why the college should not have so unilaterally removed them from our eating lives. When I say they were terrible, then, what I mean is that I could in no way apply the best of these reasons to myself, and that, on the contrary, to-go boxes inspired in me the most anti-social of inclinations.

Yes, I admit it now with no small shame: For my first two years at Amherst College I was a Val hunter-gatherer. Every meal (excepting only a biweekly omelet) I would cram all the food I could fit into my biodegradable to-go box and walk back to my Charles Pratt or Cohan dorm room to enjoy myself in their silence and softer light.

It’s not as if I dislike eating with others. Rather, one of the first things I discovered in my time at Amherst College was that not only did I need to be alone (I already knew that), but that I needed to be alone in different respects. Much of the day I spend alone by default, in the sense that it would be too difficult to complete certain tasks in the company of others — studying, reading, writing. But at other times, when engaged in some act where accompaniment is more plausible — quintessentially, eating — it is important to me that I instead have the option to abstain.

So, when the end of the to-go box was first announced — so shockingly, so abruptly — I was understandably anxious. Where else would I find an outlet for the voluntary solitude I required? Yet even this complaint did not touch the still more fundamental problem, which was that, stripped of my to-go box, I no longer set the terms of my own eating. Inevitably I saw myself confined to dining at some too-early hour of the night (in the night I am hungry!); crowded in some booth on both sides; conversing on some inconvenient subject (I don’t mind talking to you, but we’re both doing something right now — eating — and we could be doing it a lot better if we weren’t speaking). Despicable, despicable conditions!

But my worries were for nothing, for less than nothing. I interned on campus over the summer and slowly became acclimated to having my every meal in Val. Among my summer friends, both those long familiar to me and those that had just turned from strangers, all my cares evaporated. How could I have deprived myself of this joy for so long? I love eating in Val!

Do you see me now? There I am, in the front room, parsing the garlic green beans mixed in with my autumnal beef stew. There I am, at the toppings bar, enshrouding my hotdog with a slice of swiss cheese. There I am, in Russ, mincing the scrambled eggs I oversalted as that boat hangs like a flaming sword high above my head … there, there, there! Do you see me? I am alone! All alone!

And what’s more: My friends are sitting right over there, in the easternmost booth, with a seat saved just for me! And I, leaving the soda fountain, give them a small wave — and then sit down to enjoy my meal at this empty table! How glorious!

How good it is! See for yourself, the next time you walk into Val. Say hello to Reneé, or Laura, or Agnes as you scan your ID; stand in one lunch line and then shuffle off to the other in a senseless gamble to get your food fifteen seconds faster than you might have otherwise; compile a salad of familiar decadence whose name you no longer recall; lean at the coffee bar with your back to the espresso machine while possessed of a certain cool melancholy; and then, passing on your way, come upon those incredible people to whom you owe the greatest respect and admiration you have known in your entire life — see then how good it is, to smile at them, gently, as if to say, No, my dear friends, we will not be friends today. And so ascend to the mezzanine.

I promise I am in earnest. If my joy falls strangely on your ears it is only because, like any honest joy, it is not for everyone. Well, I shouldn’t say that. Let me account for myself like this: You remember the early days of the pandemic, yes? I do — the shutdowns, the uncertainty, the disappointments. But straying a little from that beginning, I find a period of memory where the distinct markers fade, and all I recall is a fog textured by the countless meals I ate by myself.

So much lost time … when I am alone in a silent room my thoughts are too clear, and the haze of that time disperses before me. Sitting alone in Val, listening to its dull hum, the rise and fall of its bustle, at once belonging to it and yet set just a little ways away — this is the closest I’ve come to the feeling of those lost days. I can’t help but feel there is something good in that.

But that’s all rather gloomy. I would do better in convincing you to share my joy if I simply asked that you watch with me all the things which pass before us now. Go ahead, take a seat! … no, not here. At that table, just behind you. Good! Now: See how much there is to see! There, the girl wearing, with a matching white faux-fur Patagonia, stickered headphones and talking to her friend (how does she hear her?); the conservatively-shaven guy gulping longingly from his stout Stanley Quencher; the lone sketcher, hair fixed in a fastidious bun, who at seven minute intervals reaches into their handbag to work with some more adequate utensil …

The psychology major impatiently awaiting her friend’s finishing of her survey; the economics major refreshing his LinkedIn page; the history major, fretting over some unprovable claim concerning the transition from the Sengoku to the Edo period, with her head in her hands …

The swim team, the divers, the hockeyists, the footballers. The track stars, the squashlings, the crewmates, the ultimate frisbeers. The cellists, the trumpeters, the flutists, the harpers. The hair-netted hot food servers, the purple-capped woman who replaces the soda syrup, the dishsprayers in their efficient line ...

The dancers, and the painters of the dance … the actors and the stagehands who lead them … the writer, how does she eat? And the one who writes no longer, how does he eat?

Do you, too, wonder? Do you see this, all of this?

No — you see something different, don’t you? Something utterly different.

Tell me! I need you to tell me, that is why I’m here! I was made to need you! … no, what am I saying … that can’t be right (can it?) … let me get my omelet … I will eat my omelet, and we will see then if I need you. We will see.

Carroll: "Eat in Val: It’s good for you."

To avoid mischaracterizations of my argument, I will start by stating the obvious: Students who have accommodations for to-go boxes should still have access to them. I’m not here to tell people otherwise.

With that out of the way — finally, to-go boxes are gone! I’ve heard countless students doomsay in the wake of the change, pronouncing the impossibility of adapting to such a disruption to dining services. How in God’s name will we survive? Well, something about the fact that, for the vast majority of the 80+ years that Val has been around, Amherst students have done just fine without to-go containers makes me think we’ll be just fine. My estimate is that, after a couple years when those of us with lofty memories of to-go boxes graduate, the whole issue will hardly cross students’ minds (save for its potential as an archaeological news oddity).

What I wish to defend is the norm that people at the college should generally all eat their meals at the same place, and that trying to do otherwise should be inconvenient but not impossible. I am personally indifferent to people who want to go the extra mile to smuggle food out in personal tupperware containers. Removing to-go boxes for the vast majority of people increases the effort required such that it renders eating in Val the norm.

What does it mean for a small college to have one dining hall? It means that, theoretically, students from diverse (or “diverse”) backgrounds get to intermingle, sharing perspectives and having heart-to-hearts. It means that friend groups collide in magnificent and beautiful ways. It means that you can never avoid running into someone you know. Of course, it also means that you might see your ex, or worse, every day. It means people still might sit in the same spot every night and avoid branching out to new groups. And it might mean you can never avoid running into someone you know.

To dwell on the diversity point: The kinds of benefits that arise from a diverse community only come about when people actually talk to each other across boundaries. While it’s not the case that getting more people into Val will necessarily get them talking to diverse groups — well noted is the tendency for students to self-segregate, for both good and bad reasons — it is true that making it easy for students to completely divorce themselves from the community will make it harder for everyone to reap the benefits of the diversity of that community. Insofar as that is true, you might have a moral obligation to eat in Val. (Haha!)

Thus, what we lost in convenience we have gained in the potential for community building. There’s no doubt that, sometimes, I am in a rush for something and I can’t sit down to eat a full lunch. Maybe I really love that night’s dinner and I want to save some for later. Without broad to-go box access, these situations become possibly unsolvable. But I think it is contrary to Amherst’s mission to enable students to further atomize themselves instead of interacting with each other at the true heart of Amherst’s campus: Valentine Dining Hall (sorry my dear Zü friends).

True, I’ve had nights where I felt dreadfully antisocial. I still get nervous walking into Val, wondering if I can find someone to sit with — I’ll be pacing around Val with my hands full of food, my backpack loaded on, my jacket wrapped around me, the stress of the search up and down the stairs and into Russ and back to the front room forming a band of perspiration across my forehead. I can’t get caught dead eating alone, jeez. What a bizarre social norm. It’s perfectly normal to eat alone.

But why is it that we value eating together? College should be a place to socialize us for the real world. Although it undoubtedly fails us in many aspects by continuing to baby us (the paid laundry service comes to mind, and, actually, we don’t even have to cook our own food!) one key aspect of the world and of being in community with others is, surprise surprise, talking to other people, particularly over meals, and talking to others perhaps even when you don’t want to. But such a risky argument I’m making! Advocating against something that college students enjoy by appealing to their ‘best interest’ is perennially difficult. At the very least, I think the skills I mentioned are worth developing because of how social the real world is (or should be). To that extent, I think it’s a fair norm that eating in the dining hall, with others, is the default option.

Now to pick a fight with the editorial board from last year: as I see it, the only objection that holds water is the simple case of the student without an accommodation, but who, for some reason or another, could still find the occasional to-go container instrumental.

What if the weather is beautiful? Sure, I wish there were better outdoor seating options. Maybe, if the new student center improves anything, that could be one of them.

What about students who can’t fit it in their schedule? Breakfast and lunch are two and a half hours long, and dinner is three and a half. Being able to schedule time for self-care (and what is eating besides one of the highest forms of self-nourishment?) is something that Amherst espouses ad nauseam. I’m skeptical that someone can’t find at least 30 minutes among these windows to eat, especially on a regular basis. If not, they are probably due for reevaluating their priorities, or improving their time management (is that not a valuable life skill to develop in college?). If you’re that gargantuanly busy and unwilling to compromise, just get Grab-n-Go.

Finally, there are students who may avoid Val due to various kinds of social fears. Seeing someone specific whom you really don’t want to is an unfortunate effect of this system, and I don’t have a good answer to that. But for the student who is generally just a bit anxious, providing an easy option for people to avoid potentially fear-inducing situations may prevent them from actually confronting their fears in the first place. I will again remind readers of the first paragraph of this article, just in case. I’m not one to say that people who have debilitating social anxiety should be forced to eat in Val. If it’s distressing enough to warrant clinical intervention, that’s something else entirely. (And if the issue is with getting accommodations, that’s the system that should be targeted for change, not to-go boxes. Such a push would probably have even broader positive effects.)

But let’s not lose the forest for the trees. This article has centered on defending an idea that particular goods arise from having one dining hall where students from diverse backgrounds congregate to break bread together. These goods prepare us for the real world and help us grow as people. The college providing readily accessible to-go boxes ran counter to this idea. While we should still keep to-go boxes for those that have accommodations (for those who need them) I think we can level with ourselves and recognize that there are distinct goods that come from this norm.

There are people at Amherst, in my class, that I still haven’t met yet. I think this is a little sad. I don’t doubt that part of this is because to-go boxes have enabled people to cave into their antisocial tendencies and avoid the hub of campus life. If you see me in Val, come say “hi” and join me. It’s not like you can take your food to-go anyways …