Over the past several weeks, the President’s Office and the Office for Conferences and Special Events have organized a series of dinners intended to encourage students to engage outside their comfort zones and standard social groups. Conceived by a member of the Class of 2013, these gatherings are a unique opportunity to attend a small, elegant dinner dressed in your finest clothes. The evening consists of fancy meals (you know they are fancy when you can’t pronounce the name) and professionally selected wines. The other students at your table are a mix of many academic disciplines, which certainly makes for interesting conversations.
Normally, I would scoff at the thought of these dinners, for several reasons: the ridiculously small amount of food served on a giant plate; the pretentiousness of people who talk about high-class culture; the fear that I’ll spill something on someone’s $5,000 shoes; the fact that I still don’t know which fork is the salad fork.
The night started out like any other night at Amherst: having awkward small talk with people when all you could think about is, “Do these people even go here?” We had about 30 minutes to walk about the room and mingle with other students but naturally, we all stood in a giant circle as if we were about to play a game with a giant beach ball. I believe the organizers of this event must have anticipated the presence of “The Amherst Awkward,” because servers started to hand us glasses of champagne. I’m pretty sure it was bottomless champagne, because everyone in my small group had about six glasses (we would have kept going, but it was time to take our seats at assigned tables).
“Oh no!” I thought, “I’m being separated from my friends and now I won’t have anyone to talk to at my table.” I think the point was to separate me from my friends. I only recognized one other person at the table, and that’s only because he sits across from me in my English class. We sat in silence for about three minutes and someone finally had the courage to introduce himself. That’s always the easy part, isn’t? Major. Class Year. Hometown. It’s like we’re trained to say that the first moment we meet someone at Amherst.
After these introductions the only thought in my head was, “Oh dear God, there are three forks, three spoons and three knives. Come on, Christian, just pick one and start eating the salad that is in front of you!” I looked around my table and noticed that no one else had the slightest idea of which fork to use. I was starting to think that everyone at the table probably had the same reservations about coming to this dinner. I actually had to ask one of my friends (who was a server) which fork I should use. I was starting to see that this dinner was a learning experience. It’s better to have asked your friend about the fork thing now than when you are at a dinner with the CEO of Bain Capital.
I should mention that every course of the meal was paired with a fantastic wine. The young asparagus and wild arugula (aru-what?!) came with a Castello Banfi pinot grigio, San Angelo 2011. My table poked fun at the fact that people are extremely picky about wine. We were saying things like, “Oh, this wine really has a sour hop that is reminiscent of [insert fancy wine here].” The next course, fava beans and potato dumplings, was paired with a Sonoma Coast chardonnay (2010). This wine was also really good, and we actually had the chef come and describe some of the wines to us. The last course, a delicious chocolate shortcake, was paired with Vietti’s Moscato d’Asti (2011). What is it with these names that I can’t pronounce? Nevertheless, this wine was my favorite and everyone at the dinner seemed to agree. It had a really sweet taste (look at me, I’m already becoming a wine critic!).
This was a fantastic experience, and I got to know a lot of students to whom I wouldn’t normally talk (mission accomplished). Chris Friend ’14, the student introducing the dinner and the faculty, said that this dinner was also a way for students to safely drink in a more sophisticated manner. To that I say, “Why the endless bottles of champagne and wine?”
In all seriousness, this dinner was a great cultural experience. Not only did I make new friends, but I also changed my previously held assumptions about these types of dinners. I learned proper table etiquette and that bottomless champagne isn’t a license to get wasted. Growing up means being able to go to a social event and sip — not chug — on classy wines. And I know a lot of people might criticize this event as a form of “Amherst elitism,” but it’s actually a great experience. Even if you will never go to another elegant, sophisticated, high-class dinner, it’s always interesting to hear other people’s stories: what makes them sad, what makes them happy and what they are passionate about. And hey, now I know the salad fork is the smallest one on the end.