Amherst College is not known for its food. UMass Amherst, on the other hand, recently earned the distinction of having the country’s Best Campus Food, according to the Princeton Review. UMass is no stranger to this award; 2022 marks the sixth consecutive year that they have topped the rankings. So, with the country’s best dining hall food just a five-minute drive from Amherst’s campus, what student wouldn’t be curious as to what makes UMass the king of college dining? And, more importantly, is the food as good as everyone says it is? Last Friday, two of my fellow gastronomes and I decided to try it for ourselves.
To gain access to the Berkshire Dining Commons — one of UMass’s four dining halls — one either has to pay $17 per person or find a UMass student who is willing to part with one of their “Guest Swipes.” After ruling out the first option, my friends Joe Sweeney ’25, Ziji Zhou ’25, and I loitered outside the entrance before intercepting three freshmen who generously agreed to swipe us in. (Useful tip: Freshmen are more likely to have remaining “Guest Swipes” than upperclassmen.) And with that, the cornucopia that is the Berkshire Dining Commons was at our fingertips.
We completed two full laps around the expansive dining hall before deciding what to order, noting the elegantly flowing buffet tables and classy raised-table seating arrangements. Reflecting on his first impression of the dining hall, Joe recalled, “It smelled great. Ambiance was great. It was very well-constructed — I would say there was very much a high-class elegance.” In agreement, Ziji added that “it did not feel like a school cafeteria.”
Eventually, though, our appetites overwhelmed our curiosity. Berkshire Dining Commons has a seemingly endless (and sometimes overwhelming) selection of available foods — on Friday night, we could choose from the rotating Chef’s Table, which was serving pork chops and white fish; a sushi bar; a made-to-order stir fry station; wonton bowls; an international cuisine station offering chicken tikka masala and naan; and, of course, the classics: salad bar, pizza, mac and cheese, and herb-roasted chicken. (As Ziji noted, the fact that the pizza and mac and cheese — staples at Valentine Dining Hall — remained largely untouched in a remote corner of Berkshire told us everything we needed to know about the difference between UMass and Amherst dining.) Lastly, one cannot forget about the dessert options: bread pudding, pear cobbler, cranberry bars, and walnut brownies.
Amherst students familiar with UMass dining often describe the stir fry as epitomizing the larger school’s superiority, and it did not disappoint. Following Ziji’s lead, I ordered a stir fry — choosing my preferred veggies and protein — and watched as one of the two stir fry chefs prepared it in front of me. Together with warm white rice, available in adjacent rice cookers, I ate what was easily the best meal that I have had in the past five weeks. In addition to the fact that the stir fry was hot off the pan, the flavorful sauces, fresh vegetables, and tender chicken combined to form what I would declare a college culinary masterpiece.
Ziji, however, was not as impressed with his stir fry. While his specific complaint concerned the lack of variety in stir fry sauces — the only options being soy sauce and hot sauce — he pointed out that he was thinking of the “long-term” experience of eating at UMass: “Eating it once is great. Twice — great. Three times — good. Four times — not as good anymore. Five times — OK. It’s the same flavor with different ingredients in it, which is going to taste the same.”
Joe, who sampled the pork wonton — comprised of broth, lo mein, and vegetables — in addition to the stir fry and pork chops said that his only complaint was that the pork tasted a “bit dry” and that the bacon relish “did not saturate the pork.” Other than that, eating at UMass “was basically the greatest moment of my life in the past trimester,” Joe reported.
The UMass students that I talked to on Friday night echoed Ziji’s opinion of the UMass dining experience. Ruby, a sophomore at UMass Amherst, told me, “I feel like [Berkshire Dining Commons] definitely loses its appeal over time. Last year I feel like it didn’t, but even this year, it’s a really nice rotation and all of the food is really good, but it still is a rotation. So I feel like I get used to it.”
Ziji and Ruby touched on a universal human experience: When one eats a certain food enough times — even something as delicious as a UMass Amherst stir fry — it eventually loses its appeal. This phenomenon is described by the Wundt Curve, named after German philosopher Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt, which maps pleasure as a function of novelty. As the Wundt Curve predicts, experiences that lack novelty will lead to boredom and displeasure.
My takeaway, then, is as follows: How good a college dining hall is on an absolute scale does not matter as much as how well a dining hall curates an interesting and varied selection of meals. Case-in-point: Even the famed UMass dining hall gets old after a time. To create a pleasurable dining experience, the ability to choose from a wide variety of options becomes critical: “I think you have to make sure you’re switching up where you’re going and what you’re getting. Because if you get into a routine, it does kind of feel stale,” UMass sophomore Shane Williams explained.
As we left UMass, feeling so full from our multi-course meal that we did not even sample the dessert options, I asked Ziji and Joe for their final ratings. Ziji, trying to provide an objective rating, hypothesized that arriving to UMass on an empty stomach might have clouded his judgment of the food — he arrived in a “hot state,” as behavioral scientists would describe it. Ziji ultimately rated his meal a respectable 7 out of 10, while Joe rated his meal an impressive 9 out of 10.
Joe, in responding to Ziji’s rating, questioned, “What is the utility of the judgment?” That is, what purpose does it serve to find reasons for critiquing the meal? Why not focus on enjoying the experience? If you want the most accurate rating of the food, free of any bias, then Ziji’s response is likely more reliable. But, if you want the rating that captures the joy of eating at Berkshire Dining Commons, then Joe’s 9 out of 10 is surely the better rating.