Feeding the creative underbelly of academia: or why food really matters at a university

Its quarter to seven in the evening and the streets of Cambridge are busy with black-gowned Fellows swooping like bats into their Colleges. What force has torn these great minds away from their books and compelled them to attend dinner? After six years at a Cambridge College, I can promise you that its not the quality of the food; College food is described best as “hearty” and often as something quite else.

The Fellows attend these dinners – once or twice a week – for the stuff, the human stuff, that goes on around the ritual of a communal meal. Conversation over a pre-dinner dry sherry in the Senior Combination Room is shot through with jokes, one-up-manship, gossip (in heaps), and tales recounted. Research is seldom mentioned, not whilst sober.

A College dinner, so much more than food.

A College dinner, so much more than food.

Sometimes these College dinners seem like the last echo of the “Great Halls” of the Anglo Saxon tradition, where the local Thane would gather his men around to share stories of battle or songs of distant lands.

Dining at King's College circa 1900. Okay, its a bit of a boy's club.

Dining at King’s College circa 1900. Okay, its a bit of a boy’s club.

What a College dinner does in its subtle, timeless way is bring different people together; the Fellows in attendance will come from a wide range of departments at the university. Often they will include a guest from another university or institution.

Whilst  such forums are undoubtedly powerful for seeding the holy grail of “interdisciplinary research”, their productive blacker side should not be omitted; there’s nothing like hearing another Fellow drop in to conversation that the Queen of Jordan is attending the launch of his latest book to spur another Fellow on to bigger and better things (that very same evening).

I now switch to my current predicament where I am attempting to order a lunch for a remarkable group of researchers who will gather at my university in the snowy north for one day to discuss how they might influence the development of a city for the better. Big stuff – but it is challenging to get hold of a sandwich for these people, let alone a three course dinner followed by port, cheese and nuts. The university rules don’t allow it; food for researchers is a perk, not a requirement, according to the authorities. I would argue the opposite.

The shared meal is as essential to a thriving university as the books in its libraries. It is the medium through which relationships are formed and these relationships are the basis of new insights or inspirations. The food doesn’t have to be fancy,  a well organised morning coffee can fill the gap, but a commitment to supping together has to be there*.

And today many universities are increasing their facilities for eating; I commented on LSE turning many of its ground floor facilities over to food in a previous blog. Several Dutch universities have “campus food strategies”. What these banal canteen-based solutions miss is the vital point that academic eating is about much more than the availability of food, its about the ritual of a sharing food. Ideas are spun when people sit down together and engage in meals that unroll slowly, often without agenda or direction.

The working sandwich lunch; never quite the same

The working sandwich lunch; never quite the same

This week another newspaper piece was written on the global success of the University of Cambridge, commenting that governments come from around the world in order to attempt to copy its formula. The great shame is that these delegations seldom stay for dinner – and this is the real secret of Cambridge’s success.

* An important gripe about the Cambridge dining system is that its difficult for female fellows – or fellows with young children – to attend evening meals on a regular basis.

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