I recently washed up after a supper consisting of four kinds of vegetables from the farmers' market—all four of them vegetables I usually buy at the local right-minded supermarket. As I considered the vivid, distinctive flavor of every bite, I thought, What is that stuff I've been eating the rest of the year?
One of the twelve residential colleges at Yale University is trying to give students that kind of summertime epiphany at every meal, by serving dishes made from produce raised as close to New Haven as possible. In just two years the Yale Sustainable Food Project has launched two ambitious initiatives to bridge the distance from farm to table: the complete revamping of menus in Berkeley College's dining hall to respect seasonality and simplicity, and the conversion of an overgrown lot near campus to an Edenic organic garden. The garden does not supply the dining hall—it couldn't. Rather, it serves as a kind of Greenwich Mean Time, suggesting what is best to serve, and when, by illustrating what grows in the southern New England climate in any given week. The goal of the project is to sell students on the superior flavor of food raised locally in environmentally responsible (but not always organic) ways, so that they will seek it the rest of their lives.
A few dishes I tasted last summer during a pre-term recipe-testing marathon in Berkeley's kitchen convinced me that this goal is within reach for any college meals program willing to make an initial outlay for staff training and an ongoing investment in fewer but better ingredients. I would be happy to eat pasta with parsnips once a week, for example, the candy-sweet roots sharpened by fresh parsley and Parmesan. In fact, I demanded the recipe. Any restaurant would be pleased to serve fresh asparagus roasted with a subtle seasoning of balsamic vinegar and olive oil alongside, say, filet of beef. Even the chicken breasts, coated with black pepper, grilled, and served with a shallot, garlic, and white-wine sauce, tasted like chicken.
Not long ago a college would never have thought to mention food in a brochure or on a school tour—except, perhaps, in a deprecating aside. Now food is a competitive marketing tool, and by the second or third stop on the college circuit parents and students practically expect to be shown the organic salad bar and told about the vegan options and the menus resulting directly from student surveys. Yale has gone these colleges what I consider to be a giant step further, showing students what they should want and making them want it.
As caring about food has become inter- woven with caring about the environment, enjoying good food has lost some of the elitist, hedonistic taint that long barred gourmets from the ranks of the politically correct. The challenge, as with any political movement, is to bring about practical institutional change that incorporates ideals.
It's a very big challenge with college food, almost all of which is provided by enormous catering companies like Sodexho, Chartwells, and Aramark, the company that has run Yale's dining services since 1998. These companies have long offered vegetarian, organic, and vegan choices. But none of those options—not even, sadly, going organic—necessarily supports local farmers and local economies, or shows students how much better food tastes when it's made from scratch with what's fresh. Vegetarian, organic, and vegan foods can all be processed, overseasoned, and generally gunked up, and in the hands of institutional food-service providers they usually are.
The first step in showing that there is a better way is to give people something raw and ravishing, like a Sweet 100 cherry tomato or a ripe peach. The next step is to get them into a garden to pick tomatoes or sugar-snap peas or strawberries. This is often the deal-closer, which is why the activist and restaurateur Alice Waters worked so hard to create the Edible Schoolyard, a program that brings elementary school students into a garden and the garden into the curriculum and the cafeteria. Her decade-long effort at a pilot school in Berkeley, California, blossomed last June, when the school board voted unanimously to incorporate the Edible Schoolyard program into every one of its schools.
In college, gardens offer students the psychic and physical release of manual labor, and serve the invaluable purpose of distraction from term papers and exams. They can be laboratories for any number of classes, but their chief utility seems to be as a spiritual oasis. Middlebury College, in Vermont, has for two years supported a student-run organic garden that Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence there, calls in his forthcoming Wandering Home: A Long Walk Through America's Most Hopeful Region the most beautiful spot on campus. Some of the food from Middlebury's garden is served in the dining halls, and the dining service has instituted a buying program that favors local products when possible.
The Sustainable Food Project goes further, by serving seasonal dishes and local produce at every meal—the plunge other institutions hesitate to take. Changing the way a school orders and prepares food is an expensive, time-consuming ordeal. Students may say they want one thing and then eat another. Cooks are likely to be skeptical or downright hostile toward menus that may offer fewer items with fewer ingredients but require far more labor.
Given that Waters once got Bill Clinton fired up about planting an organic garden on the White House lawn, it was unsurprising that she proposed a student garden and better food when she first met Yale's president, Richard Levin. The occasion was a reception for freshmen and their parents in the fall of 2001; Waters's daughter, Fanny, had just arrived on campus, and the families soon discovered that both Fanny and the Levins' daughter Becca had attended the Mountain School of Milton Academy, in Vershire, Vermont, where high school juniors spend a term learning to farm organically. The master of the coincidentally named Berkeley College, John Rogers, signed on enthusiastically, and Waters recruited young people to help run both the new meals program and the garden. She also found a donor who anonymously underwrote the added expense of hiring directors for the project, planting the garden, and changing the college's food.
Like most programs in which Waters has been instrumental, the Yale Sustainable Food Project at a distance sounds high-minded and precious, conceivable only in a liberal redoubt like Berkeley or New Haven. Also like most programs Waters is involved in, the project up close is simple, earthy, and immensely appealing. All those ideals result in straightforward, perfectly fresh food you'd like to eat—and even wash up after—every day.
I found it hard to believe that really good food was being served at Yale. My memories of undergraduate food there were of working around it as best I could—spending a lot of time at the salad bar and cooking at friends' and advisers' houses whenever possible. The food at a reunion I attended a year ago was startlingly unmemorable—reunions, after all, are usually the time when schools put on the dog, to elicit donations along with memories of happy golden bygone days. The dark, sticky communal tables of Commons, the large building where freshmen took meals, certainly brought back memories, and so did the carrots devoid of flavor and the brown if-this-is-a-reunion-it-must-be-beef. It seemed improbable that even a force as relentless as I know Alice Waters to be could make much of a dent.