Monday Nights at the Round Table

Throughout January, as students, staff and faculty adjust to the change in pace of J-term, the editorial staff of Middlebury Magazine is making its way around the campus to discover just what goes on during this month.

From the moment you walked in the door, last Monday night’s dinner at Atwater had a different vibe.

For one thing, Atwater Dining Hall isn’t usually open for dinner. For another, all of the dishes on the menu were prepared using mostly Vermont ingredients. And, there were checkers at the entrance – an unusual occurrence – because only the first 200 students who signed up would be admitted.

So, what’s going on here? Why the different atmosphere? There could only be one answer. It’s J-term at Middlebury College.

Monday’s all-local foods dinner was the third in a series of four special meals sponsored by the Middlebury College Activities Board and Dining Services. The first two were Greek and Hawaiian, and the last one on January 24 will feature Chinese cooking.

The menu for Local Foods Night at Atwater included Misty Knoll turkey with stuffing and gravy, Boyden Farms strip loin of beef au jus, Vermont cheese tortellini with wine sauce or Alfredo sauce, mashed Vermont potatoes, sautéed Vermont carrots and chard, and the College’s own home-baked bread and spice cake dessert.

“This beef is the best meal I’ve had on campus this year,” said Jared Pomerance ’11 as he put away his third helping of roast beef. “It’s as good as restaurant food, maybe even better because I can keep going back for seconds.”

James Otis, an Atwater cook

Pomerance was sitting with his Atwater Residence Hall suitemates, Gordon Hildick-Smith and Gabe Lane, at a big round table with a sweeping view of the crowd inside the seven-year-old dining hall.

“It does a lot to boost student morale to have good food like this in the dining hall once in a while,” Hildick-Smith added.

Lane, meanwhile, focused on what it meant to eat dinner in Atwater again. (After the economic crisis in 2008, the College reduced its use of Atwater as a money-saving measure.) Said Lane, “The student body is a little bit bitter about Atwater being closed for dinner, especially since there’s been an economic recovery. So the fact that they’ve been using Atwater for these Monday night dinners does a lot to make people think that the school is bringing back some of the perks we enjoyed as freshmen or sophomores.”

“When we were freshmen we always said that we wanted to live in the Atwater suites and eat in Atwater Dining Hall,” Pomerance recalled. “Well, at least half our dream came true.”

Over at another table, Anne Runkel ’11 was sitting with four friends. “Eating in Atwater just feels more like a family-style meal to me. It’s cool to have themed dinners like the Greek food or local food because, if you think about it, that’s what people do at home.”

Joining Runkel at the table were three first-year students from Wonnacott Commons: Ali Lewis, Rachel Sider, and Simran Sabharwal. They were discussing how much they enjoy the change of pace during Winter Term, when they take only one class and can afford to spend more time hanging out after meals. “I just love the round tables in here,” Sabbhawal said. “It’s so comfortable in Atwater. I wish we could eat here more often.”

The head chef for the event was Darren Zeno, who was a source of constant motion for all 90 minutes of the dinner, whether he was checking on a big pot of simmering tortellini, filling up the gravy boats, adding a pinch of spices to the stir fry, or answering a reporter’s questions. “It’s awesome for us to be using Atwater Dining Hall this way,” he said. “The atmosphere during J-term is so much more relaxed for us and for the kids.”

There was, however, one place in the dining hall that seemed to be unaffected by J-term. In the dish room, Rebecca Vaudrien was busy rinsing plates, separating compost from trash, and stacking the dishwasher. As the conveyor belt kept bringing her a nonstop supply of dirty dishes, glasses, and silverware, she said, “I can’t really say that anything’s different back here. It’s always busy, but I love it anyway. Middlebury’s just a great place to work!”

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