Food for Thought

It is always great to have lunch with students. My wife Jessica and I host a “themed” lunch for students every month at the president’s house, and I try to do “drop by” lunches at Ross, Atwater, or Proctor whenever I can.

During my most recent lunch at Ross, I was able to test the no-tray eating experience, and while it was an adjustment, all the students to whom I made reference about our tray-less eating experience said it was no big deal-they “just put the salad on the meal plate and don’t take the salad bowl.” I found it awkward and uncomfortable, but it was my first try; students insisted it will become old hat after a few more lunches.

My lunch at Ross also reminded me of how good the food is at Middlebury. Of course I don’t recall such choices and quality of food when I was in college, and, to my knowledge, students appreciate the efforts of dining staff. One exception I heard about: the language tables—for those who are not familiar with this part of the language curriculum, these are tables where the language departments host daily lunches at which students and faculty speak in the target language. One of my fellow diners at lunch ate at Ross and then told me he was rushing off to the language tables. Seeing I probably thought he was going to eat two lunches, he quickly said: “one has to eat before eating at the language tables, because the food there is not as good as here.” I am eager to find out from my administrative colleagues why this might be the case. In the meantime, students who attend the language tables: what are your views on this? Is it really true that the food is so different?

During the most recent monthly lunch at 3 South Street, Jessica and I hosted a random subset of seniors who had studied last year at our School in China in Hangzhou. What a fantastic conversation those students sparked. It was refreshing to hear about their diverse experiences, their perspective on their studies, on China as a growing global power, on their Chinese roommates and friends, and on Chinese family life. The opportunities our students have when it comes to study abroad are simply breathtaking, and it is heartening to see how many take advantage of them. It is also rewarding to see the remarkable impact that a Middlebury-quality study abroad experience has on our students not only in terms of one’s education but also personally, something that each of the students spoke to with great passion.

Our last few lunches at 3 South Street—with senior geology majors, the captains of our spring season varsity athletic teams, students who studied abroad in Russia, students elected to Phi Beta Kappa as juniors, members of the Roosevelt Institution, graduating Posse students—as with our recent lunch with students returning from China, have given us the wonderful and incomparable opportunity to engage, through a small group of students, the extraordinary richness and diversity of student talent on this campus.


As a senior now, I can attest to what the other student said about language tables. It’s been that way for every year I have been here at Middlebury.

It’s common knowledge that the food at language tables is sub-par. It is not sub-par just every now and then, but rather, every single day. I certainly haven’t met a student who believed the food at language tables was better than the food at the other dining halls. I haven’t even met a student who thought the food at language tables was at the same level as the food at the other dining halls.

It was somewhat surprising to me when you actually asked in your blog entry if it were the case that the food at language tables is bad. Bad food is synonymous with language tables and everyone who goes there knows it.

As a result, students often eat at the three normal dining halls after the time for language tables has ended. Some students, if they have time like the student who spoke to you, eat before going to language tables because the food is so consistently bad that they already know it’s worth the time and energy required to go to a completely separate dining hall to eat before venturing over to language tables.

This is a shame since much effort (and I’m sure money) is poured into language tables. I believe that the language tables are a worthwhile endeavor and an interesting part of Middlebury life but in light of the food quality, the language table has turned from a positive activity to a negative one.

I remember back when I was required to go to language table twice a week for my language class that many of my fellow students actually dreaded (I’m not making this up) going to language tables because of the food quality. In fact, everyday we sat around those tables and complained about the food but of course, nothing was done about it.

If the food quality were raised a bit to even an acceptable level, if not to the same level as the other dining halls, then I believe many more students would go to language tables. In my personal experience, my friends and I have actually talked about going to language tables for fun (rather than as a class requirement) but ultimately our knowledge of the quality of food there deterred us every time we thought about going. It is a shame that such an interesting part of Middlebury has become so negatively perceived.

I don’t even eat at Language Tables and I know the food is bad. All of my friends and their professors complain about it!

I haven’t been to the language tables in two weeks because of the poor quality of food. And the two times that I have visited, I’ve had to visit Ross or Atwater afterwards.

Regarding the removal of the tray service from the dining halls: while the posters proudly and boldly advertise the environmental benefits of not having to accommodate 1.2-1.5 million individual “tray uses” per year, the poster completely overlooks the monetary impact. Not having the trays means savings on soap, hot water, staffing needs, dish washer maintenance, electricity, etc. Additionally, there are pertinent secondary consequences such as students now take less dishes and glasses, lessing the overall wash load, etc. It would be nice to know how this money is being reallocated. Overall, it seems that there have been a lot of cut backs in the quality of our dining experience campus-wide this semester, and it would be nice for the students to know how the college justifies that… otherwise we may start hearing crazy rumors, like that the administration is trimming expenses in order to channel funds into “anonymous donations” in order to take advantage of that $50 mil. matching donation before it expires.

While I wouldn’t say the language table food is spectacular, compared to the last couple of years I have sensed a strong improvement in the quality. If you have ideas for the language table or just any general concerns I know for a fact that the dining staff wants to hear them. They are incredibly responsive to the needs of students (we only have to look at the blizzard last year for proof of their dedication) and I know that everyone in the Chinese Department has been impressed with the improvement in the quality of the language table food. However if you are not, do get in contact with the dining staff or Matthew Biette (who is the dining head) and they would be happy to brainstorm ideas with you. That’s one of the benefits of going to a small college like Middlebury, when there is a will there is a way.

It’s disappointing to hear that students such as Robbie are judging the food at the language tables and seemingly have not even visited them recently. As someone who works at the language tables four or more times a week I have seen (and tasted) a great difference in the quality of food for the better this year. While I certainly do not claim that the language tables serve the finest gourmet meals, the staff is doing the best it can. Additionally, comparing it to the other dining halls is unfair because the language tables cannot ever hope to provide and serve such a variety of food as Ross, Atwater etc. This situation puts the staff in a bind because they have to try and cater to people who are at the tables everyday (teacher’s assistants and professors), who want some variety, and picky students, who may only eat at the table once a week.
So as Sam said if you have any ideas of how to improve the food let the staff know via email or comment cards and if you have not visited the tables yet this year please do.

Language tables are better than last year, and the year before, period. The food is served and presented with more style and attention to detail. The white table clothes, the attentive waiters and good wholesome food with at least one vegetarian selection, always a soup and something sweet, all make the experience a very pleasant way to learn a language while getting lunch in. Maybe some are turned off by the obligatory nature in some languages; but that is not the food, the quality of it and the hard work of those prepare and serve. I sometimes wonder if we are not just a bit too quick to criticize. I’m sure people in Dining Services care and will respond to thoughtful, constructive comments, but I have seen no food deprived students or faculty at language tables or anywhere else.

The concept of the Language Tables is in direct contrast with the dining rooms. You have table cloths, waiter service and a limited menu at the language tables. You eat with a professor and engage in conversation using a language you are studying. Many professors take this opportunity to introduce how a meal may be presented in a culture that the particular language is spoken.

Conversely, the dining rooms of Atwater, Proctor and Ross have choices and choices and choices. Each of the three has at least three entrees and you have an opportunity to create something else from the salad bar or in Proctor’s case, the Panini bar.

The dining rooms afford an opportunity to eat and run. The language table is a destination where food is but part of the experience. It should be treated as if you were actually “invited” to be there – as you would someone’s home. (from a conversation with language chairs)

The staff at FIC also takes care of producing all the dining events around campus in addition to five day per week lunches for the Language Tables.

The menu has been going through an evolution over the years it has been in FIC. At times, the students were happy and the professors were not. Other times, the professors were happy and the students were not. Thus far, this year, we have received extremely positive comments on the quality and selection from students AND faculty.

If you have not been to a Language Table lunch this semester, please make time to. If you want, select the day you would like to come by checking out the menu on the dining website. Language Table menus are just below Ross menus. Do know, that there is limited seating per language. And, if you have a comment, let us know what it is with a suggested change but understand the concept of the Language Tables.

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