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The illusion of choice in the land of the free

Matt Roberts contemplates the variety (or lack thereof) of eateries at Dartmouth College

Dartmouth College is one of the oldest institutions of higher education on the North American Continent, nestled in the verdant New Hampshire countryside in a crook of the Connecticut River. The college was founded in 1769, originally intended as a cornerstone of a proselytising mission to convert the indigenous population of New England. The tiny town of Hanover, with a population of 12,000, is comprised of a single high street, and utterly defined by the college which grows like a vast carbuncle out of it.

I was lucky enough to spend my summer at Dartmouth, on an exchange programme run by my college. The teaching style was the biggest shock – as a Liberal Arts college, all students take three subjects every term, as widely ranging as History, Chemistry and Psychology. What’s more, there are no big final exams at the end of your degree, as every class is examined cumulatively every single term. However, the change that hit hardest was the food, which was utterly bizarre.

Initially, food at Dartmouth seemed like a sort of dream – an all-you-can-eat buffet all times of the day, a boutique bakery at the entrance of the library, a late night cafe with fried chicken and smoothie machines. All of this food could be eaten anywhere on campus, including inside the libraries, which took a novel Google Campus feel, with beanbags, sofas, whiteboards and, most strikingly, no silence policy.

The main dining area was called ‘Foco’, a shortening of food court, because its official title, ‘The Class of 1953 Commons’ doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. The dining hall was vast, with a dozen or so serving stations offering endless sustenance for wide-eyed undergraduates. The predominant theme was that everything was slightly too sweet, perhaps a reflection of American propensity for high-fructose corn syrup. My highlight was Sunday morning brunch, which featured scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, crisp back bacon, black coffee, and freshly squeezed orange juice. However, for every surprisingly nice plateful of food, there was also a disappointing one – unchewably tough beef, tongue-searingly salty chili, and vegetables consistently cooked to an unstructured mush.

Whilst Foco was hit-and-miss at best, King Arthur’s Flour, the boutique Vermont based bakery, offered an incredible start to every day. Over the summer I became addicted to their caesar salads, with crisp lettuce, tart, anchovy-rich sauce, and croutons which had a hint of garlic, and a faultless crunch without the sandy texture or excess oil that dooms many croutons to the culinary wayside. Equally, their cinnamon rolls balance delicately flakey pastry with thick icing – the lightness of the base avoiding the Cinnabon density that cinnamon rolls so often suffer from.

However, the really interesting thing about dining at Dartmouth is that your options are so limited. There are a handful of fairly expensive restaurants on the high street, and the supermarket has a rather narrow selection of produce available. This is at its most apparent when it comes to fresh fruit – one of the few places to buy fruit is the small on-campus mart, where I was able to find a pitiful punnet of raspberries for $7 – I’d expect to pay a pound at most for a similar container back home. This question of cost is one of the most important underpinning the Dartmouth dining experience – everybody on campus has to opt into the College Dining plan. The least expensive meal plan costs $1,400 a term. Due to limited kitchen facilities, there simply is nowhere else to eat, so this becomes unavoidable even if it wasn’t compulsory. It is a system that only rewards eating as much as possible, as everybody pays the same for access to the buffet dining hall – I can think of a lot of rugby players in Oxford that would love this system, but for the majority it only seems to lead to unnecessary waste, and unnecessary cost.

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