It’s 5 p.m. on the dot, but already the line outside 150 York Street curves around the side of the building and flows onto the street. Every now and then a car horn honks to scare dawdlers off the road. It’s cold; drizzle comes and goes in gusts. January is not the month to be stuck in a stagnant rivulet of bodies, all humming and checking their iPhones and smartwatches while waiting for the line to creep forward. But once you transition from the chilly outside world to the carpeted interior of Yale on York, everything changes.
Food Conversations: Mindfulness is a branch of Yale Dining whose email advertisement invites students to “engage in an inspired and unique sensory dining experience.” Held every semester, it’s a welcome break from whatever your standard dining hall meal or salad bar combination might be. The lobby is dimly lit, casino-style, and someone offers to take my coat. We wander into the dining hall, limbs thawing, and the smell of saffron-coated mushrooms, saag paneer, and rice with a medley of spices I couldn’t hope to name hits the bedraggled Yalies like Living on a Prayer at the end of a long night out. The shuffle-speed goes up a few notches. Further in, a triple-tiered serving dish covered in open clams is spewing gauzy white vapor—we’re later told that the smoking effect is produced by liquid nitrogen. (Side note: Liquid nitrogen is used for the removal of malignant skin lesions, cryonic preservation of the deceased, and Yale Dining décor. And saffron, a spice derived from the stamen of a vivid purple crocus, is gram-for-gram worth more than gold.)
I pile my plate and head over to a table where a friend is waiting. At each place setting, there’s the usual assembly of cutlery, glasses, and plates—along with a sleeping mask. With no further instruction, we dig into the piles of naan and yoghurt-and-herb lassi found in miniature plastic cups. Suddenly, an incorporeal voice floats across the room. The disembodied words encourage us to smell, look, taste. The spice. The cinnamon and salt. “It’s winter. Leaves crunch underfoot. New England architecture is buffeted by cold rain,” the voice croons. We’re sitting close enough to the stage that if we stretch we can see world-renowned chef and author Elizabeth Falkner reading aloud from a notepad, hidden from view behind the projector screen. As I mop up the cranberry sauce with a torn corner of spiced naan and a server refills my water for the third time, Falkner jumps onto the stage, smiling and embarking on a quick recap of her star-studded culinary career for those who didn’t read to the very end of the Food Conversations email. The room claps as Falkner rattles off a repertoire of multi-media sensory experiences and delectable TV show hosting gigs.
Falkner vacates the stage, yelling a welcome to Sarah Girard, Mindfulness Guru and Movement Expert. Girard, in cowboy hat and sotto voce, leads us through a pre-dessert mindfulness exercise: “Breathe through one nostril. Now, close that nostril with a finger. Breathe through the other.” After a round of muted giggles, 200 or so Yalies obediently squeeze one nostril shut and then the other. The meditation culminates in an order to put on the sleeping masks. “Don’t cheat,” Falkner warns us. I didn’t. So the first mouthful of dessert was a genuine surprise: chocolate truffle, smoked salt grains clinging to the powdered flesh, cinnamon, and the licorice of aniseed. With all other senses muted, the flavors are amplified to religious experience.
I may be one of the few people on campus who reads their Yale emails consistently. It’s not that I’m a particularly methodical student or unusually interested in what Peter Salovey has to say. It’s more a case of conditioned behavior; the small print of the weekly email frequently brings edible events like this one into my consciousness. Perhaps I seek out the hallucinogenic quality of walking into Yale on York as a broke, unemployed, on-my-last-pair-of-clean-socks undergrad, and finding myself in a world where food is high art and celebrity chefs narrate your dinner. From the infamous opulence of the First-Year Dinner onwards, Yalies are engulfed in a form of lush life that occasionally reaches Zara Larson levels. Perhaps I’m drawn to these events because they’re little tears in the fabric of normalized Yale life through which you can see how utterly bizarre the norm truly is. Liquid-nitrogen-infused and replete with saffron and class consciousness, the Yale Dining Experience is not one to miss.