The ominous “freshman 15” lurk in the back of many high school senior’s minds as they count down the days until graduation and college departure. Some foresee it as a curse credited to junk food, a mother-less atmosphere, and alcohol. Others look forward to the weight, seeing it as an inevitable piece of the college experience like a crappy dorm room or the classic all-nighter. From either perspective, the true pulp of the matter is food. Food fuels every scholar’s lifestyle. At Iowa State food comes in the forms of buffet-style dining centers, delivered pizza, the infamous Ramen Noodles, or the late-night-early-morning caffeinated beverage. The most interesting and diverse of these is the dining center. It is here that athletes are given limitless options and the vegetarian is appropriately catered to. The multitaskers eat alone in order to maximize their time management efficiency. Friends use this break to relieve stress about annoying teachers, the obnoxious roommate and next Monday’s test. Student-employees serve today’s special and continuously restock the salad bar. Alongside them are the enthusiastic dining-center managers who readily feed the hungry bellies of Iowa State and provide a nice balance to the less-perky student workers. Food is an element of the social environment in any place. A taste of someone’s personality is read by their eating rituals.
One student fills the biggest size of bowl with a mountain of lettuce. Dispersed within the leafy greens are tomatoes, carrots, sunflower seeds and other healthy morsels. All of which is thinly coated in a low-fat dressing. There are very few discrete ways to consume a salad. The leaves of water cress are never less than four square inches. This gives the diner an opportunity to exercise the cheek muscles as she attempts to eat the forkful without looking barbaric. There’s the occasional straggler that doesn’t make the trip but can quickly be caught. Healthy eating proves a difficult feat; both in mindset and salad-eating-ability.
The photograph reveals the more savage side to a vegetarian. But what it doesn’t show is the motives behind such habits. There’s no telling if this young lady either cares little of table manners or is merely engrossed in her work of art. What are her values and priorities that make this plant-focused diet so desirable?
Across the table from the veg-head sits the freshman still in awe at a soft-serve machine open for every meal, every day. His tray bears a pathetic salad compared to the health nut. The salad’s size is clearly justified by the need to save room for the mountainous cone to come. The end of every meal signals the kick-off of the “soft-serve-twist-tournament”. Students (peculiarly boys) line up to the dispensers and compete for the bragging rights of tallest ice cream cone. The o ccasional tower falls and few look DQ worthy. In the end, win or lose, every competitor’s prize is their dairy masterpiece. College scholars of all ages return to their childhoods. To the glory days of catching the “ding-ding man” and effortlessly consuming stuffed banana splits. There’s no way of licking an ice cream cone without remotely resembling a seven-year-old; but image means nothing to the exhausted competitors after a rough match.
Between the herbivore and the dessert champ sits the freshman taking advantage of the all-you-can-eat buffet. Salad bowls, pasta bowls, and burger baskets are crammed onto one tray framed by extra plates set on the table. Who wouldn’t want to enjoy meals from every culture? China, Italy, the American Midwest, and the local farmer’s market can all be experienced in the quaint ISU dining hall. With so many choices, it’s inevitable for the more worldly students to utilize their diverse platters. Yet, at the end of each dining experience, every dish sits half empty. What was at first a meal of numerous flavors and optimistic deliciousness; ends with an uncomfortable 19 year old in snug pants.Seated at the table next to these three typical ISU diners gathers a group of students less understood by the majority of the university’s occupants. “Multicultural” is a more blunt description. It’s a difficult task to try and interpret the situation from the outside. Photography leaves us with an example of the barrier existing in the world of art interpretation and the understanding of people. From the photographic aspect, an image can be read a number of ways. Its purpose is often unknown to the majority of viewers and held by only the creator. Barthes describes the annoyance found in not knowing the time factor of photography. He sees that as the punctum or piece of intrigue; not knowing what lies behind the image and the people depicted.
From the aspect of the dining arrangement, many students are comfortable with people sharing more familiar interests. Little effort is given toward interpreting and trying to understand others. What keeps these cultures apart? What is this barrier that withholds peers from exploring each other’s stories and ideas? One clear example is language. Translating requires patience and the will to interpret. Confiding in the native language is so much more appealing in terms of comfort and simplicity.
This task of definition seems more taxing than comfortably enjoying the company of those more easily read. The true personality behind those at the table is known only within the table. What can be explored is only revealed to those taking the time to do such. One can take a photograph for its visible value or attempt to dig deep into the values of the photographer.
While the eating arrangements and habits of Iowa State University reveal mountains of insights to personalities and lifestyles of its students, there’s only so much open for interpretation. The situation can be approached multiple ways: the “ignorance is bliss” mentality or genuine curiosity about the fibers that create a table. A table is indescribable from both the inside and out. Numerous components and personalities interweave themselves and form a unique cozy cloth of patches, fringe, and the occasional ice cream stain. This cloth (or table cloth) is surrounded by the athlete, the vegetarian, the over achiever, and countless indescribable beings coexisting in the sacred dining center.
While the table cloth includes many colors and patterns, the dining hall holds an equivalent array of individuals. Each patch provides only a subtle taste of the person’s values and ideas. What one loads onto their tray similarly serves merely hints to someone’s insides. Food brings people together. It connects people of common interests and introduces others from separate backgrounds. A meal serves countless more purposes than the filling of one’s stomach. It’s infinite shapes, textures, sizes, and colors feed the many shapes, textures, sizes and colors of people and their many tastes.