These days, the thought of shared meals, in which families or friends regularly gather around tables to eat and converse leisurely, seems about as old-fashioned as a rotary phone.
In the fast-paced world of 2010, diners are more likely to grab a sandwich to go, or eat at their desks, in their cars, while walking, or even on public transit en route to their next engagements.
The Harvard Divinity School (HDS) is hoping to change that dining dynamic in a small way with its new community table at the School’s Rock Café.
Introduced this fall as a way to bring people together around shared meals, the table was the idea of Harvard University Hospitality and Dining Services (HUDS), and was backed by the café’s food advisory committee, a group of students and staff who regularly meet to discuss ways to improve the eating experience at the newly renovated dining space in Rockefeller Hall.
“We wanted to find a way to differentiate ourselves from other dining experiences nearby,” said Ralph DeFlorio, director of operations for Harvard Divinity School. “There is a tradition in a lot of other divinity schools where they have a refectory type of setting with community tables and shared meals, so we thought that was something we could bring back to the Rock Café.”
An added goal, said DeFlorio, was to create largely sustainable meals, a mission that has been accomplished with the help of produce from the School’s new community garden located across the street behind the dean’s house, to the side of the School’s Center for the Study of World Religions.
Faculty, students, and staff can reserve the table for family-style meals for $5.95 per person. The food is specially prepared by the café staff.
On Monday (Oct. 18), members of the café’s advisory committee took advantage of the chance to eat and chat with a special guest, author and noted chef Mollie Katzen, who is also a member of the Harvard University Hospitality and Dining Services advisory committee.
Katzen was on campus during the week for a series of lectures and cooking events. Her vegetarian ethos was behind the table’s meal of the day, a lunch of spice-crusted tofu cutlets, black bean sliders, bulgur pilaf, and marinated broccoli and mushrooms with walnuts.
In a discussion about how to best introduce vegetarian options to the café’s menu, Katzen urged the committee to come up with a slogan that could convey a sense of the possible.
“We still have a long way to go. Unfortunately, people still perceive [the concept of] ‘meatless’ as something that is being taken away,” she said, encouraging the committee to “find a phrase about giving people more, rather than taking something away.”
The popular chef, who styles herself as pro-vegetable as opposed to anti-meat, was thrilled to see the committee members all seated at the same table.
“There’s a whole generation coming up who don’t eat at tables,” said Katzen. She praised HDS for its effort to revitalize “the whole art of sitting down together, eating at a table.”
Martin Breslin, HUDS director for culinary operations, agreed.
“People seem to love it,” he said of the new table arrangement. “It’s the ‘real food’ experience from a community perspective.”
Organizers hope to expand the table’s reservations and envision it becoming a regular meeting space for departments and groups around the School.
“I think people are very passionate about food here,” said DeFlorio. “It’s a big part of the culture and the environment, and this [table] is something that connects people together, with food.”
“I love sitting down to have a communal meal with people,” said committee member and HDS student Grace Egbert. “This is a much more meaningful and enriching experience, … much more than getting a sandwich from the cooler.”