East Quad, I love you
Growing up at my house, we were taught about the Italian table from an early age. While definitions for the Italian table greatly differ, in my childhood it meant our dining room table was used as a means for celebrating every night as we sat down for dinner. The luxury of growing up in the food industry with a father as a chef and restaurateur is that no matter what kind of day you’ve had, there’s always the Italian table — one that means family, good food, passion and love to come home to. The luxury of growing up in the food industry is that a meal isn’t about sustenance, it’s about the art that is good flavor and fresh ingredients.
Aug. of my freshman year of college, I arrived to Ann Arbor with the intense desire to be independent — a schedule packed with theatre classes, a roommate from Macomb and an unlimited meal plan. As the daughter of a restaurateur and foodie, the idea of a dining hall was the opposite of romantic. In giving up my childhood and moving far away from the home I knew on the East Coast, I also gave up the comfort of knowing my father’s cooking was as omnipresent as a god. I never had to worry about feeding myself, planning out my meals or cooking for myself until I moved away.
I never realized what weight this would carry until my parents kissed me goodbye and left me in East Quadrangle with a laundry bin, a few tears and a final goodbye. The first challenge I had to face as an 18-year-old college freshman who had been absolutely spoiled when it comes to culinary art my entire life, was that I was scared of the dining hall.
I wasn’t scared of the dining hall, per say — I was just infatuated with my father’s cooking and the three restaurants I’d left behind. And that longing and sadness and melancholy was misplaced onto the place that had replaced the Italian gourmet extravaganza that was suddenly very far away. East Quad’s dining hall was supposed to be my new oasis. To say I was hesitant in my first few visits through the wooden doors into the place I was rather quick (and wrong) to judge is an understatement. I tried to think solely of the independence I so desperately wanted and how not relying on my parents for meals was a step in that direction. Yet I couldn’t get past the overwhelming desire I had to be seated at our Italian table. A lesson my father instilled in me since childhood, a table set for one less than usual.
My first month continued to be an overwhelming mix of trying to find a place in a University so large and a sadness with the entrance into the dining hall I had taken up arms against. I hated the East Quad dining hall. I didn’t want to have to eat there — I didn’t want to eat dinner in a place that didn’t have our beloved Italian table, that foundation of celebration and support and dialogue and the ingredienti primo.
But on a day in Oct., I changed my mind. I walked into the East Quad dining hall with my regular attitude toward its crowded interior and distinct aroma of grease and spice. But I left with quite possibly the best friend I’ve ever made, and quickly fell head over heels for those linoleum floors and the kingdom that is everything from the beloved gluten free toaster to the coveted polyester booths.
I was introduced to my now best friend in East Quad’s dining hall that night, and I never ate there with hesitancy again. There was no reason for me to ever hate a place that could bring me that kind of gift. Clearly, an East Quad hamburger isn’t my dad’s hamburger, and East Quad pizza isn’t the pizza I know from home, and my brothers aren’t there and neither are my dogs, lying at my feet.
But they aren’t supposed to be.
That year was supposed to be uncomfortable and weird, as being a freshman in college is, and I was supposed to have a really strange month of just floating, desperately longing for something that was a part of my childhood but I wasn’t ready to admit wouldn’t look identical as I grew older. I had to open myself up to growth and experience and scary things to find the beauty and love and happiness. I had to hate that dining hall to love it with every fiber of my being. I was supposed to hesitantly approach it and try to ignore the nagging feeling of being lost. I was supposed to become eventually unnecessarily attached to the stir fry bar that came every so often and always had a line. I was supposed to find out that my best friend would eat banana peppers from the salad bar every day. I was supposed to sit there with her for hours on some Friday nights and eat bowls of cereal. She is the Go Lean Crunch to my Honey Nut Cheerio. An entire year of exams and parties and late nights and tears and new friends and mistakes. An intensely terrifying, yet ultimately satisfying, notion that you may feel alone but you are not was broken up and softened and comforted by Meatless Mondays, extra crunchy peanut butter and irrevocably small portion sizes.
I didn’t need the ingredienti primo or the Italian table from my home to find my own table in Ann Arbor — in the East Quad dining hall. I just needed the foundation that my dad gave me. I just needed to remember that my family would always be there — even as things stretched and changed. I had been sitting around my parents’ Italian table, one I cherish so very deeply, my entire life, and with college came the chance to make my own. My Italian table grew from what I grew up with and became about coming home after completely different class schedules and eating dinner together, going on morning runs and finishing at East Quad to eat brunch, celebrating success with the frozen yogurt machine, mourning loss with the watery coffee and endless jars of peanut butter, huddling from a harsh winter with chipped porcelain bowls of oatmeal.
It is never easy to feel lost, or to be in a state of I miss you which is circular and ultimately never resolved. But with new places, faces and experiences comes opportunity to grow as a person and learn about the things you truly care about; which in my case, happens to be the Italian table. Something I never realized is not about a meal or a location or a group of people, but a feeling, an emotion, a romance with the idea that sitting down for a meal anywhere — from Pancheros to Chop House, East to West coast, East Quad to Bursley — with people you truly and honestly care about is worth celebrating.
And if that lesson is what my dad intended to teach me, I sure hope that he’s proud.