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Keeping up with your comrades after declaration of culinary independence

It's second semester senior year. I have no job prospects. I am not going to graduate school. I don't even know what country I'm going to be in. And I don't know where my next meal is coming from.

Over the past four years my gastronomic odyssey has led me from two years of omelet brunches at Forbes, to a semester of pizza and beer nights at Colonial, to a year of couscous orgies at 2D. Along the way, I've sampled the delights of nearly every eating establishment on campus: from the High Table at the Grad College, through the chosen enclaves of the Center for Jewish Life and the Ivy Club, to the soon-to-be-decimated Stevenson Hall. Now, in my final semester at Princeton, I have become an "independent."


Most students who choose the independent lifestyle have a game plan. They draw into Spelman, or near a kitchen. They have pots, pans, "Points," fridges, rice cookers, condiments, cookbooks and a Y2K stockpile of pasta. I don't even have a paper plate. I mooch.

In the past month, I've done a round of the eating club and dining hall circuit. It's a great way to split a meal with a friend — that old roommate, that taekwondo partner, that guy you pulled all-nighters with in Orgo — you never see anymore. My college life, like that of most, has unfolded into an arrangement of friendships that are loosely attached and widely scattered. Few of us have friends only where we eat. Yet, most of our "social" time during the week is spent at meals.

Soon, the friends we see, the ones we eat with, become the only ones with whom we keep in touch. I remember dinners during my freshman year in Forbes. They would typically last well over an hour, and the long tables overlooking the golf course would accommodate over a dozen diners at once. Very few students ate with the same three faces, night in night out. As we progress from residential college life on to the eating clubs, our dining circles gradually become smaller as old friends swing out of our social orbits, into other clubs, other friendships, other lives. In the few months we have left, I'm trying to buck the trend.

God bless friends with guest meals, and the $5,000 meal plans that pay for them. Sometimes, the gestapo at Campus Club frowns upon outsiders. The anarcho-syndicalists at Terrace seem the most welcoming of guests. The desserts at Tower are a treat. And Sunday brunches at Forbes — with slices of lox, boatloads of shrimp and omelets out of a carton — are still worth the walk.

The gravy train does run dry sometimes. Last Thursday night, I fought through a gaggle of pre-teen punks and made my way into Burger King. I sat next to a lady who was reading a book called "Dealing With the Hurt." Every now and then she would look up and launch into a monologue to no one in particular. Across the aisle, a man with a Grover Cleveland mustache and scissors of various types poking out of his flannel shirt sat next to a skyscraper of newsprint and furiously snipped away at page after page. As I gnawed on my value meal, I looked over at the gaggle of 14-year-old, suburban thugs with a vague sense of envy. They had years of acne and social ostracism ahead of them, but at least for the moment, they did not dine alone.

Despite these pangs of self-pity, I enjoy being an independent. Sometimes, independent friends invite me over when they cook meals. (I try to do the dishes). Others stow away leftovers (preferably succulent slabs of sirloin) and drop them at my door. As always, I derive a vast portion of my nutrition from late night Ramen breaks, Wa runs and Haven halts. If there's one thing I've learned in the last four weeks, it is that, as Thoreau discovered a long time ago, one doesn't need very much to survive.


Notwithstanding the urban legends about independents who subsisted entirely on Ramen noodles only to be stricken by scurvy, I don't believe the lack of a meal plan has starved anyone. And in meal plans, as in life, there's something about "independence," about not knowing where you'll eat (or where you'll work, live, dream) tonight, (tomorrow or next year), and not worrying about it, that is greatly liberating.

It'll be time soon to clear out of this intellectual jungle gym and go our separate, disparate ways. Out there, we may have to figure out the future before we live it, and purchase the right mutual funds accordingly. Sadly, the next time we all gather back on campus, we'll probably be emptying our wallets, singing silly ballads and ogling at the coeds. Before that day comes, let's catch a meal. I'm free tonight.

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