By Rebecca Ojserkis '12
Hands down, the best place to socialize at college is around the dinner table. The fact that Valentine is our only dining hall here at Amherst especially facilitates such opportunities for students, the majority of whom eat all of their meals there. But even during the summer months—when most undergraduates have left campus until September—we continue to find camaraderie while breaking bread.
In addition to the summer camps housed on campus, approximately 200 Amherst students spend June, July and August in the Pioneer Valley. We stay busy doing a variety of projects, including local internships, research with professors, thesis research and jobs in various college offices. We may be doing very different things, but we all manage to find time to socialize each night in a new setting: a kitchen rather than a dining hall.
Like most of the students in Amherst for the summer, my friends and I cook each night in the kitchens of our residence halls. The usual chores of grocery shopping, food preparation and washing dishes have become communal, social experiences. They provide time to hear about friends’ days and get to know students of all class years whom one might not have gotten to know in the large setting of Val. (For rising seniors, like myself, these dinners are also an appreciated break from thesis reading, graduate examination studying and/or job searching!) On some nights, we make quick dishes; on others, we plan feasts.
Sharing meals, I discovered, has also been an opportunity to share our cultures. For a Five College friend’s birthday, I baked a sweet noodle kugel, a traditional Jewish dish. Eddie Muguza ’11 introduced me to pap, a dish from his native Zimbabwe. Next on the agenda? An empanada and matzo ball recipe exchange between Kayleigh O’Keeffe ’12 and me. It’s been a delicious learning summer so far, to say the least.
Take one recent Saturday night. I received a text message: “I’m tryna get a din din 2getha avec Jurr and JKoo at chez Bongani. Let me know if u’d b down.” It took me a minute to translate the lingo of my friend Bongani Ndlovu ’14. He was having a dinner party, inviting me and two of his fellow members of the men’s a cappella group the Zumbyes—Jorrell Bonner ’12E and Jeremy Koo ’12—to his apartment in Northampton.
I had cooked dinner earlier this summer for these friends, to thank them for helping me move into my dorm. We had eaten a pasta concoction, a combination of my grandmother’s ratatouille recipe with some of my favorite ingredients, olives and sundried tomatoes. “This smells delicious. What’s in it?” Julie Keresztes ’12 had asked while she helped me with the mise en place for the dish. “It’s easy,” I had replied. “My grandmother taught me how to make it when I was five or so. You just cut up vegetables, add some olive oil and garlic and throw it in the oven for an hour.” Having years of restaurant work experience and having cooked for myself during past summers in New York City, I have mastered the art of preparing easy, delicious meals in small places (including New York apartments and Amherst dorm kitchens).
Bongani’s second text message, after my affirmative response: “Now I need ideas. What do I cook?” After much debate, he decided to make pasta with what I would call a South African adaptation of Bolognese. Bringing some flavors from his home country, Bongani had made a sauce of stewed tomatoes, ground beef, garlic, onion and curry, the secret ingredient that won me over. Once we arrived, I quickly cooked up some collard greens with mustard, green tomatoes, peppers and brown sugar. The combination of the vegetables and the pasta was fantastic. Bongani had never heard of greens before, and I had never fathomed putting curry in my pasta sauce. It was definitely a learning experience in culture and cooking.
Jorrell made bananas Foster for dessert, flambéing like a pro. Jeremy didn’t cook that evening, but he did the bulk of the dishes and has promised to make us wontons. The meal ended with the three Zumbyes singing “Happy Birthday” to Jorrell’s brother over the phone. Tableside a cappella, great food and close friends—what more could a girl ask for on a warm summer night?