Columns, Opinions

Calvelli ’19: Ode to the Sharpe Refectory

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, November 7, 2018

College dining halls don’t often make the news. However, as this semester commenced, a nickname controversy catapulted the Sharpe Refectory into the headlines. Should it be the Ratty? (Sure.) The Rodent? (I will not entertain this.) The Sharpe Refectory? (Preach!) The outpouring of feeling and meme-ery generated by this debate indicated that Brown students care about their biggest eating establishment.

Soon, though, debate died down, and the name of the Ratty faded from the spotlight. Though it’s good we’ve moved past debating a name, we shouldn’t take the Ratty for granted, underappreciating its crucial role on campus. The Ratty is a beacon of consistency, a foil to self-importance and an integral part of a healthy campus life. It deserves our recognition and respect.

There’s a wide range of opinions about the actual food from the Ratty. I, for one, am a loyal devotee. Cajun pasta, sauteed broccoli and lentil soup are all worth the price of admission. (And cream cheese brownies. Mmmm. I once had five in one sitting, and still wasn’t sated.) But regardless of where on the Ratty food appreciation spectrum you fall, we should all agree on one thing: The Ratty is remarkably consistent. Three meals a day, seven days a week, the Ratty is churning out copious amounts of food to feed all sorts of palates and diets. Its dependability is a breath of fresh air. While it might not have any Michelin stars, it humbly and readily takes on the necessary but unsexy task of putting food on the table.

The Ratty’s institutional humility contrasts with the attitudes of the students who patronize it. Students at Brown — myself very much included — have a reputation for self-importance, with attending an Ivy League university and presumably having been the best at everything since being the first kid in their neighborhood to recite the alphabet backwards. What better antidote to that alluring self-importance than regularly eating at an establishment whose nickname is endearingly self-deprecating.

I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to sustain a view of myself as a future member of the secret global leadership cabal while circling the Ratty’s tables in vain for a friend to sit with at a dining hall explicitly evocative of a rodent. More seriously, dining at the Ratty can remind us that no matter who you are or what you do, everyone’s gotta eat, and we are incredibly privileged to have the Ratty there to provide for us. Taking the time to appreciate Ratty meals as valuable parts of the day, not just as pit stops between more “important” endeavors is an elixir to elitism, a puncturer of the pretension of the college bubble. Reflecting on the Ratty’s symbolic role can make us more thoughtful, appreciative people. But the Ratty’s most important role is its practical one that I’ve only passingly mentioned: feeding the population of Brown University. Possibly never again in our lives will we have such abundant and diverse food available to us at a moment’s notice, without even having to turn on a stove. Producing food is incredibly hard work, and the cooks at the Ratty put in an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes labor that is too easily taken for granted. For instance, up until now Ratty employees have endured the summer months with no central air. Thankfully, the administration has promised to install air conditioning into the Ratty by summer 2019.

And the Ratty does more than just serve any kind of food. It provides a dazzling array of healthy choices, with vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins abounding. Of course, it also serves its fair share of unhealthy options, (hello again, cream cheese brownies), but ultimately how nutritiously you eat is your choice. You might want to grumble that you had steamed snow peas the last two weeks, but try cooking for yourself every day and see how long you go before a bowl of cereal and days-old leftovers feel like a gourmet dinner. Having such reliable access to nutritious meals is a situation we would do well to appreciate before it’s gone. Just imagine explaining to someone elsewhere in the world that Brown provides its students with functionally unlimited access to food, and you’ll begin to see how unique and incredible the Ratty is.

Yet instead of taking time to appreciate the Ratty, we are quick to belittle or poke fun at it. When I go on my Aidan-loves-Ratty-broccoli rants, I often get blank stares. And even in the course of writing this column, I had to edit out some of my unnecessarily harsh jabs at Ratty food that overlooked the labor of the talented people who work there. Perhaps because we feel too important for dining hall food or are too caught up in our own daily pursuits, the Ratty just becomes another part of our college lives that we take for granted.

Still, no matter what insults we unthinkingly throw at the Ratty, it doesn’t let that criticism get in the way of its mission. You can complain all you want about the lack of potatoes au gratin on the Sunday brunch menu, but the Ratty isn’t going to let our unreasonable expectations keep it from serving up perfectly good food. You may laugh at a dining hall that calls itself  “The Ratty,” but it’s self-confident enough to withstand mockeries of its moniker. You may want to drop off meal plan altogether, but the Ratty will be there for you to crawl back to when you tire of instant ramen and Baja’s takeout. No matter what barbs you throw at it, the Ratty will still be there, ready and willing to serve you fresh, thoughtfully-prepared food.

Aidan Calvelli ’19 is head chef of Maizie’s restaurant on Lloyd Ave. He, unfortunately, is off meal plan, and will trade you a meal at Maizie’s for a Ratty swipe. He can be reached at aidan_calvelli@brown.edu.