‘Reality Bites’: Seniors learn some basics about life after Yale

You’re at a business dinner, and a flaky bread has been served alongside the butternut squash soup. Is it appropriate to dip it in the soup or should you avoid eating it altogether?


You’re at a business dinner, and a flaky bread has been served alongside the butternut squash soup. Is it appropriate to dip it in the soup or should you avoid eating it altogether?

That question — posed recently by a Yale senior at a formal dinner in the Presidents Room of Woolsey Hall — is not a naïve one, noted Philip Papineau, assistant professor of hospitality and service management at the Culinary Institute of America, at the event.

Whether to dip or not to dip, Papineau answered, depends on one’s company, and the type of dinner affair. If it’s a job interview, he told the student, there should be no dipping, and it might be a good idea not to eat the flaky bread at all. At a more casual business gathering, however, bread dipping is perfectly acceptable.

While some of the nearly 40 Yale College seniors in attendance might have felt embarrassed for having already dipped, they were excused for their manners by Papineau — for this particular dinner was all about learning.

The event, titled “Formal/Business Dining Etiquette,” was the fifth in a six-part series of activities and special events for seniors called “Reality Bites: Eating Well After Yale,” sponsored by Yale Dining. About 200 Yale seniors participated in the series, an introduction to healthy — and mannered — eating and drinking habits. This is the first year the series was offered, and student interest far exceeded expectations, says Jeanette Norton, deputy director of business and administration for Yale Dining.

“We had about 40 spots open for each event, and more than 420 students were interested in participating in the series,” she says. “We tried to allow everyone to attend at least one of the sessions.”

Yale senior Mary Jo Toothman, a self-avowed food enthusiast, arranged and helped coordinate the series, which also featured the topics “Cooking 101: Eating Well After Graduation,” “Wine and Meal Pairing,” “Black Chefs at the White House,” “Mixology,” and “Cooking Locally/In Season.”

Toothman says that while she is fairly knowledgeable about cooking, she knows firsthand that it can sometimes be difficult for a recent college graduate to figure out kitchen and nutrition basics.

“My brother lost 40 pounds after he graduated from Harvard,” she explains. “In my family, the girls do the cooking. My brother became vegan after college but had no idea how to eat in a healthy way.”

Eating healthy was one of the subjects in the session “Cooking 101,” in which students learned how to stock their kitchens with the basics (both cookware and ingredients) and how to make such simple foods as omelets, pasta sauce, and salad dressing. Yale Health nutritionist Lisa Kimmel offered some tips on healthy eating (and the top 10 most common nutritional mistakes), and the students were treated to a hands-on cooking demonstration.

The highly popular “Wine and Meal Pairing” session featured a fully catered family-style meal that was prepared and presented by chef Joyce Goldstein, who also informed the students about how best to complement various meals with wine.

One of the most heavily attended sessions, “Black Chefs in the White House,” featured a talk by Adrian Miller, a scholar of “soul food” and former deputy director of President Clinton’s Initiative for One America. He presented a history of the African-American cooks who have served such past U.S. presidents as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson.

Yale’s director of catering, Bob Sullivan, taught Yale seniors how to pour wine correctly, as well as how to make simple drinks (with and without alcohol) in the “Mixology” session. Ron DeSantis, Yale Dining’s director of culinary excellence, instructed students in the preparation and cooking of apple tarts in the “Cooking Locally/In Season” event. That event also included a presentation by Mark Bomford, director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, and a representative from Yale’s produce distributor, FreshPoint, on sustainability and the efforts to support local farmers.

A desire to learn about basic nutrition, simple but healthy cooking, and table propriety inspired Snigdha Sur to sign up for a couple of the “Reality Bites” sessions.

“They used to cover topics like these in home economics,” says Sur. “I think in terms of dining etiquette, I have it down, but I’m not sure if there is ever one correct way. I wanted to learn about that because I’ll have a job next year.”

Adam George admits that he feels a bit apprehensive about “going into the real world,” and says that he has enjoyed being exposed on campus to a variety of different settings, both formal and informal, involving food and drink. Classmate Stephen Feigenbaum, a composer who is also a student at Yale School of Music, commented that he attended the “Formal/Business Dining Etiquette” event because he was curious to know whether there are certain rules of etiquette that may be universal, wherever one travels. He has visited a number of countries as a member of the Whiffenpoofs.

As Papineau spoke to the seniors, he noted that etiquette is not simply a matter of “rules,” but is really about much more. He also discussed the importance of not overdoing perfume or cologne, keeping cell phones off the table and in “silent” or “vibrate” mode when at a business function, avoiding slang, and dressing appropriately (“Dress as though you’re advancing to the next level of your job,” he advised).

“It’s about having manners that make you comfortable and other people comfortable with you,” he told the students. “It’s about showing concern and care for other people.”

Yale Dining staff members Norton and Pedro Tello, who helped coordinate “Reality Bites,” say the inaugural program was so well received by students that they are considering offering it in both the fall and spring semesters next year.

Toothman is not surprised by how many of her classmates are interested in learning about food and the dining experience. She notes the increasing student interest in the slow food and healthy street (vendor) food movements, and points out that one of the most popular undergraduate classes is “The Biology, Psychology and Politics of Food,” taught by Professor Kelly Brownell.

“Eating is really about stopping and enjoying — sitting down together and sharing a meal,” she says. “It’s about social interaction, and having fun.” But whether dining alone or with others, she says, her classmates who participated in “Reality Bites” have learned enough about eating well not to lose pounds simply because they are clueless.

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Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,