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Dining in College

dawtheminstrel asked me about what dining in college was like. It's such a wacky, weird, and wonderful experience that I figured it deserved its own post. So here it is.

Corpus dines four nights a week. This means that, on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings, there's a three-course formal meal served for the fellows, complete with arcane rituals, Latin, and really fancy food. As a fellow, I'm entitled to seven free meals a week in college, which can be either lunches or dinners. I generally do dinner about once every ten days or so. (I'm actually doing dinner tonight, since I'm taking off for Leeds tomorrow, and I don't want to cook.)

High Table, where the fellows dine, is formal. In Cambridge, this means that University fellows wear black gowns that look like this:

Guests dress as if going out to a Nice Restaurant.

Dinner begins at 7 PM with drinks in the Old Combination Room, which looks exactly like a Downton Abbey set. Usually it's sherry, but if there's some special event, they'll have waiters with champagne. At 7:30, the butler rings the gong (one of the weird things about my life is that I've turned into the sort of person who can say "the butler rings the gong" with a straight face and have it actually mean something), hereafter BWOM,and the fellows enter the dining hall:

We all go to the High Table, which is the crosswise one at the very end of the hall, and stand behind our chairs. BWOM. The senior fellow present then says grace in Latin. If it's the College President, he's done it so often he knows it by heart. I think he actually really enjoys doing it. If it's not the College President, the staff have a cheat sheet that the poor sucker selected honoree can read from. Then we get to sit down. There's silver, candlelight, a couple of wine glasses and a silver water tankard per person. There's a dinner roll at the side of your place setting, and people can eat those before the waiters appear with the appetizer.

The food at Corpus is Fine Dining, which means very complicated dishes with little bits of lots of ingredients. The chefs are very good, and these are meals that I could never afford to buy in restaurants. Tonight, the online sign-in informs me that we are having:

1) Herring Escabeche Salad as an appetizer. I have no idea what this is, but I recognize the word "herring," and I like herring, so that's good. After the herring comes

2) BBQ cannon of lamb with pulled shoulder, giant couscous, charred sweetcorn, savoy cabbage and pan juices. I've noticed that the Corpus chefs occasionally like to serve meat two ways, so there'll be smallish portions of two different cuts of lamb tonight. I also don't quite know what a "cannon" of lamb is. I presume that it's what backs up the infantry of lamb, and may be mounted on tanks of lamb. I could be wrong about that, though. After that comes

3) Banana split with vanilla ice cream. I'm not a big fan of bananas, so I might ask them for cheese instead.

There is also good wine served up from the college cellars. One of my friends has taken to saving the printed menu cards from dinners that she really likes, because fellows can purchase wine from the cellars, so she uses the dinners as wine tastings. I think I should try this method out, too.

After we've eaten, BWOM, we all stand up, and the Master says the second grace, also in Latin. It's much shorter than the first one. Then we all file out of the dining hall and go to Combination.

Combination is also a bit weird, and I had no concept of it at all until I got to Cambridge and this ancient Life Fellow decided to explain it all to me. If you've ever heard the Firesign Theater's album Waiting For The Electrician Or Somebody Like Him, this is "Gentlemen, port and cigars in the War Room. Lord Kitchener will join us presently." Modern-day Corpus is smoke-free, but the port is still there. There's actually two kinds of Combination, and since we're having Formal tonight, that's what I'll describe. (Informal is just drinks and chocolates in the OCR).

We all troop into the New Combination Room, where a separate table has been set for us with little plates, fruit knives, tiny glasses, and coffee cups. The waiters pass around coffee and tea (you have to ask for tea specifically, though), and there are plates of fruit, cheese and crackers, nuts, and chocolate mints to nibble on and, as Tolkien (he of The Other Place!) put it, "fill up the corners." This, the Life Fellow told me, is "dessert," because the sweet course at the end of the meal is "pudding."

There are decanters with port, have-some-Madeira-m'dear, claret, and dessert wine in little decanter trays, and they do in fact get passed to the left. If you watch, you can see decanters chugging slowly around the table, like a little alcohol train. According to Life Fellow, if the port gets stuck, you aren't supposed to ask for it directly. Instead, you poke the person sitting to your right and ask "Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?" which is code for "pass the port NAOW." The last thing on the table is a ram's horn trimmed with silver. This is actually a snuffbox -- no, really -- and some people actually take snuff. No cigars, but that certainly doesn't mean no tobacco at all!

You're supposed to sit with different people at Combination than you sat with at dinner, although if you have a guest, they are allowed to stay with you if they want. About ten minutes after the waiters have finished serving coffee and tea, it's time for the second cup. This is the job of the most junior fellow present, which is often me. The MJF serves the second cup of coffee, and then has one other job to do, which is to see the Master out if he's dining that night. There's actually a whole long story behind this, too, but it's already getting weird enough.

The best part is that I have a pretty large guest allowance. So, if you wanted to test out my story and see that I'm actually telling the truth, you could come visit Cambridge, and I could take you with me . . .


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 14th, 2015 04:57 pm (UTC)
Oh my goodness. That's a way bigger folderol than I realized. Also the food sounds excellent, though I'm not fond of bananas either. Neither is Mr daw. And you are the only other person I know in that category.
Jun. 14th, 2015 05:17 pm (UTC)
High Table is a production! And that's just a regular High Table night. Twice a term, we have Fellows' Guest Nights, where you're extra-encouraged to bring a guest, and they spiff up the dinner a bit by adding a fish course (between the appetizer and the entree). And then there are Feasts, which is when everybody puts on their really fancy academic attire -- this being where I change into my Chicago gown -- and the College goes Full Ridiculous with six courses, toasts to the Queen and the College, and the Loving Cup, in which mead is shared by way of choreography. I brought a guest to the Name Day Feast last week, and it kind of blew his mind.

Little did I know, when I was a kid and Mom Pony was teaching me the way around a fancy formal table setting, that I would one day have a distinct need to know where to find my bread plate, two wine glasses, and silverware for multiple courses!

I've never really been a fan of bananas, or avocados, or cheesecake. Little Sister Pony points out that these foods all have a similarly slimy texture, so it may be that that's what I don't like about them.
Jun. 14th, 2015 07:26 pm (UTC)
Wow. Just wow. I totally want to see a photo of you in your black gown, with a glass of port. And maybe a cigar.
Jun. 14th, 2015 09:01 pm (UTC)
Slightly tipsy!Pony reporting in. Yup. The full grand experience tonight. The herring turned out to be especially good, accompanied by pickles, beets, carrots, onions, and hard-boiled egg, just like herring ought to be.

I suspect that there's at least one photo of me in my black gown floating around somewhere. If not, I might have to take a selfie when I get back from Leeds. In my house, though, not directly at High Table, since they don't like photography at dinner. But I might well manage a gown picture, if I remember to do that.
Jun. 16th, 2015 01:52 pm (UTC)
I've read so many books where characters formally dine in college, but to hear it first hand is fascinating! I've seen the gloriously ornate halls in several of the Oxford colleges, but have never been to Cambridge. Despite the obvious rivalry, I'm sure they'd be the same ;)

I might just take you up on the guest offer next time I come up to London - Cambridge isn't too far away by train!

Jun. 16th, 2015 10:33 pm (UTC)
My guess is generally that things that are true of Cambridge are probably also true of Oxford as well, and vice versa. I'm thinking of planning a fieldwork trip to Oxford (the town), at which I will try to work in a few of my more obscure Fellow's Privileges. In this case, it would be being able to stay at our sister college at Oxford for a few nights for either free or really cheap (I have to check our information sheet to remember which), and I think there might be High Table privileges involved as well.

The thing that really struck me at my first High Table was that Terry Pratchett actually wasn't joking all that much when he wrote about Unseen University and its legendary dinners.
Jun. 16th, 2015 07:53 pm (UTC)
I just had dinner from a plate on my lap. While wearing my tracksuit.

Jun. 16th, 2015 10:34 pm (UTC)
Which I am perfectly happy to do on nights when I don't do the High Table ritual. I'm a flexible kind of gal like that.
Jun. 16th, 2015 11:16 pm (UTC)
This is absolutely awesome! I love it. I could really enjoy something alike that. A lot.
Jun. 17th, 2015 06:13 am (UTC)
It's a bit mind-boggling the first time you do it, but it's a good kind of mind-boggling, the kind where you have the urge to giggle a lot and can't believe it's all really happening. (Fun fact: My great triumph was at my induction into fellowship, where I took an entire oath, in Latin, and I managed not to giggle during the whole ceremony.) One of the reasons that I love bringing guests is watching the looks on people's faces as they realize that it is, in fact, actually happening. I think I actually blew a friend's mind when I invited him to a College feast.
Jun. 17th, 2015 09:06 pm (UTC)
Jun. 17th, 2015 09:17 pm (UTC)
Yeah, pretty much. It's actually Unseen University come to life in all its weird glory.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )