COLUMNS

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March 29, 2022

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9:24 p.m.

A Love Letter to Cathey Dining Commons

The time we dedicate to savoring our meals can serve as a peaceful pause in the bustle of our daily lives.


Isabella Liu / The Chicago Maroon

There’s a seemingly innocuous photo album in my phone’s camera roll that holds a special place in my heart. Simply titled “CATHEY,” the album contains a conglomeration of photographed meals from Cathey Dining Commons: White ceramic plates laden with grilled chicken, roasted chicken, fried chicken—always chicken—sit against the warm yellow of the wooden tables. Bowls piled with honeydew, green grapes, and strawberries (and when Cathey has strawberries, it’s truly a day of celebration) accent the main course, and small plates of raspberry cheesecake or a simple sugar cookie polish off the meal. I take the photo using the 0.5x zoom on my phone’s camera lens so that I can encapsulate the entire satisfaction of a Cathey dining experience.

For me, “quick bites” at the dining hall don’t exist. Except for the occasional and forced scarfing down of lunch in between lectures and lab sections, my time spent at Cathey isn’t complete until at least the one and a half–hour mark. It would do well for all of us to take inspiration from the French: Instead of treating meals as a rushed necessity, we should try carving out the time to fully enjoy them as a meaningful pause from the frantic rush of school and life.

I’ll admit that we’ve heard this sentiment a million times: Life is busy, work is stressful, find time for breaks, it’s good to take breaks, it’s necessary to take breaks, or whatever. I’ve scoffed at my parents for giving me this same advice (seriously, Dad, weekly yoga classes sound nice and all, but downward dog hurts my hands). And yet these incessant suggestions do carry some sort of wisdom. Amid overloaded Google Calendars, I’ve found my meals at Cathey to be bubbles of peace.

On days I have early classes, I savor the quiet breakfast in solitude with headphones plugged in and soft Taylor Swift filtering out background chatter. During late lunches in an almost-empty dining area, soft sunlight radiates through the wall-to-wall glass windows and bathes the room in a calming gold. Or sometimes, flurries of snow blanket the sidewalk while I, sated with warmth, press my phone camera against the glass—like an inverted snow globe. Dinners are an affair: Even when the plates accumulate and subsequently empty and the crumbs are wiped clean, my friends and I will sit—as the sun sets in visions of pink and orange through the glass of the fishbowl and as strangers, acquaintances, and the microcelebrities of our campus lives set their plates down only to get up again 15 minutes later—chatting about nothing and everything. Bright laughter rings and excited conversation rises and falls in waves of sound as everyone catches everyone else up with their days. When conversations run dry, comfortable silence stretches as we, unwilling to face the heaping realities of RSO meetings or tedious workloads left at our desks, revel in a moment free of responsibility.

Meals have always run the schedule of my day. When I’m home, I know I will sit down with my family to have dinner every night, whether it’s my mother’s home-cooked Chinese dishes or takeout from our local pho joint. I remember evenings that I grumbled and complained, knowing that dragging myself downstairs for dinner would interrupt my nap or homework or whatever melodramatics a high school student liked going through. But, like clockwork, every evening, I’d find myself seated next to my little brother at the dining table, watching him cram food down his throat in a way only a pubescent boy could.

On campus, Cathey’s proximity to Renee Granville-Grossman Residential Commons—where I reside—transforms it from a regular college dining hall to a sanctuary, a place for unwinding and tranquility. Besides just looking homey (far more than Baker’s sterile white, Woodlawn’s industrial open-floor plan, and Bartlett’s remnants of the old gym), Cathey exists as a center to gather with friends and community at the end of the day. It’s an opportunity to shed the stresses of whatever problem set you don’t know how to complete or the upcoming essay you haven't bothered to write. Always rushing for the next and the next and the next is exhausting. Instead of treating dinner as a maybe, as an only if I squeeze out the time, take advantage of the “free” meals and dedicate a duration solely to yourself, your friends, and your contentment.

Perhaps not everyone romanticizes a dining hall the way I like to, or maybe you just don’t feel like finding peace over dry chicken and mushy grapes. Regardless, meals can act as a deliberate pause in our hectic scramble to do better, accomplish more. And if I can find contentment in sitting for hours at Cathey with plates of curly fries, pretending as if my responsibilities don’t exist—well, who can blame me?

Irene Qi is a first-year in the College.