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12 Lessons I Learned After 12 in DHall

By: Molly Brind'Amour, Staff Writer

For Richmond students the dining hall is a necessity – if you live in the on-campus dorms, you’re required to buy an unlimited swipes meal plan. As a senior, I wanted to maximize my last year with the Heilman Dining Center and answer a question I’d

thought about since freshman year: what would it be like to spend 12 hours in dhall?

7:30 a.m. I’ve always had this feeling that you could learn a lot about dhall by staying in it from open to close.

Aside from one group in the second room that looks like athletes, all the students in the dining hall are sitting alone when I walk in a little before 8 a.m. The first room is actually completely empty, and the third room has just three or so other students. I camp out at a booth near the front of the third room. It’s so nice to see dhall looking peaceful. It’s also very, very surreal.

Lesson 1: Breakfast dhall is an entirely different dhall. 8:12 a.m. I’m realizing that I’ve never been patient enough, or awake early enough, to go to the omelet station. I return to my table with some pumpkin bread, a biscuit, and an omelet. Needless to say, it’s pretty good, although I’m not sure if I could ever wait more than ten minutes for it. My entire meal is a solid 10/10. Fridays are often “trayless Fridays” but today is definitely an exception. Sometimes the tray stations are blocked off, which provides enough social pressure to discourage tray use, reportedly reducing food waste.

Despite rumors that girls in dhall don’t use trays, in my trip across the second and third rooms, a clear majority of the people I see, particularly those sitting alone, are using trays. People say that trays make them afraid of dropping everything, but honestly? I believe that trays provide essential stability. Let’s say that the typical person wants, at a minimum, one meal plate and a drink. You have two hands. If you want a hot drink, a dessert, a side, you’d have to balance that somewhere in your arms, which makes the risk of spilling even higher.

Lesson 2: People do use trays. But like eating alone, it’s a third- room thing. 9:03 a.m. It’s officially been an hour, and somehow this little milestone has made the rest of my task seem even more daunting. There’s still two hours until lunch, and eight hours until dinner. I’m realizing that I don’t think I’ve ever spent 12 hours in one place besides my home, or someone else’s home. I’ve certainly never spent 12 hours in one public place. I’m already contemplating lying down in a “casual way.” Do people ever sleep in dhall? I’m interrupted by a loud, intermittent banging sound from somewhere outside dhall that is infrequent enough to be unpredictable but frequent enough to be extremely annoying.

9:16 a.m. Selena Gomez’s “Back to You” starts playing on the radio. It is a cruel irony for someone doomed to continue returning to the Spider Grill, over and over, for 12 hours. I get a literal chill at the thought of how many times I may have to hear this song before close.

9:35 a.m. My usual wake-up alarm goes off, which serves as a sobering reminder of the fact that, were it not for this ridiculous decision, I’d be in bed, probably thinking about going back to sleep. That life seems so far away.

9:45 a.m. By far the low point of this morning is when I go to the bathroom to escape the ice-cold room and the similarly chilly omelet. Here’s one well-known dhall grievance: there’s only one non-men’s bathroom inside the dhall swipe zone. Another vaguely upsetting thing is that the bathroom cleaning log is dated to last Thursday, almost a week ago. The third upsetting thing is that the second room is noticeably colder than the already-chilly third room, and the first room is even colder than that. The fourth upsetting thing comes when I start to think about other ways to visualize the time I have left in my experiment. I’ve done almost two hours, which leaves me with ten hours left. That’s like doing this whole morning five more times, complete with the omelet and “Back to You.” Another way to visualize it is like going through an entire eight-hour work day, and then taking an extra two hours to sit in the parking lot of your job and cry. The banging starts again.

9:54 a.m. I am fortunately distracted by the person in front of me who is working on eating four hard boiled eggs. In the interest of full disclosure, it’s important to note that I actually like dhall. I genuinely enjoy the menu items. I can always find something that I want to eat, and I feel pretty content just hanging out and studying or talking with friends here. This is important background, right now, because I’m legitimately worried this experiment is ruining dhall for me. By forcing myself to spend an unnaturally long amount of time here, am I altering the very nature of the dining hall, which hinges on it being a place people actually want to go?

Lesson 3: Spending all day in dhall makes dhall a much less pleasant experience. Also, the playlist needs some work.

10:09 a.m. It takes literally everything in me to finish my omelet, but I do it anyway. One more victory against food waste. As I get up, I notice the room has really filled out. There are only 11 empty tables, in a room of at least 40.

11:06 a.m. My mom texts in our family group chat, asking what I’m doing this weekend. “Spending 12 hours in dhall,” I type. “What the...” she responds. “Is it a food festival?” asks my dad.

11:25 a.m. I’ve just hit my article limit on Vanity Fair. This is going to be a long day. I decide to download the Heilman Center’s “Edible Bytes” app. Could this be the game-changer my dining hall experience has been lacking? “Edible Bytes is a nutrition app,” reports the Dining Services website. In fact, it is not an app at all. It’s just a mobile-friendly website. This is a huge disappointment. I was really looking forward to be able to quickly look at menus from my phone and also to be the type of person who deletes Instagram in order to have room for a dining hall app.

11:30 a.m. The “app” is pretty cool. Not only can you see all the nutrition information for the menu items, but there’s a function where you can add up all the nutrition information and see how your whole meal looks.

11:41 a.m. I immediately regret ever going near Edible Bytes. My nutrition summary is absolutely horrifying. I’m only on my first meal, and I’ve already hit 85 percent of my saturated fat for the day. I’ve also eaten 191 percent of my day’s recommended cholesterol. As it turns out, I don’t have any grasp on what a healthy breakfast is.

Lesson 4: When it comes to Edible Bytes, ignorance is bliss. 12:15 p.m. I take a momentary break from marinating in my own poor decisions to get some words of wisdom from my friend Jeff Lowe, a junior, who I spot sitting at a nearby table. “Everyone fucking loves Indian bar,” he explains. “It was a staple. Why take it away and replace it with philly sub bar? Nobody likes that.” And as for Edible Bytes, he agrees with me: “It’s cool but depressing.”“At the end of the day,” he says, “I always have to remind myself there’s lots of other schools that have it worse...If not the most... they’re doing close to the most.”

12:35 p.m. Before I embarked on this experiment, I emailed Tyler Betzhold, the executive chef, asking for his recommendations for today. If I was going to spend 12 hours having the full “dhall experience,” I wanted to do it right.

It’s actually lunch time, and I’m surprised by how I’ve managed to last this long without getting another meal out of boredom. I decide to follow Chef Tyler’s advice. “On Hemispheres ‘this is not public yet,’” he wrote, “We will have our grilled cheese station that we will be switching to that will replace our sandwich station that we are currently offering (offered all day).” Very cryptic. He also suggested that I try the crab cakes. With this in mind, I pick up a crab cake, a half grilled cheese, and some of the vegan tomato soup. For some reason, they only have vegan soup, and like Jeff pointed out, the ladle really doesn’t fit the soup container. While I wait for my grilled cheese, I can hear the girl in front of me talking to her friend.

“I’m going back to bed,” she says. Girl, I truly wish I was you. Here’s another dhall hot take: why are there so few napkins in the service area, where you get your food? This haunts me often. What if you’re making a to-go box? What if you spill something? What if you’re grabbing an ice cream on your way out? A few weeks ago, I accidentally spilled my entire water glass into the silverware containers. It was incredibly distressing. And I could have used some napkins.

Lesson 5: THERE SHOULD BE MORE NAPKINS. Also, bring back Indian Bar? 12:56 p.m. A review of lunch: first of all, in re-reading Chef Tyler’s email, he actually did not recommend the soup, like I’d thought. Also, it turns out that he also recommended the avocado bar and the vegan crab cakes.

“Vegetarian we will offer the jackfruit cakes,” he wrote, “which is something we are very excited about, you just need to try it!!”

Two exclamation marks. I am quickly realizing that my attempts to avoid food waste and my attempts to eat everything Chef Tyler recommends are not going to be harmonious. Also, I’m scared that the amount of sodium I’m about to enjoy may cause the Edible Bytes app to crash.

First impressions of that crab cake? Delicious. The immediate second impression is that it tastes like there’s a piece of shell in there. I also get a bite with that unmistakable grit of sand but, again, the flavor is so good and my standards are so low that it’s not going to stop me from eating it. 7/10.

The tomato soup tastes...okay. I would say the worst part is that I put shredded cheddar cheese from the salad bar in it, and that was a pretty bad idea. They’ve gotten kind of slimy and unpleasant. It seems like part of the recurring theme that I create most of my own problems. 4/10.

As for the grilled cheese, the cheeses are definitely delicious. Of course, this is immediately ruined by the addition of roasted red peppers. They slip and slide all around the sandwich and provide an ice-cold addition to each bite that I dread. Dhall, I’m begging. Don’t enable my own bad decisions. I am not wise enough to be trusted to make good choices regarding grilled cheese add-ins. 6/10, but it would be a 9 without those peppers.

Lesson 6: Using some degree of self-awareness reduces food waste. 1:11 p.m. Dhall is packed. I can’t see a single empty table in my field of vision, and now, most of those tables have more than one person at them. Someone I’ve never met before asks to sit next to me, which has only happened one other time in my three years here. This is the worst part of the day to try and get a seat. I can see two students venturing deeper into the third room and then turning back around. There is no room at the inn. Tables are now a prized commodity. My prison has become my refuge from the chaos of the 1 p.m. free-for-all.

Let’s be real. Dhall isn’t big enough. Unlike other colleges, we have just one dining hall. Well, that and three incredibly polarizing dining options. The overlap between Tyler’s customers and Passport customers really only happens during salmon bowl season. And as for Lou’s, as a journalism major, I’ve never been. I take pride in this and don’t plan on changing my stubborn ways, even though I’m sure I would genuinely enjoy their soups and salads. It’s the principle of the thing. I texted a marketing major I know and asked if I got “indie cred points” for it. “Yes you absolutely do!!” he responded.

Lesson 7: Dhall needs more room. I’ve decided to channel the voice of the people by sharing the comments on the UR Heard white board. Like many vehicles for student voice, it ranges from the reasonable (“MORE TURKEY BURGERS” “We want Indian Bar back!”) to the cryptic (“Steve’s omellettes” [sic]) and the absurd (“HOT MILK!”).

2:53 p.m. My stomach does not feel good. I am pushed to the limit mentally, spiritually and physically. Also, I cannot account for the last hour. I’m thinking about the pressure there is to get bang for your buck at dhall. As a senior in Gateway, I’m no longer on the unlimited meal plan that all students who live in dorms have to purchase. I’m on spider 40, which gives me only 40 meal swipes per semester along with dining dollars. Some helpful math you need to do to decide if you should go on unlimited: The simplest unlimited plan costs $6,630 for the year, including $800 dining dollars, so you’re paying about $5,830 for meal swipes. There’s 116 days in the fall semester and 121 in the spring, from dorms opening until the day they close. That adds up to 237 days. Then, you can factor in the cost of dhall meals for students: $7.50 for breakfast, $10 for lunch, and $12 for dinner, on typical days. That’s an average price of about $9.83 per meal. Dividing the $5,830 you paid for the meal swipes by the 237 days in the school year means you must spend $24.60 per day in swipes. So you only begin “breaking even” with the money you spent if you eat 2.5 meals a day at dhall. That means you have to eat at least 2.5 meals every day, even on breaks, to get your money’s worth. And then, you still have to find a way to spend your $800 dining dollars. This is why I am not on the unlimited meal plan anymore.

Lesson 8: Do not get the unlimited meal plan in the apartments unless you are obsessed with dhall. 3:23 p.m. In the boring, quiet moments of “transitional time” between meals, I dig into the Collegian archives, interested in finding out a little bit more about this place that I’m currently calling my home. I find this quote, from an article by Fiona Carmody: “We have professional chefs at our dining hall (no, seriously -- one even won a BBQ rib throwdown against Bobby Flay)...”

I spend an embarrassingly long amount of time running searches related to “bobby flay university of Richmond” through Google until I deduce that while the Beat Bobby Flay throwdown did occur in 2007 on UR’s campus, the challenger was from Buzz and Ned’s Real Barbecue, not University of Richmond. Lesson 9: Our chefs did not beat Bobby Flay.

3:27 p.m. “You look like you’re sick of everything,” says my roommate, Rosina D’Angelo, who has stopped by for moral support. Unlike me, Rosina has taken on challenges like this before. She once spent a full day in the Boatwright Library.

“I took breaks to like go to 8:15 and get food,” she explains. “But I didn’t leave the building for like, 24 hours. That was the time when I, like, brought my toothbrush. If you’re gonna be there over 24 hours, you’re gonna need to do that.” Suddenly, 12 hours doesn’t seem so long.

4:06 p.m. “Back to You” is back on the radio. 4:41 p.m. Is this the worst hour yet? This is a question I ponder every hour. I don’t feel nearly as miserable as I did at the start of my day, but it still seems somehow unreal that I still have over three hours left. It’s dead quiet.

I meet a kind employee named Robert Johnson. When he asks me how I’m doing, I can’t help but share my self-imposed challenge. He provides his own two cents. “There’s never a dull moment,” he says.“I’ve seen a couple food fights.” He also believes the second room is the most popular, and surprisingly enough, he enjoyed Midnight Munchies. “It was like a club in here.”

Lesson 10: Forcing yourself to spend an unfortunate amount of time snacking in dhall is nothing compared to actually having to work there. “God is a Woman” is playing for the fourth time, quickly chased by Weezer’s “Africa.” I go for rosemary couscous and an assortment of dim sum. I’m actually getting my appetite back, as well as my zest for life. The finish line is in sight this time. Also, everything is delicious. I may never forgive dhall for taking away gyro station AND Indian bar, but Mediterranean bowl and dim sum are worthy additions.

6:54 p.m. It’s a Friday night, and dhall has started to clear out. I’ve seen it through so many stages now. I send my roommate on an assignment to do a walk-by of the room and gather information on what most people are eating tonight. Chef Tyler had recommended wheatberry chili, vegan pita pizza and chicken cacciatore. The verdict? “Majority burgers, fries, grilled cheese, pasta, dessert,” Rosina reports. So much for the gourmet picks.

Lesson 11: We love our comfort food. Bring back gyro station? 7:12 p.m. To kill the last, painful hour, I decide to dedicate my time to painstakingly logging everything I’ve eaten up until this moment into Edible Bytes, which has conveniently deleted all my previous inputs.

7:36 p.m. The final tally? 217 percent of my saturated fat, 248 percent of my cholesterol and 171 percent of my sodium. And 100 percent of my daylight hours. What’s perhaps even more unsettling is that I’ve been here long enough to see some of the same people I saw at lunch returning, to the same areas, for dinner. This is unsettling because it’s physical proof that life goes on outside this time warp I’m stuck in. I wonder if I’ll think about this every time I go to dhall. Will it follow me to graduation? Will I be able to return for my reunion in 20 years without thinking about this place, about these endless 12 hours?

7:57 p.m. With three minutes til close, there are still more than a dozen tables occupied in the third room alone. I start packing up. Will I miss this place, when I’m finally free? This seat that I have worn down for 12 hours, this table that has held so many plates? 8:00 p.m. I return to my apartment after dark has already settled, a husk of the innocent woman I was at the start of this experiment. My phone is at 22 percent, and my stomach is at 110 percent. I may have survived, but I am broken. It would be weeks before I returned to the dining hall.

The final lesson: Dhall, like omelets and lodges, is best in moderation.

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