by , 2001

American culture is incubated and hatched in the cafeteria. Students go to the dining hall to get the food their bodies need for proper nourishment. But, food is by no means the only thing that students get at the cafeteria - they are also served with social interaction. The cafeteria is a place which some students love and which others dread. It is generally an integral part of children's social lives from elementary school all the way into college. Why is the cafeteria so important? Because, in the cafeteria, popularity is determined, friends are made, styles and fads are born, and the current news is broadcast. Our culture is defined and passed on over meals in the dining hall.

The cafeteria is not merely a place for small children; now that I am in college, I spend more time in the cafeteria than ever. Living in the dorms, I have no kitchen or any other place to cook. Instead, I have a meal plan that offers me fourteen meals each week at the Stanford/Hecht cafeteria. I eat lunch and dinner there as my two meals on most days. But, I do not and cannot go to the cafeteria and just get food. I get much more.

Going to eat generally begins with an invitation. Although it is acceptable to go down to the cafeteria alone occasionally, it is better to go with friends. Sometimes, a friend will stop by and invite me to go eat, other times I get hungry and go invite someone else. If everyone is busy or has already eaten, then I just go down to the dining hall by myself. But, I try not to let that happen often because it creates a boring meal and makes me look bad. If someone consistently dines alone, others will assume that he or she has no friends to eat with. So, two or three of us will usually go down to eat together.

We get to the outside of the cafeteria and wait in line for the lady to swipe our Cane Cards so we can eat. This line is the first stop on our journey. We look around to see who other people are eating with and what they are wearing. This is not a conscious action, but instead something that just happens. It sounds vain, but everyone does it whether they realize it or not. On a particular day, there might be students wearing anything from pajamas to formal clubbing clothes. The clothes that people wear generally tell a story about the person wearing them. Pajamas represent someone who just woke up. Clubbing clothes represent someone who is on stopping to eat before going out. Jeans or shorts with t-shirts represent someone during their normal routine of going to classes. In addition, the clothes we see show us what is in style and what is not. By observing what other people are wearing and how it looks on them, we can decide what to wear ourselves in the future.

While waiting in line to get in, the social interaction begins as well. As was mentioned before, we look around to see who is eating with who. Judgments of social status are made, both consciously and subconsciously. At the same time, we are looking around to see if there are other friends and acquaintances that we could sit with while eating. Often, individuals in different groups recognize each other and then introduce the members of their respective groups to each other. People meet each other and form relationships that are either discarded or developed into friendships. This process of looking for people to sit with continues as we go to the different counters to get our trays of food.

Other activities also occur while we are getting our food. We often see acquaintances that we decide not to sit with but that we say hello to and ask how things are going. By doing so, three main things are done: contact with that person is made, the association with them is kept active, and news of the person's life is transferred. By talking about how things are going, you can learn what has been happening in the life of both the person you are talking to and the people he or she knows. This method of transferring information does on a small scale what mass media does for the masses; it spreads news of current events.

We are in the midst of cold air and an aroma of foods when going around to get our food. The air conditioner is always kept exceptionally cold. The smell of food differs slightly from day to day, but it is generally about the same. A whiff of teriyaki sauce comes from the stir-fries, cheese and sauce from the pizzas, and hot grease from the French fries and hamburgers. Mixed in with these is the scent of perfumes and colognes along with the occasional stench of body odor. The air is filled with sounds. Gossip, small talk, clanging plates, frying grease, and dropped dishes can all be heard. All of the food can be seen sitting in the metal bins. The variety creates a medley of colors. Green vegetables, red and white pizza, brown cookies, and brightly colored Jell-O all contribute to the rainbow. Taste is certainly not the only sense used in the cafeteria. All of the senses give the student a combined impression of their dining hall. When conversations are remembered, they are often accompanied by memories of the sights, smells, sounds, and feel of the cafeteria.

After getting our food, we find a table to sit down at with the people we agreed to eat with. Where we sit is almost as important of a decision as who we sit with. Just as we are judged on who we sit with, we are judged on where we sit. People sitting in the back corners are not seen to be as social as those sitting in the middle. The cafeteria is, in a way, designed for the social interaction that it hosts. It contains isolated back areas where unsociable students can sit to avoid interaction, large round tables for big groups and smaller four and six person rectangular tables. There are no tables made for just one person and only very few made for two people. Students are expected to eat in groups and to interact with each other. Generally, we choose to sit in one of the round tables if any are available or in one of the six person tables. Even if we do not have enough people to fill up the entire table, we will sit at it because there's a fair chance that someone we know will join us.

The conversation that occurs during the meal continues to spread current news, define trends, and create friendships. It brings up thoughts about movies, music, clothes, classes, and many other things. Popular culture is determined through conversations such as this. No amount of paid advertising can even compare to the effect of a buzz in cafeterias. Students are much more likely to go see a movie that they have heard nothing but good things about and contrarily will probably not see one that they have heard little about. The names of bands are mentioned when the topic of music comes up, resulting in the search for songs on the Internet and possibly leading to a CD purchase. Clothing trends are either supported or attacked. Fads are very vulnerable and rarely can withstand negative comments stemming from the cafeteria. Friendships are also developed here. Conversation between new acquaintances that were introduced earlier is now available and friendships can be created.

It can not be forgotten that we eat during the meal too. The sense of taste is engaged. A plethora of food is available to us: pizza, stir-fry, pasta, sandwiches, hamburgers, cookies, fruit, ice cream, and the daily offerings. The variety of food displays the variety of students. Many dishes from different cultures and ethnicities are all served together. All of it is so good, what should we choose? Often, no choices are made. Instead, students pile up their trays with an excess of food and then either stuff themselves or decide to discard much of it. Either choice represents basic American problems, over indulgence and selfishness. We take the abundance of food for granted instead of limiting the amount of food we put on our plates.

Taste is not the only sense used while eating. Sights, sounds, and smells are still present, but different than those found while waiting in line for the food. The seating area is surrounded by brightly colored walls. Yellow, green, blue, and orange walls lighten up the room and individual's attitudes simultaneously. Conversation can still be heard accompanied by the steady hum of chewing and the clanking of forks hitting plates. The variation of scents has lessened. Instead of smelling all the foods offered, you just smell the food on your own plate. These elements add to the feelings that the cafeteria experience gives us and sometimes even act as a topic for conversation.

Finally, there is the matter of leaving the cafeteria. Generally the entire table will leave as one group. Most of the group will probably finish eating at almost the same time. Those who finish first wait for the others out of politeness and courtesy. After everyone is through eating, someone will suggest that we leave and we will all take our trays up to the dishwashing counter and then leave. Near the tray drop-off counter, we are hit with hot, sticky air from the dishwashing. We quickly leave our trays and continue out of the cafeteria as a group. On our way out we talk to each other and friends that we see sitting at other tables. Often, students will plan out what they will do later in the day while talking to friends and finding out what is going on. Eventually, the group will split up and goodbyes are said. We go back to our rooms with a full stomach and a full mind.