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Malcolm Gladwell's Podcast Tackles College Dining Hall Food

July 18, 2016

If you have vivid memories of the food served in your college dining hall, chances are that it's because it was very bad—or, perhaps, very good.

In "Food Fight," episode five of his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell investigates why the quality of the food at two private liberal arts colleges in the Northeast differs so drastically, and what this says about their financial aid policies.

Why does food at Vassar incite widespread discontent, whereas the meals at Bowdoin (a comparable school, also in the Northeast) claim the title of "best college food in America"?

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Gladwell's theory? That prioritizing top-of-the-line dining hall food means de-prioritizing financial aid; that school-wide lobster bakes and eggplant Parmesan pancakes attract students from wealthy backgrounds but detract from the mission of providing higher education to everyone.

You'll hear Gladwell's argument below:

Bowdoin has responded to the episode, calling it "a manipulative and disingenuous shot [...] filled with false assumptions, anecdotal evidence, and incorrect conclusions," and Gladwell himself has engaged in a bit of back-and-forth Twitter sparring with Bowdoin alums who are less than thrilled with his analysis.

Does the podcast simplify the problems of financial aid and university budgeting? Gloss over the commitments that Bowdoin has made to providing monetary support for its admitted students?

One oversight is obvious: Gladwell skips over the more food-focused questions, such as where do Bowdoin and Vassar source their food from, and how does this affect their local food systems? How do the two institutions treat their employees, those preparing and serving the meals? And what happens to any leftovers or waste?

Perhaps those are inquiries for another episode (but I'd like to know the answers, regardless).

What do you remember about dining hall food? Tell us in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • melissa
  • HalfPint
  • Emma C Foley
    Emma C Foley
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


melissa July 18, 2016
how odd that gladwell would draw a correlation between the university's availability to provide financial aid and its funding of the dining hall (assuming these monies even come from the same pot). why wouldn't this be tied more to, say, ATHLETICS, new dorm constructions, or new performance venues? seems more like gladwell is using this opportunity to troll liberals twofold: he gets to scold SLACs for not living up to their commitments to financial aid while also mocking students (millenials) for their bougie interest in food. his bottom line is that you either have to choose your bourgeois comforts or your do-gooder charity, fueling the discourse of scarcity and austerity.
HalfPint July 18, 2016
I lived in 2 dormitories in my first year at UCONN. The first one was a smaller dormitory which scaled down the food selection. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either. The second was 3 times the size of the first one. Meal options were much better with lots of theme nights. This was before the school revamped their dining setup and consolidated meals to the bigger dining halls. Bottomline: there was always something for everyone. It wasn't a perfect system, but it was far better than what I've heard about at other schools. We were never ever served mystery meat.
Emma C. July 18, 2016
I went to Vassar and had less qualms with the food than those who spoke in the podcast. Certainly on some nights there was a lot left to be desired, but there was also a stir fry station where you could make your own food if nothing appealed to you. My favorite day was Chili Wednesday--homemade chili (I got veggie) and a slice of cornbread was always delicious on a cold afternoon!