When I pulled into the Wharton parking lot two weeks ago for the start of my first year here, sweating and trying to concentrate long enough to tell a mob of helpful Swatties where my room was, my main concern was trying not to melt in the heat. Any first-year or transfer student can tell you that getting used to Swarthmore is hard enough — anyone you’ll meet will probably be an expert in five things you’ve never heard of, people are always referencing someone named Jellow, and all the trees are labeled but there are three separate buildings called Lang. It’s even more difficult to acclimate to Swat when the temperature sticks to emergency levels for what feels like the entirety of orientation week. Nevertheless, after seizing the last fan in Worthmore and mentally mapping out every building on campus with AC, I managed to put the heat aside and deal with an issue I’d been worrying about ever since I committed to Swat: food.
During my senior spring, bored and sick of telling parents, friends, teachers, and random encounters at an ice cream shop that no, I didn’t know where I’d be going to college, I started scrolling through old issues of the Phoenix and trying to figure out how Swatties think. The people here were scary-smart, but also seemed weird enough for me to fit in — enough references to ‘Dactyl Hunt, Bird Club and a now-defunct party called GenderFuck (sidenote: we need to bring this back) clued me into that — and I thought that yeah, Swarthmore could be good for me. But then I started seeing a string of references I didn’t get: ski lodge, big room, pasta bar, all written in tones that ranged from weariness to disgust, all going back to one dread word: Sharples.
Sharples! That baffling combination of consonants I’d heard way back in August when I toured campus, accompanied by a rare grimace from our otherwise cheerful tour guide, as he gestured to a squat brick building to our left. The only dining hall on campus, and, as I discovered reading article after article in the Phoenix that April, the most hated thing at Swarthmore. This seemingly universal dislike for Sharples freaked me out, enough that I almost considered committing somewhere else. Did I really want to go to a school where everybody complained about what they ate? If the food was truly that horrific, was my digestive system going to suffer permanent damage? But, swayed by the promise of financial aid and an arboretum full of uber-nerds, I decided to commit and to brave what by this point seemed to me like some dining hall from a lower circle of hell.
Fast-forward several months to the first day of orientation: I’ve said goodbye to my family and braved a series of meetings and awkward introductions in blessedly air-conditioned rooms, and now my hall is walking down from Dana to dinner. I’m yelling something incoherent about One Direction to a friend when I realize that tonight will be my first time eating at Sharples as a Swarthmore student. Freeze. Nobody I’ve met at orientation has said anything terrible about the food here yet, but what about those articles? The endless complaints of blandness and mysterious dishes! The weird murals! The pasta bar! Was I about to suffer a culinary betrayal, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since my elementary school cafeteria?
Well, no, as it turns out. Maybe it’s another one of those #justswarthmorethings, a close relation to misery poker and how much we complain about the weather, but the Sharples of Swat’s collective resentment is not the Sharples I’ve been eating at for the past few weeks. Sure, the interior does look like someone crossed a 1970s ski lodge with an elementary school classroom and added a dash of the cafeteria from Camp Rock. Yes, there isn’t a lot of variety in the dishes offered; leftovers turn up in unexpected places the day after they’re served (see: jerk chicken pizza), the frozen yogurt is usually the texture of concrete, and I’m positive the “fried plantains” I ate the other night were actually bananas. The big room is as socially overwhelming as I imagined it to be, and I can’t eat in the soon-to-be Crumb Café without feeling like the mural characters in there are trying to steal my soul.
But, for the most part, my meals at Sharples have been fine. They’re fine! The staff there are lovely, and don’t deserve to be berated along with the food. There’s always some sort of legume and rice combination to be made that’s filling and tasty, the salad bar is fresh and has a good variety of toppings, and the desserts are delicious. On top of that, my roommate and I are on the verge of launching a campaign to have Butter Brickle ice cream available every day, and once they were serving this combination of toffee, chocolate, and cookie which was so good that I took a handful of pieces out with me, stashed inside my water bottle. Last Sunday morning, half-asleep and homesick and looking for comfort, I went to Sharples and had chocolate chip pancakes covered in some sort of magical cherry-based goop that tasted like candy. It was basic food, food that wasn’t trying to impress me or sweep me off my feet, and it was what I needed to get up and get through the day. I left full, and feeling more like myself than I had in awhile; I left happy.
So okay, Swarthmore: if you don’t like Sharples, I get it. God knows that if I could revamp the Sharples menu I’d ask for something spicier than jerk chicken, for vegetables at breakfast, for an East Asian dish that’s more creative than protein and green things and a soy-saucey goop. Although the dining hall is entirely peanut-free (thanks, WOW Butter!) it’s still difficult to navigate with food sensitivities, and the space is just too small to offer a choice of dishes that’d please even the pickiest of Swarthmore students. These complaints are justified — but y’all, there’s no reason to make Sharples out to be the hellscape I thought it was before I came here. Our dining hall may not have much in the way of culinary masterpieces, it’s true. But I’ll still be there tomorrow morning, choosing from the rainbow of melamine plates, snagging a donut before they disappear, and settling into a quiet-ish seat for a meal that’ll get me where I need to go.