Dear Graduate Scholar: People Make the Meal

by David Peterson, PhD

Looking back on my time in Pitt’s doctoral program, I remember the landmark moments. For me, almost all of these memories involve food. I remember passing my comps and eating an ice cream cake on the Cathedral Lawn, and then passing my prospectus defense and eating mussels at Point Brugge. After I passed my dissertation defense, I ate at Union Pig and Chicken (my God the cornbread!). There are of course many smaller events, also accompanied by food: going to the Map Room after completing what seemed like an endless first week of second year classes stays strong in my mind. What made these events memorable was of course the food, almost always good, but also the people I shared the food with. When initially coming to Pittsburgh I was on my own in a new city. Meals out were a wonderful way of bonding with a community. As time went along, these meals or snacks became great ways to catch up with friends whose busy lives did not allow us to see each other as frequently as we did in earlier years of the program. Food worked as a sort of social glue that kept us coming together. That Pittsburgh has such wonderful food and many graduate students are excellent cooks ensured that food acted as a very strong glue.

At Pitt, one my favorite recurring food events was snack. Much like children in primary school, graduate students require snacks while learning in order to keep their focus (or at least we did). During our seminars, we would all agree on a snack schedule, and one person would bring in a snack each week. This showed off the tremendous skills of the graduate students. Besides considerable intellectual acumen, many can bake, cook, creatively arrange items from the IGA, or simply eat unholy amounts of food. Snacks made for fun moments of relief, or getting to know people. What kinds and how much food one likes can tell you a lot about a person. It also helps you make it through those long classes. Snack was so ingrained that any seminars in other departments seemed extraordinarily long just due to the lack of food. Not be stopped in their quest for eating, certain graduate students in theatre even exported snacks to other departments. Sharing a cookie, chocolate cake, hummus and carrots, or even root beer floats helped us make it through seminars and allowed us to we get to know your colleagues.

Food also took on a special valence after leaving Pitt. At conferences many graduates and current students try to meet up for a drink or food. As a graduate student it was nice to see former students, or learn what Pitt was like a decade ago. Since graduating these meet ups seem even more meaningful. You get to see old friends, over food you know you will all enjoy, and see what is happening in their worlds. People you used to see everyday are now spread across a continent. Getting to catch up with them, in addition to professors and meeting new students, makes for a really lovely experience. As with seminar snack, the conference meet up provide a respite in the middle of intense academic goings ons. Reconnecting with people, old and new, is wonderfully accomplished over a drink in Dallas or plate of appetizers in Montreal.

I enjoy food a great deal. I like expensive food, and very inexpensive food. Often I eat more of the latter, but looking back across graduate school, and beyond, what I remember most are the people that have shared those meals and snacks. The stories, the sharing of joys, the commiserating in times of challenge, the hearty hellos, and the more difficult good-byes (but hopefully just for now) all mark wonderful noshings. I in no way wish to diminish the important role of food as a sensory experience, but I may have to say it is the people I am eating with that make the meal.

Dave Peterson holds a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre at North Central College in Illinois. He has previously taught at Colby College in Maine. As one might surmise from the article, in his free time Dave enjoys eating, and is eager to see what culinary delights Chicagoland has to offer.


Series Editor: Esther J. Terry