03 December 2008

ode to formal hall

I have complained about bureaucracy and kvetched about overcommitment, but as Michaelmas Term '08 draws to a close I thought I'd focus on the positive and pay tribute to some of the things that make Cambridge special. The first installment of a multi-part series: an ode to formal hall.

Each and every one of Cambridge's 31 colleges have some version of formal hall, which is a regular, highly ritualized multi-course dinner. I've already described formal hall for you once, but at the time I didn't appreciate what a central feature of Cambridge life it is. No joke: I eat an extravagant, sumptuous, Thanksgiving-sized meal here at least once per week. Every college does it a little differently, and the character of formal hall is a little window into the soul of a college. Some colleges hold formal hall quite often, others quite rarely; some require academic gowns, others do not; some seat the fellows (i.e. teaching faculty) of the college at an elevated "high table," others are more egalitarian; some have their own port and a cheese course after dinner, other's don't; some have multiple elaborate graces in Latin, others have a pithy two-word blessing. Most colleges have pre-dinner drinks and post-dinner parties in other spaces on the college grounds.

I would guess that the majority of Cambridge grads go to formal hall at their own college with some regularity, and it's also possible to attend other college's formal halls either by getting a friend to bring you as a guest, or through "formal hall exchanges" between colleges. Some M.Phil students set the ambitious goal of dining at all 31 colleges during their year. I haven't adopted that goal for myself, but I have been to six so far, so I'm on track to hit up more than half of the total by the end of the year. Here's a photographic tour of five of them:

Newnham is one of three all-women's colleges at Cambridge, but they sure seem to import a lot of guys for formal hall. There was much fodder for stereotyping: the hall itself reminded me of a wedding cake, and after the final grace the head of the college delivered an unusual pep rally-style speech about what a great term it's been. I went with four of my Development Studies classmates, two of whom are members of Newnham.

Trinity is among the oldest, wealthiest, most prestigious, and most traditional of the Cambridge colleges. I ate my dinner with a large group of fellow Gates Scholars under a looming portrait of Amartya Sen. Sen is a former master of Trinity College and Nobel Prize-winning economist/philosopher whose thought is the basis for one of the courses I've been taking this term. Some of his most pathbreaking work has been in the area of famine, and the obvious irony did complicate my feelings about our opulent feast. I suspect that's just how Professor Sen would like it.

Churchill is a relative newcomer, founded in 1958. Named for the former prime minister and styled as England's MIT, Churchill has a large male majority, but only because of its emphasis on engineering and other high-tech fields. Churchill is also one of the more secular colleges. The pre-dinner grace is just two words: benedictus benedictat. ("May the blessed one give a blessing" or something like that.) After dinner, the students traditionally raise a rather sedate toast "to the Queen," followed by a rambunctious toast "TO SIR WINSTON!"

Peterhouse is the oldest college in Cambridge, and the fact that they've had eight centuries of practice doesn't mean the food was good-- in fact, it was pretty awful. The hall is entirely candle-lit and reminds one of a medieval castle, which I suppose is pretty close to the truth. As the fellows were filing out at the end of the meal -- a ritual obliging the students to stand in silence -- somebody knocked their long bench over, sending it tumbling to the stone floor with a tremendous thud. As soon as the door closed behind the last fellow, the hall erupted in repressed laughter.

And last but not least, the best college, Emmanuel! We have "MCR formals" every other Monday, which means that we pack the hall with grad students and have some kind of theme dinner and after-party. I really do feel that Emma has some of the best food around, and the formal dinners always conclude with a cheese course and a glass of Emmanuel College port. (Yep, someone bottles it just for the college.) As one of the new MCR social secretaries, I'm now the one responsible for coordinating the MCR formals. But that's a tale for another post.

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