A Taste of Home: Cultural Representation in Tufts Dining

Anevay Ybáñez, a first-year at Tufts, was born and raised on the border of South Texas and Mexico. She’s used to dishes piled with Fideo (a soup eaten when it’s cold outside), heavily spiced chicken and rice, and the sound of clinking bottles of Mexican Coke around the dinner table. “Food is a massive part of our being,” Ybáñez described. “It’s everything.” In the absence of these familiar meals, Ybáñez felt disoriented when she arrived at Tufts. “Because I grew up with people who are like me,” Ybáñez stated, “I’ve never had to experience that sort of ostracization, ethnically, and socially… I haven’t had any Mexican food since I’ve been [at Tufts], so I miss it a lot.” Ybáñez’s yearn for familiar food is not only emotional, but physical as well. After a week of dining hall food, Ybáñez began to experience intense stomach pain. Her body wasn’t used to the new ingredients she was eating, or the absence of old ones. 

Faced with an unfamiliar environment in college, many students crave the feeling of home. Some students may hang their home country’s flag above their bed, join clubs brimming with people who understand their culture, or seek comfort in familiar routines and rituals they practiced in their childhood. However, students like Ybáñez feel that one of the most central aspects of one’s upbringing cannot be replicated: food. Around the world, food is a key expression of care. Home cooked meals, childhood staples, old recipes, and food-focused events are woven into the fabric of identity, strongly associated with familial love and the feeling of security. Without this comfort, Ybáñez feels that she is missing an integral part of her culture, expressing, “there’s a certain part of me that’s left untouched when I come [to Tufts].”

Tufts Dining tries to provide students from various cultural backgrounds with food that tastes like home. Amy Hamilton, Manager of Strategic Communication and Marketing of Tufts Dining, wrote in a statement to the Observer that Tufts Dining has “respect for cultural diversity and the savoring and preservation of family traditions and centuries-old food cultures.” This has translated into the increase in diverse meals in the dining halls, including Mediterranean, Thai, Halal, and Indian dishes served on a weekly basis. At Hodgdon Food-on-the-Run, there is a permanent Mexican food station, “Churros Calientes,” and a Pan-Asian section that often prompts lines that bend around the room. However, Tufts Dining’s most concerted efforts to integrate different cultures’ foods come in the form of special food nights, such as Hanukkah Dinner or Asian Food Night. 

Tufts’ attempts to diversify its food have led to backlash from the student body. On Asian Food Night in Fall 2021, Tufts first-year Winston Hsiao noticed that Carmichael’s scallion pancakes looked far different from what he’s used to eating at home. “I had them growing up,” Hsiao said. “Anyone that knows what scallion pancakes are, if they saw that, they’d be like, yeah, no, that’s not a scallion pancake.” Hsiao decided to post a video of the pancakes on TikTok, and the clip went viral, garnering over 2.5 million views. Hundreds of thousands of people commented, referring to the incident as “racist,” or a “hate crime.” Several small news websites and Instagram accounts featured the story as well.

After the backlash, the Chef Manager of Fresh at Carm, Richard Kaupp, contacted Hsiao and explained that he was upset by the product the school had produced and that he wanted to make up for it. After talking to Kaupp, Hsiao was forgiving of the miscalculation. “I think they deserve a little more credit,” he stated. “They do work pretty hard there, especially at Carm, and they’re pretty restricted in regards to their equipment… it’s not that they don’t want to provide.” Since the TikTok, Hsiao has gathered that the scallion pancake recipe was a bit of an improvisation, as the dining hall workers had not received a gluten-free version in time. This was corroborated by Hamilton, who stated that “there may be ingredients that we are unable to use because they come from a facility that processes gluten or nuts. These special allergy free ingredients can change the texture and even taste of a recipe.”

However, some students feel that Tufts’ mishandling of certain traditional recipes does not end with one-off cultural food nights and sloppy mistakes. Ybáñez is particularly unsettled by Hodgdon’s permanent Mexican food station, “Churros Calientes,” which means “hot churros” in Spanish. “The thing that got me the most was it claims that it’s TexMex, which is very hurtful because it is entirely not,” Ybáñez stated. “They don’t even sell churros there… in a way it does feel performative.” Ybáñez urged that her discontent is not with the workers, but with the administration, which she views as coming from a particularly white, American perspective that does not accurately honor the cultures it is trying to replicate. 

In recent months, Tufts Dining has appeared to take note of this sentiment. In response to the controversy of Asian Food Night, according to Hamilton, Tufts Dining committed to not only discussing recipes with cultural student groups associated with the events, but also adding tastings to make sure the recipe is agreed on. Tufts Dining’s goals are evident in the menus themselves; in honor of Black History Month, both Carmichael and Dewick-Macphie Dining Halls are featuring a different famous Black chefs’ recipe each Thursday all through February. This effort is emphasized by Hamilton, who stated that “[Tufts Dining has] expanded our approach to food diversity significantly over the past few years to reflect the changing demographics of the university.”

When students can’t find familiar foods in the dining halls, there is often a place or community on campus where they can turn to. In the Latinx center, candy from Ybáñez’s childhood fills glass bowls; in Hillel, students simply have to show up on a Friday night to feast on Challah and holiday-appropriate sweets; at culinary society events, students can find culturally-rich foods from a host of countries. As the administration continues to adjust its goals to reflect the wishes of the student body, students continue to seek ways to feel fulfilled by Tufts Dining. To Ybáñez, “even something as simple as candy really matters.”