Food and Sanity in Graduate School

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

April 04, 2011

I didn't realize I liked jalapeños until I moved to Texas to go to graduate school. At my mother's house, after all, one ate what one was offered. She wasn't running a restaurant.

And then I moved to the South and discovered that my kitchen could, in fact, become my own personal restaurant, within the grocery budget of a graduate student. As my own culinary declaration of independence—from my mom's kitchen as well as from my Northern cooking roots—I started to use food in various ways. I cooked to relax at the end of the day and to bring my fellow graduate students together. I brought baked goods to class in order to (not so subtly) bribe my professors.

Food has carried me through my first two years of graduate courses, through my comps year, and well into my first foray into dissertation research.

I am not a professional cook. I have no training save what I learned growing up, from cooking shows, and from practice. I am, consequently, prone to kitchen disasters—like the time I was at the David Library of the American Revolution, in Pennsylvania, and clogged the fellows' kitchen sink with onions. No amount of plunging helped, and once water started shooting out of the sink and the garbage disposal, I had to give in and call the library's chief operating officer, who obligingly came over even though it was late in the evening.

Or, similarly, when I filled my sublet in Philadelphia with an obscene amount of smoke because I'd failed to check the pan for debris before turning the broiler on. Or the time I managed to make a burning-hot glass baking dish explode in my oven—with the door open!—because, like an idiot, I'd added cold water to a hot dish. There is a reason I'm pursuing my graduate degree in history rather than the sciences.

Nevertheless, all of those incidents have made me laugh. And I've found that keeping one's sense of humor is essential when going through a Ph.D. program. You need to be able to chuckle when you have 150 books to read in a year, coupled with 10 or 15 grant applications to write—not to mention classes to TA, discussion sessions to lead, and papers to grade. You need to be capable of realizing that an author's reliance on jargon is sometimes funny, and you must be able to laugh off the tough criticisms you receive about your work until you're ready to sit down and take the constructive parts of that advice under consideration.

It is much easier to do those things when you can giggle about the fact that you're peeling a squash at midnight because your kitchen was only recently cleansed of tiny, sizzling shards of glass.

Graduate courses often require you to get through multiple books in a week. That leads to stress. When I am stressed I bake things. Cookie recipes usually yield a couple of dozen cookies, and there is no way I am going to allow all of those cookies to live in my apartment; I bring them to campus and share. Jam thumbprints are particularly welcome during the break in a three-hour seminar, when everyone's blood sugar is low and people need something to get through the historiographical discussion of the latest book on the syllabus. Professors don't seem to mind.

Early on in graduate school I used food to communicate with people. I organized potlucks, or I convinced people to eat some greasy pub food when seminars ran late. I also found that discussing food was an effective way to get people talking. In case you haven't noticed, we academics are a somewhat awkward bunch, but everyone has something to say about food. I took special joy in detailing my kitchen disasters when no one else had anything to say, and I asked older graduate students where they liked to eat as a way of breaking the ice.

My graduate coursework was stressful, but my third year proved more so, as I prepared for my comprehensive exams. As an undergraduate, I had always had time to read everything. But in graduate school, with much more to read and much more work to do, I found I could remember the significant points of the footnote on Page 357, but not a book's general argument.

I realized that I needed to be skimming. Giving myself something to cook allowed me to set a fixed deadline for finishing a book. I could put a pork butt in the oven and say to myself, "You have to finish this book by the time your fork slides easily into this potentially delicious slab of meat. At the end of three hours, you will take it out of the oven, and, while it cools down enough for you to shred it, you will write up your comps summary of this monograph."

I could also take breaks every half an hour or so, by opening the oven and basting the pork butt with a "mop" (a mixture of vinegar, onions, and spices designed to keep the meat moist while it cooks). I should also add that opening the oven door was a delightful way to fill my apartment with tantalizing smells, heightening my anticipation and my motivation to finish the reading on time.

Risotto became a staple. Ever since I started making it, I've always found it very calming to carry out the whole process. I can read for one hour, and then spend the next one prepping and chopping all of the ingredients and sequestering them in little bowls to be added at the right time. I get excited thinking about dinner while powering through a book's conclusion.

When I've been on the road for my dissertation research, I have had to remind myself to be more flexible about how I spend time in the kitchen. Rented, subletted, and shared kitchens have been unpredictable, and it has been difficult subsisting for a year without my favorite kitchen equipment. On the other hand, I really haven't had time to bake an angel food cake, or zest five lemons in order to make icing for four dozen sugar cookies.

It's been important in graduate school to become acquainted with the etiquette of kitchen sharing. I've needed to become more aware of just how much refrigerator space I am capable of taking up, if no one reels me in. If I'm the first person up in the morning and there's a coffee maker, you can bet that I'll make enough for everyone. And when I've clogged a sink with onions, I've made sure to ply the other housemates with moussaka as a peace offering.

I once met a chef who told me that one's palate changes every seven years. I don't know whether that's an accurate statement, but flexibility and adaptability are certainly key skills for making it through graduate school. Food has been my constant companion, but the way that I eat continues to change depending on where I am. I've substituted Sunday-morning chilaquiles in Texas for cheap dim sum in New York's Chinatown, and I've learned recipes for baked goods that can be thrown together by hand. Just as I've had to refine my reading and research skills, I've had to alter the things that I put in my stomach. On the road to the dissertation, omnivorous eating may very well be the key to academic survival.

Rachel Herrmann is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin.