The evolving tradition of gracious dinners

Photos courtesy of the Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections Mount Holyoke students and their guests dressed up to celebrate “gracious living” dinners in the dining halls. 

Photos courtesy of the Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections

Mount Holyoke students and their guests dressed up to celebrate “gracious living” dinners in the dining halls. 

BY SABA FIAZUDDIN ’21 

The gracious dinner tradition has been a key component of Mount Holyoke life for decades. In the 1950s students would dress up for a special meal, known as “gracious living” dinners, which were served in dorms and often followed by tea or coffee in the common room. Through the years, the tradition has evolved — for example, students are no longer required to come wearing stockings and heels — and the launch of centralized dining in the spring will kick-start a new phase. 

According to Kathryn Gay, the menu coordinator for dining services, gracious dinners have always been served as “monotony breakers” to allow a respite from the usual menu. Gay said, “They were usually planned with a fun theme such as Fall Carnival, Tailgating, Welcome to New England, Day of the Dead, Bread and Cheese Bar [and] Chinese New Year.” Gay recounted meeting with a student before each gracious dinner who represented one of six languages — Chinese, Japanese, German, French, Italian and Spanish — to help plan a menu based on that culture. 

Gracious dinners in their early years offered a chance for students to dine with not just their classmates, but also special guests such as professors and their families. “Often, girls find these dinners a perfect opportunity to invite faculty or administration and their families to the dorm,” said a Mount Holyoke Freshman Handbook from 1966. “a perfect way to discover that the man who was formidable behind the desk is human after all.” 

Psychology professor Katherine Haydon ’00 remembers attending gracious dinners fondly. “For gracious dinners we always took time for a longer meal than usual,” said Haydon. “My friends and I would push the big round tables together in the dining hall, and sit and talk for hours over dinner. Those nights felt like holidays to us, a time to take a break from everything together.”  A specific gracious dinner memory sticks with Haydon: “When I lived in the Delles, I attended a gracious dinner at 1837, where the Chef Jeff was head chef. He often made extra dishes that were off the menu. That night, the first really chilly night of the fall, he made a butternut squash bisque. I still remember how good that bisque tasted, and how cozy I felt sitting there looking out over the lake.”

Photos courtesy of the Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections Students attended Wednesday night “gracious living” teas in the common rooms of their dorms following dinner. 

Photos courtesy of the Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections

Students attended Wednesday night “gracious living” teas in the common rooms of their dorms following dinner. 

Gracious dinners held in recent years have been decorated with tablecloths, candles and cloth napkins and have introduced a variety of ethnic food to the daily menu. A menu card from a 2006 Chinese gracious dinner found in the Archives and Special Collections boasts dishes such as “Yangchow Fried Rice” and “Bok Choy and Bamboo Shoots.” 

Gargi Mishra ’18, who has been to many gracious dinners throughout her time at Mount Holyoke, said, “I have really enjoyed eating at gracious dinners since my first year at MHC. The ambience during gracious dinners is always very warm and welcoming, and I think they are a great way of connecting with friends. I hope that something similar to gracious dinners exists in SuperBlanch.” 

Ya Qin ’21 agreed, having attended all of the gracious dinners held so far during her first semester at Mount Holyoke. “[My] first gracious dinner added some color to my daily life,” she said. “It was so refreshing to have something different and I hope that this tradition continues for many years to come.”

 Students voiced concern that the closing of dorm dining halls could mean the end of gracious dinners. Richard Perna, director of dining services, has confirmed that this dearly loved tradition will not be coming to an end any time soon and will continue to be held at the new community center, complete with traditional linen tablecloths and napkins. With the new center will come new features of gracious dinner, including “cook to order.” 

“With the enhanced space, we will have more variety and flexibility,” said Perna. 

Tooba Indhar ’21 was relieved to find out that the tradition won’t be discontinued. “[My first gracious dinner] felt very intimate,” said Indhar. “It was the first time in months that I felt like I was really home.” 

*Additional reporting by Caitlin Lynch ’20

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