the rat lap

come for lunch rush, stay for run-ins

My first-ever Ratty meal, I forgot how to feed myself.

The dining hall’s roundabout shape confused me; after half a round, I was already lost. Meanwhile, new floormates clustered: filling booths, picking at the salad bar in search of fries. I grabbed a fist-sized bowl, too small for dinner, and frantically filled it to the brim— soup, carrots, beans, raisins, seeds, something called “special chicken.”

Like college itself, mastering the Ratty seemed to require a kind of adult maturity: courage, confidence, quick charm to find a good seat. And knowing what you want, how to fill your plate.

I have a saying now. The Rat Lap: a full lap around the Ratty to scan for available food and tables. May include unexpected run-ins.

~~

“How’s the Ratty?” Mom asked as we walked across campus on Family Weekend.

“I don’t really eat there much,” I said. After more than a month, the Ratty still felt like a map I couldn’t read.

“Oh, really?” She frowned. “Can I at least peek inside?”

We snuck in through the back and did a Rat Lap together: past the salad bar and rows of cold cuts, through the soup and bread tunnel, ending at the cereal station. There, Mom sampled Rhode Island coffee milk and crunched on a handful of Cracklin’ Oat Bran.

“The Ratty is amazing,” she said.

So that fall, I gave the Ratty another chance. Alongside new friends, I found my favorite Ratty meal: Seven Stars Bakery bread topped with peanut butter and apple slices. We spread homework across a rickety, wooden table but never really did it, instead swapping stories about tests, dates, and roommates. We Yelp-reviewed our lunches out loud. We walked the Ratty together—pausing to people-watch or taste-test a mysterious menu item—and together we coined the Rat Lap.

Come winter, five or six of us shared daily meals, crowded into a four-seater booth if we arrived in time to claim one. On the way from class, we texted play-by-play details…The line’s so long today. THEY HAVE THE GOOD PESTO! I’m in, where are you?

Some days I felt myself speed-walk, almost jog, to beat the lunch rush. Slow down, I would remind myself. It’s just the Ratty…

By now I can identify my friends by their Ratty selection. Pato’s plate features the Ratty’s signature grilled chicken and a handful of salad-bar pita chips. Isaac assembles a Caesar salad, then goes back for pizza. Maddie, gluten free, fills colorful to-go boxes with quinoa, protein, and the Roots and Shoots’ finest veggies. Ben meticulously peels a handful of hard-boiled eggs before tossing them with olive oil. Twenty minutes late, Oscar pours creamer into a coffee mug. For dessert, Rekha spoons her cereal without milk.  

Ratty food tasted better the more I ate it. I learned by imitation—to top my salad with feta and to bring a whole bottle of Sriracha to the dinner table. To eat a minimum of three courses, to always choose whole milk over skim. To grocery shop like my friend Camilla, who fills her backpack with Ratty oranges, apples, and rare avocados.

I shared Rat Laps with strangers too.

One day at lunch, I stood alongside a few others waiting for the peanut butter to be refilled. We stared at the overhead clock in silence until one guy pointed at the empty jars.

“You guys here for the natural peanut butter?” he asked like he already knew.

“Mm-hm,” I nodded.

Someone else chimed in: “I always wait for the natural.”

Another night, I spooned tofu-tempeh stir-fry onto my plate—cherry-picking the tempeh and avoiding the tofu.

“Are you actually looking for tempeh?” the guy behind me in line asked, eyebrows raised.

I started to apologize for being that person—but he cut me off.

“No, no it’s just funny,” he started, “because I always look for the tofu. So you’re actually doing me a huge favor.”

I passed him the serving spoon, and we finished our Rat Lap together, debating tofu versus tempeh.

The Ratty quieted down come summer, mostly populated by lanyard-wearing highschool students. Working on campus, I ate meals with fellow Resident Assistants, including Jeanelle—a recent Brown graduate who had been on meal plan all four years. She met her first friends over 7:30 a.m. breakfasts and pointed me to the booth where she once sat for 12 hours.

As a vegan, Jeanelle has a dining hall diet that’s both limited and expansive. Unexpected combinations occupy her plates: Pasta mixed with hummus and marinara sauce, for instance, is garnished with raisins and cereal.

But Jeanelle’s love of dining halls, like mine, isn’t really about the food. It’s something else, maybe the same thing my mom felt when she visited: a shared energy.

In the same space, people notice each other. We take Rat Laps hungry—hangry even—looking for different ingredients. We try new concoctions or stick with what’s familiar. We’re all here together: hoping not to run into that one guy, fishing for tempeh, and sometimes, still not knowing what to eat.

A year after that first freshman dinner, I crave the flavor of watery, smoky Ratty coffee first thing every morning. And I love my Ratty oatmeal so much—a dollop of peanut butter, extra craisins— that I try to replicate it in my kitchen at home. It just never tastes the same.