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Always Hungry: A Commentary On Formal Dining

Illustration by Marcelina Jagielka

Formal dining in college is a strange and multifarious concept. It is ultimately a hangover of tradition and pomp from Oxford’s ancient origins, but it is also quite pleasant. It’s a tradition I am not committed to abolishing, although perhaps it’s just another instance of Oxford trying to elevate itself above the commoners.

I’ve got the opportunity, every week, to have a three-course meal for £9 — this is incredible. It would be difficult to find a restaurant that will serve just a main course that costs less than £10. Sure, my friends and I are crammed onto benches with loads of other people, the noise is immense, and we just end up shouting at each other from across the table, but it remains quite the experience.

At Hertford, a Formal is a notable event. It’s not strictly enforced, but I do like to dress up to mark the occasion. Our Hall is not the fanciest — it’s not what I would call strictly an “old college” — but at night, lit by our enormous hearth and candlelight, it’s magical. We all cram in, finding odd spots for late arrivals, and eagerly read the menu for the evening. Often, this has involved me interpreting the menu for my companions — all part of the fun. Once we’re all seated, we rise for High Table, and some Latin is dutifully intoned.

But then comes the exciting bit. The High Table obviously gets served first, so we sit and watch plates levitate across the Hall, eagerly awaiting our own. I quite like the individual plates and table service that structure Hertford Formals. I have heard from other colleges that they have individual mains, and then a platter of potatoes and vegetables is given to each table. This is a dangerous game, considering my appetite, and the rules and courtesy involved may prove difficult. I went to a Keble Formal in Hilary term, and got to experience this method for myself. Thankfully, the people I sat with were gracious and clearly just as hungry as me, so we all made the most of the dish full of potatoes we were presented with.

image taken by author

In comparison to Hertford’s Formals, the Keble Formal I went to was a bit less, well, formal. The admittedly enormous Hall was sparsely populated, which was quite nice, as I could actually hear my fellow diners. But the food wasn’t as good as at Hertford: of course I’d say that. Keble Formals are also more regular and cheaper than Hertford’s. I saw a group in jeans and gowns. Each college has a different attitude to Formals, depending on their regularity, price, and convenience. I am quite glad, however, that Hertford’s Formals are special occasions.

The concept of a Formal is quite bizarre. It is very welcome: being able to have a fine-dining experience for a minutiae of the price is liberating for those who have never experienced it. It also opens up a culinary world. I don’t think I ever would have attempted making a five-course meal for my grandparents’ 50th Wedding Anniversary without my experience of Herford Formals.

It’s still an odd idea, though. It’s entirely exclusive: Formals are reserved to college members only. It’s a very ‘Oxford’ experience that I don’t think we appreciate the peculiarity of. Nonetheless, I still love them: dining in that beautiful hall, enjoying incredible food with friends… It is an absolute privilege which I relish every time.