Dining at Formal Hall at Oxford
Hampton food, Aunt Sadie used to call it, and indeed it had a character of its own which can best be described by saying that it was like mountains of the very most delicious imaginable nursery food, plain and wholesome, made of the best materials, each thing tasting strongly of itself. But, like everything else at Hampton, it was exaggerated… I used to think, when I was a child, that all this excellence made Hampton seem unreal compared with the only other houses I knew, Alconleigh and Aunt Emily’s little house. It was like a noble establishment in a book or a play, not like somebody’s home, and in the same way the Montdores, and even Polly, never quite seemed to be real flesh-and-blood people.
— From “Love in a Cold Climate,” by Nancy Mitford
Despite the fantastic Lebanese mezze there is to be found in the Temple Lounge off Cowley Road, despite the remarkable momos from the truck that appears every Wednesday at the Gloucester Green market, and despite the best efforts of the much beleaguered co-operative People’s Supermarket (which in fact closed for good two years ago), perhaps the most famous food in Oxford in England is to be found on the table of formal hall. Hall, a word that meant both the physical wood-panelled dining room where meals were eaten in college, as well as the meal itself, whether breakfast, lunch or dinner. Formal hall was almost always dinner, and you could drink wine with your meal: BYOB or bought from the college cellar before formal hall started. In my college formal halls were held once a week on Fridays and cost £10.
When I entered Oxford in 2010 as an undergraduate, we were informed that my college had one of the more informal formals as you were not expected to attend the meal in your gown, unlike at many of the other Oxford colleges. Nevertheless, formal hall was a fancy—a formal—affair, with those students who chose to attend dressing up in bow ties and pretty dresses every Friday.
For many, formal hall was a weekly ritual. Formal was understood to be one of the cheapest places to have a meal out in Oxford, and afterwards some of the hall diners would go for a night out on the town, ending in one of Oxford’s many terrible nightclubs, dancing on those sticky floors in their pretty dresses and bowties.
And it was a ritual—even now I see it in my mind’s eye, admittedly through the blurry lens of time and distance: As everyone rose uneasily from their chairs the dons would begin their slow, ceremonial march through our tiny hall up to High Table, a long table elevated on a platform at the front of the hall where only senior members of college were allowed to sit. Following: the long severe knock on the table as a cue to start the grace before the meal, which was recited in Latin. Once, a friend volunteered to recite the prayer, but was herself late to hall. I can see that in my mind’s eye, too, a young breathless classicist rushing up to the table and starting to read uncertainly without ceasing to catch her breath. Even as someone ignorant of Latin, I could tell that the pauses came in all the wrong places.
The food, dressed up in hundreds of years of ritual and snobbery, was itself nothing much to speak of. Plainly—even mediocrely—cooked in all the ways the best English food always is, there would be a meat (chicken, pork or lamb roast to a kind of stiff dryness, except around Christmas when it would inevitably be celebratory dry turkey), two vegetables and a starch, with the sides passed around in platters. (At one memorably pathetic formal, I remember the vegetarians in our group of friends at formal hall staring glumly at their vegetable skewers on rice as the others laid happily into their steaks.) For dessert, or “pudding” as it is known in England, we had desserts with public school names (trifle, Eton mess, fruit fool), or sticky steamed cakes with custard or cream to pour over.
Formal hall was one of those impressive institutions of Oxford you brought guests to when they were in town. The hall itself was beautiful, and people would gape upwards at the high ceiling, run their eye over the centuries-old tables, which would be sticky from centuries of beeswax polish. (You still had to avoid the critical gazes of the white men depicted in portraits, hung high over the seated diners.) “I can’t believe you eat here every day,” they would say. “I can’t either,” you would say, if you were extremely new to college, but after a while you came to believe and accept it, just as you would come to believe and accept many other things about Oxford.
My brilliant friend Mik came to visit me in Oxford once. Of course, I invited her to formal hall. I can’t remember what we ate then, but later she wrote: The dude sitting next to us was trying to impress his grandparents with his Theories About Communism. His grandmother remained stony-faced and silent the whole way through the conversation, until towards the end of the meal he knocked his salad bowl over and she shrieked with laughter like it was the funniest joke she’d heard in a long time.
Of course, we were all young then, but, as I wish someone would say to the protagonists of The Secret History, youth is no excuse. During informal hall every day hall staff would hover over you and pick up plates as you finished the food on them, an attendance I have never quite understood since diners queued up to get their food in the first instance and would be expected to dispose of their trays in the last. During formal hall, however, the service was absolute. Hall staff themselves smartly attired laid out the bread rolls before diners entered the hall and put your food down in front of you, just like in a real restaurant. I suppose the only difference was that you had to sit through grace before beginning.
The last time I ever sat for formal was graduation day. My parents had flown in from Singapore specially for the event—so proud to see their youngest daughter graduate, so happy, so, killingly, impressed by the erudition of college and the cobblestoned street it stood upon, so pleased by its beautiful, snobbish aspect. Before the graduation lunch we gathered in the garden for drinks, where the free flow of alcohol that began there continued throughout lunch. For the meal itself we had poached salmon. My parents were delighted to be able to sit at High Table, a table they instinctively grasped was more important than the rest, next to a very important don whose role in the administration of things I forget. “Do you get to sit here much?” my mother asked me.
“No,” I said, not wanting to explain very much that these seats were usually reserved for senior members of college, or indeed what a senior member of college was. “Not very often.”
This story is part of our food month series.
Li Sian lives in Singapore, which is officially the world’s most expensive city. Her occupation is “professional feminist.” There is no social media account she doesn’t feel embarrassed linking to.
Photo: Jason Cartwright