Imagine, just for a second, the night before the first finals period of your freshman year. Your first semester of Duke has gone by in a flash; there are only seven more to go. Between trying to meet everyone in your class, joining new clubs, memorizing the C-1 bus schedule, and perhaps occasionally keeping in touch with friends and family back home, you might have forgotten that other thing—studying. Mild panic sets in, but then, that’s all right. Everyone else around you feels the same way. At least you can look forward to Midnight Breakfast.
Duke has had a few night-before-finals traditions in the past, but in recent decades, Midnight Breakfast has emerged as the staple event. When the Marketplace opened in 1995 on the newly all-freshmen East Campus, Duke Dining decided to hold a regular breakfast at midnight on the first night of finals for first-year students. “We thought we’d create some excitement and get them something to eat before exams, because they’d be up all night studying,” recalls Barbara Stokes, assistant director of Dining Services.
But eventually, East Campus Council got involved. Midnight Breakfast was never quite the same.
On Sunday, December 9, much like any other night, the Marketplace shuts down its dinner service at 9 p.m. But instead of fully closing up, fourteen freshmen start loading in boxes of decorations, props, streamers, T-shirts, and more, while the dining staff begins a manic turnover from dinner to a modified, special-menu breakfast. Freshmen will start pouring in at 11 p.m., ready for a feast, study break, and stress-outlet dance party all rolled into one.
The East Campus Council (ECC), made up of leaders from each dorm, is charged with planning and executing the theme of each Midnight Breakfast, which has run the gamut from “Under the Sea,” to The Fast and the Furious, to “Candyland,” to The Nightmare Before Christmas. This year’s theme is Mario Kart, and decals of characters are being plastered around the walls, Nintendo consoles are set up in one of the back dining rooms, and a racing road of flimsy black crepe paper held down with strips of bright yellow tape begins to wind through the Marketplace. There’s no way it’s going to hold up to the foot traffic, but Lisa Beth Bergene, assistant dean of residence life and administrator for the event, is happy to let the freshmen learn from their mistakes.
“I help the group stay on task without getting in their way. It’s their first semester, they haven’t seen [the event], they’re acting blind. But every year they do a good job and make the theme work,” she says.
Stringing up racing flags from the balconies of the entrance to the Marketplace is freshman Beth Hoyler of Wilson dorm. She’s already turned in three papers and has another paper and exam to go and still has managed to co-chair the breakfast. “It’s a special bonding event,” she says. “I’ve heard about it from upper classmen, but I didn’t know how big and awesome it could be!”
Around 10 p.m., the line starts to form. A few students linger at the Trinity Café in the main lobby of the Marketplace, hoping that will keep their place at the head of the line. They are assured it doesn’t count. “Think of it like you’re in line for Tenting,” an ECC rep explains, as they are ushered outside.
Sugar-laden air starts to waft through the Marketplace, shortly followed by the sharp, tangy smell that can only be hot wings, emanating from the “Rocket Power Wing and Tender” bar. In the weeks before the event, ECC met with dining staff to prepare a custom menu. Special items appear, including strawberry French toast, chocolate-chip pancakes, and sliced-apple, butter, brown-sugar, pecan, cinnamon, and vanilla-icing pizza, not to mention an impressive array of donuts and gummy worms. Standard breakfast meats, as well as a meat-lover’s pizza and vegetarian pizza, complement the sweet staples. And for the health-conscious freshman: a station featuring a black bean, tortilla, pepper and onion scramble, vegan sausage, cage-free hard-boiled eggs, and salsa. (Its line remains pretty short throughout the night.)
The preparations continue down to the wire. The students assign themselves to posts by the door, greeting their classmates, giving out T-shirts. In one anteroom, a photo booth is being erected, replete with cartoonish hats and props. A DJ sets up a table in the larger dining room. “He’s one of our own,” says Luke Maier from Epworth. “Half the Marketplace will be a rave.”
His words soon come to pass.
At 11 p.m. on the dot, the line, which had snaked across East Campus quad to Lilly Library and down in front of Giles dormitory, begins entering the Marketplace. ECC members, some of whom sport Mario Kart character costumes, greet each student with a high five, followed by a Tshirt that reads “Ready. Set. Eat.” (“Those T-shirts become a collectors’ item,” Bergene notes.) The students peel off into the food court, piling their plates with food combinations only eighteen-year-olds can digest. Between clusters of students, the ECC members marvel at the spectacle.
“This has been the highlight of finals week,” says Vaibhan Penukonda of Randolph, who co-chaired the event and designed the T-shirts. He has two papers and three exams for which he needs to prepare. But nothing will mar his enthusiasm tonight. Midnight Breakfast “is one of the only times that all freshmen come together,besides convocation,” he adds. “Honestly, this is like another final, but more fun.”
Within twenty minutes, a few women start dancing around tables near the DJ booth. The sugar has started to kick in, and soon a dance-off is under way. Ten minutes later, the lights go off in the larger dining room, and more students start dancing. “It’s poppin’ on that side!” shouts one student, racing onto the dance floor. The Marketplace staff starts to cluster at the entrance of the room, watching what would otherwise look like a typical Saturday night at the popular Durham nightclub Shooters, save for the conspicuous absence of alcohol. Veteran Marketplace chef “Big Jamal” smiles and says he hasn’t seen a dance party this big at Midnight Breakfast in about four or five years. “They didn’t come to eat; they came to party.”
"This has been the highlight of finals week."
Things proceed at a clip until about 12:50 a.m., when the lights come back on and the students quickly learn that all good parties must come to an end. Approximately 1,100 freshmen have come and gone, each with a new T-shirt and a belly full of sweets. Now the hard part will begin.
By 1:15, the Marketplace is empty. The food is gone, as are almost all of the decorations. The Marketplace staff finishes prepping the kitchens for regular morning service at 7 a.m. Will Bobrinskoy, of Aycock dorm, admits that as much fun as Midnight Breakfast has been, he’s headed straight to the library once he’s released from cleanup duties. Still, the work was worth it. “The best part was all the smiles,” he says.