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College Cafeterias: not your father's dorm food


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I went to The University of Alabama and graduated in 1982. I lived in a dorm that required a food plan my first 2 years.

Having grown up in New Orleans I was accustomed to a fairly high standards for food and the University cafeterias did not meet them. After the first few weeks my taste buds had acclimated to the swile they were serving and declared that they were not going to take it any more.

I went to the VP of Student Affairs and complained and was told that the food service company, SAGA, had a monthly meeting with everyone who was interested on the cafeteria food.

So I went to the meeting thinking I would tell the food service people to get their act together. When I showed up at my first meeting there was the 3 cafeteria managers, the 3 senior cooks and 2 University administrators. That was it. Apparently I was the first student in months to come.

I said how bad I though the food was and to my amazement they agreed with me. They apparently had figured out that they could buy local ingredients cheaper and make them better. But every time they did many students would complain that the food did not taste like their mothers.

One of the cooks and I had a long philosophical debate on the "proper" way to make string beans. But as he said, "I can make them al dente. I can braise them for 3 house, but is I do not turn them into mush no one will be happy."

I started going and talking every month and got an interesting view of the issues of intuitional cooking. But the bottom like was that the University wanted the food service to cook to the lowest common denominator.

My last two years I lived off campus and eat much better. The cooks from the cafeterias pointed me to a whole lot of good sources for ingredients.

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Harvard '80 reporting here.

There was no such thing as "meal plan" at Harvard when I was an undergrad there. The residential system is modeled on the British university model, in which faculty and students live together in residential "colleges" (which is what they're called at Yale; Harvard calls 'em "houses"); eating together is a central feature of the system, so room and board are a single package.

I don't remember that hot plates and stashes of canned soup or ramen were widespread, but hot plates were fairly common; I had one myself.

The menus were the same in all of the campus dining halls--each House has its own--but word was that the quality of the food was better in the Houses with their own kitchens than in the five that were serviced by the Central Kitchen in Kirkland House, and that the food in the Radcliffe Quad Houses was best of all. (The Quad dorms did have a policy of offering you a hamburger cooked on the spot if you didn't like anything on the menu, something you couldn't get at the River Houses.)

My main memory of dining at Harvard, though, was the contortions the Dining Services people put tofu through. It seems that this was all they knew when it came to offering meatless entrees, and some of their attempts were truly awful: "Polynesian Meatlike Balls" stand out as a particularly memorable flop. Somebody should have showed the managers how to make ratatouille. I suspect that the dining folks at Harvard have since discovered the joys of textured vegetable protein; unfortunately for me, my early experiences with tofu soured me on the stuff for years. It's only been within the past 2-3 years that I have cooked and eaten tofu dishes, discovering in the process that soybean curd can taste like almost anything you want it to be, depending on how you season it, but that it's best when it is allowed to be itself in physical form.

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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Well, I guess that I'm in the middle of the Northwestern contingent, having graduated in '92. Oneidaone - the food in Elder did not improve between your years and mine. It was the number one reason why I joined a frat. That was at least edible, even good when we had Norm the Jamaican DJ/cook.

The saving grace for me was that I drove the sandwich truck on campus, both for the cash and the free food. I also did some catering work with the guy who owned the truck and stole more food there.

Unfortunately for us, during my senior year, a local resident complained about us blowing the referee's whistle outside the dorms to tell people we were there. Don't know if this is still the case, but at the time the cops were telling women to carry the whistles in case they were attacked and he said that our whistle was muddying the waters. Anyways, the university said we had to find something else, but we were never able to find a good substitute. I think both the student driven truck and the one owned and driven by George (?) have since shut down.

If someone writes a book about restaurants and nobody reads it, will it produce a 10 page thread?

Joe W

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Well, I guess that I'm in the middle of the Northwestern contingent, having graduated in '92. Oneidaone - the food in Elder did not improve between your years and mine. It was the number one reason why I joined a frat. That was at least edible, even good when we had Norm the Jamaican DJ/cook.

The saving grace for me was that I drove the sandwich truck on campus, both for the cash and the free food. I also did some catering work with the guy who owned the truck and stole more food there.

Unfortunately for us, during my senior year, a local resident complained about us blowing the referee's whistle outside the dorms to tell people we were there. Don't know if this is still the case, but at the time the cops were telling women to carry the whistles in case they were attacked and he said that our whistle was muddying the waters. Anyways, the university said we had to find something else, but we were never able to find a good substitute. I think both the student driven truck and the one owned and driven by George (?) have since shut down.

there was no sandwich truck when i was there ('93-'97) we had delivery though. jimmy johns was a local (and possibly evolved) shop that delivered fresh, cheap(ish) sandwiches to the dorms. they were a savior.

from overheard in new york:

Kid #1: Paper beats rock. BAM! Your rock is blowed up!

Kid #2: "Bam" doesn't blow up, "bam" makes it spicy. Now I got a SPICY ROCK! You can't defeat that!

--6 Train

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While I barely remember collage food, Class of 1970, I took a trip this summer that brought it all back. Casino Food is were all those people ended up. Quantity is never a substitute for Quality. :biggrin:

Bruce Frigard

Quality control Taster, Château D'Eau Winery

"Free time is the engine of ingenuity, creativity and innovation"

111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321

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And before all this, I spent the requisite four years pursuing a college degree, in my case at America's most prestigious university, bar none.

That school would HAVE to be Harvey Mudd College.

:laugh:

I flirted with applying to neighbor Claremont Men's College in high school.

Guess brand snobbery won out. :wink:

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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Company cafeteria food - no consistency.

Each major building has a Eurest cafeteria. One is a fine diner type of place, the others generally serve glop that would be appropriate for a hog trough. For the prices charged, you would expect a descent meal and be very disappointed. Dried out bread, stale tortilla chips, pre-frozen breaded things left in the freezer too long (or something with that funny taste and soggy crust).

One building is simply stellar with fantastic sandwiches, awesome soups, wonderful pizza, grilled items, etc. A real nice place that puts chain resturants to shame.

Good institutional food is possible but, most places are hampered by incompetent cooks and low quality labor. The good company cafeteria is proof that you can get good help that will make a good meal but, most of them just don't care and it shows in the food.

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(Author's note: This topic idea came to me after reading about Martha Stewart's culinary complaint over in Food Media and News.)

I have now spent nearly two decades toiling in the groves of academe, most of them at one of America's most prestigious universities.  More recently, I've added a short stint at a wannabe top-tier technological school to the list.  And before all this, I spent the requisite four years pursuing a college degree, in my case at America's most prestigious university, bar none.

That school would HAVE to be Harvey Mudd College.

I have two friends who went to school there in the late 80s and they would say the same damn thing.

Stephen Bunge

St Paul, MN

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Unfortunately for us, during my senior year, a local resident complained about us blowing the referee's whistle outside the dorms to tell people we were there. Don't know if this is still the case, but at the time the cops were telling women to carry the whistles in case they were attacked and he said that our whistle was muddying the waters. Anyways, the university said we had to find something else, but we were never able to find a good substitute.

You should have tried one of those ice-cream-truck jingles.

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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this is funny..nyu started selling burger king and fast food in one of the cafeterias a few years ago..the kids on the unlimited food plan..would subcontract...and make a killing :cool: . it was the same fast food....they also had standard caf food, but when there was au bon pan etc in the caf thats all people would eat (or sell). naughty naughty. Anyway they quit the whole thing, but I'm not really sure why (fat students?)

mmmm whopper... :biggrin:

does this come in pork?

My name's Emma Feigenbaum.

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  • 5 years later...

For me the most important part of dorm eating was the backup plan: what to eat when everything looked awful (which thankfully was only once or twice a week... :hmmm: ). For me, it was the waffles. Like the kind they have at most hotels these days: not the greatest waffles ever, but hot, fresh, and totally edible. Are those waffle irons still common? Or is dorm food so much better now that the backup plan isn't needed?

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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Case Western Reserve for me, in the early to mid 90's. Like others have mentioned, you could have a specific number of meals per week (like 10 or 14, which would get you lunch and dinner every day) or you could buy "points" which acted much in the same way as cash. I was only subjected to dorm food my freshman year as I moved into a fraternity until my senior year when I moved into my own apartment.

One thing I always noticed was that the food at the cafeteria was always very good at the beginning of the year and I suspect it was because the parents were still around and encouraged by the university to share a meal with their child before leaving. Two weeks into the first semester, the food took a remarkable turn for the worse and it stayed there for the remainder of the year.

Two of my most vivid (and very much not fond) memories are of the beef stroganoff, which had the most revolting smell of vomit and the pancakes, or as we called them, absorb-o-cakes for their incredible ability to soak up as much butter or syrup as you could ladle onto them. Eat one or two of those bad boys in the morning before classes and you'd be pretty much down for the count.

Of course, then there was the time one of my roommates went to work for the cafeteria's made-to-order sandwich counter. He didn't get paid a whole lot for the job, but the amount of lunchmeat that started appearing in our refrigerator skyrocketed. While I'm sure the deli cuts were probably purloined, I didn't ask and he didn't tell.

The food at the non-cafeteria places on campus (like the Student Center) was actually much better, although there was no shortage of fast food options, too.

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the article

Hardly a new problem .. my mother went to Skidmore College in the 30's and refused to eat dorm food, preferring that my grandfather keep a dining tab for her convenience at a local restaurant .. and this was during The Great Depression! :shock:

I graduated from Union College in Schenectady in '84, made many, many "road trips" to Skidmore w/ my fraternity brothers... good memories.

Regarding the topic, I have 2 distinct cafeteria memories from Union. After spending 4 years eating less than desirable food I recall having a conversation days before graduation and complaining that the cafeteria had the worst donuts that I had ever tasted and could not fathom why people were putting cream cheese on a donut. (I do, and did, know that they were bagels.) It was good for a laugh.

The 2nd was Freshman year. I "borrowed" some hydrogen suflide (HS) from the chem lab. For those who do not know, HS is a very volatile liquid that smells like 10,000 rotten eggs in one room. My roommate (who co-starred in Mystic Pizza w/ Julia Roberts) evicted me from my room b/c of the smell. To regain entry I placed the bottle in a plastic bag hidden under the radiator downstairs from my room & outside the entrance to the cafeteria. Unfortunately, the heat came on and apparently the gas made it's way out of the bag. My room was just above the entrance for the cafeteria, so when the first student came to eat dinner I heard,"what the hell are they cooking in there", then some gagging and followed by an abrupt retreat from the malodorous entrance. Unfortunaely, this student unleashed Pandoras box as the HS was now outside the cafeteria entrance. On a typical day the campus @ 5:00 resembled The Ten Commandments w/ Charlton Heston- approximately 1200 students all migrating toward the feeding trough. Not this day- all I could hear from the students were "let's just get pizza", "who do you think died from the last meal- sure smells like someone died." The net effect was only 3 out of about 1200 students attended dinner that evening. I have to imagine that those 3 were either the bravest souls on earth, had just come off a hunger strike or had absolutely no sense of olfaction.

(I am hoping that the statute of limitations has expired on this unintended practical joke...)

Edited by Tom Gengo (log)

Tom Gengo

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For me the most important part of dorm eating was the backup plan: what to eat when everything looked awful (which thankfully was only once or twice a week... :hmmm: ). For me, it was the waffles. Like the kind they have at most hotels these days: not the greatest waffles ever, but hot, fresh, and totally edible. Are those waffle irons still common? Or is dorm food so much better now that the backup plan isn't needed?

For us, the backup plan was breakfast cereal. All the cafeterias had a vast selection of cereal, including all the kinds mom would never buy and let you have. Captain Crunch. Cocoa Pebbles. Etc. etc. Good stuff. :)

Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"

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McGill University, 1970: The women's residence was Royal Victoria College, and you had to apply to get in. The food was standard meat and veg, but the setting was incomparable. Sunday breakfast(and maybe breakfast in general, which I usually skipped) was served in a cafeteria, but lunch and dinner were served in a large, high ceilinged dining room. There was a head table, at which the Warden and Assistant Wardens dined, in their red blazers. You had to wait until they sat down before you sat down. Seating was eight to a dark wood varnished table, and you were served family style at each table by servers in white aprons. There was one seating, and if you were late, you had to take whatever was still on a table. There were different china settings for lunch and dinner, and I think there were tablecloths at dinner. If something was really good, the trick was to sit at a table near the kitchen door and snag platters/bowls with anything leftover as they were being carried back to the kitchen from other tables. After a semester, several of us moved out and into the first co-ed dorm in the province. The next year, RVC went entirely to cafeteria food. Food up at Bishop Mountain Hall was industrial, and the food service manager was regularly excoriated by the residents through evening shouting matches between the dorms. Pizza orders went through the roof on steak and kidney pie nights.

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I don't think I ever ate at my college cafeteria. I had my own apartment and I worked at a restaurant while going to school.

My son heads off to college next week, and his cafeteria is worked by the Culinary Arts students so there should be some decent food there!

Marlene

cookskorner

Practice. Do it over. Get it right.

Mostly, I want people to be as happy eating my food as I am cooking it.

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Univ. Virginia 80s and NorthWestern 90s. At NWU never ate at the school cafeteria. Being a PhD student, it was basically work not at all like my undergrad experience.

However at UVA, ate a lot of school dining hall food. The experience can be best compared to going to Old Country Buffet. Not sure I would call it the best example of even cafeteria or southern food but I actually remember it fondly. Some dishes (e.g., tuna noodle cassarol, chicken ala king, rice and gravy) have become comfort food for me. BTW, I cannot find these foods except at certain cafeterias.

When we go back for a visit, I tried to talk the wife to go back and eat at the cafeteria but she never agrees to it. She has a different set of memories of the food.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I don't think I ever ate at my college cafeteria. I had my own apartment and I worked at a restaurant while going to school.

My son heads off to college next week, and his cafeteria is worked by the Culinary Arts students so there should be some decent food there!

So the lad has been in residence for a week, prior to starting up classes. Apparently, his roommate cooks as well. I sent Ry a couple of cookbooks and they are going to take turns making dinner for the two of them. It is greek salad tonight I understand. He's not going to starve I guess.

Marlene

cookskorner

Practice. Do it over. Get it right.

Mostly, I want people to be as happy eating my food as I am cooking it.

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