By Betsy Thaggard
Along with the usual
restaurant recommendation requests, a question often asked of food critics
like me is some slyly skeptical version of, "How do you qualify for such
a cushy job?" One of the more polite forms of this query goes something
like, "Was this something you learned in college?"
College. Now, if there's
a place to learn the finer points of gastronomic critique, it's certainly not
college. I doubt anyone would claim their Freshman Ten--those famous pounds
that magically appear on the hips and thighs between Labor Day and Christmas
that first semester away from home--came from exquisite dining in the dorm cafeteria.
Most college students,
even those living in the affluent environs of SMU, generally find themselves
at the mercy of campus food directors and whatever fast food is deliverable
or within walking distance.
I recall college, I ate a lot of pizza, doughnuts, and sub-par burgers, anything
to break the monotony of SMU's Umphrey Lee Student Center cafeteria.
But it's been years
since I was an undergrad. National awareness of the dangers of fatty,
sugary, cholesterol-laden diets has risen, exercise is a fashionable passion,
and college kids seem to have become more sophisticated and choosy in
their dining habits.
My investigation into the
current state of college campus food begins with my alma mater. The two semesters
I lived and ate on campus had left indelible memories of underground dining;
the cafeteria had all the ambiance of a bomb shelter, every bit as fragrant
as the Ownby Stadium locker rooms. Yet we invariably stormed the doors as soon
as they opened for lunch and dinner--not to wrap our taste buds around those
sumptuous morsels, mind you, but to down them before prehistoric steam tables
petrified the grease slicks into food-entrapping amber. Sunday evenings, when
the cafeteria was closed, we happily improvised.
Was I in for a shock. Sometime
during the past few years, SMU had gutted their subterranean soup kitchen, sandblasted
away the Art Yucko fixtures and room dividers, cleaned the windows, and, wonder
of wonders, adopted a menu of amazing variety: real food to fast food, and even
a full complement of proteins for vegetarians.
This particular day,
lunch (all you can eat, $4.73) choices are: cheese ravioli, hamburgers,
cold Mexican chicken salad, mixed vegetables, baked beans, a 21-item salad
bar, fresh fruit, peanut butter, cold cuts, deli rye, pita, and whole
wheat breads, onion rolls, bagels and cream cheese, soup, cookies, cherry
pie. and a selection of ice cream. The main entree is a plate of big,
ricotta-stuffed raviolis under a thick, cheesy crust. The mixed vegetables
are pleasantly undersalted, with not a grease slick in sight.
I ask one student
if this is her cafe of choice. "No," she mumbles, picking at her Nutty
Buddy, "but it's paid for." I bite my tongue to prevent delivering that
age-old lecture that begins, "Now, when I was a college junior...."
This article originally ran in the Dallas Observer's DINER section.