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.
     As 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.


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