Thursday, August 28, 2008


by Jenny Gardiner

Dammit, dammit, dammit!

I've been trumped by the hair net brigade. The lunch ladies. The ol' gals who slop swill on a plate day in and day out!

My ace in the hole as a mother has lost its curb appeal, if you will, thanks to food services at my son's university.

When your kid leaves for college, a mom has little pull remaining. Not much to draw that child back home again. I mean let's see...On one hand, you have your parents nagging, telling you what to do, telling you when to do it and often how. On the other hand, you can be off on your own, very little obligation but to pass your classes, and have fun and party till the wee hours and hey, who'll ever know?

I fully realize that part of the charm of going away to college is this lure of the illicit: we're gonna drink and maybe do drugs and stay up all night and do whatever with whomever and nobody's gonna do anything about it!!!! those students say with their thumbs in their ears and their fingers flailing upward in a nah-nah-nah-nah-nah way. But at least eventually the mom-made meal lure would bring them back home, at least fleetingly.

When I was a kid, one of the few things I looked forward to upon my return to the home front was a good home-cooked meal. I will never forget one of the really depressing side-effects of ingesting dining hall food back in my day--- it turned everyone's poop orange! Maybe this was because it was during the halcyion days of Red Dye #40, I don't know. But it was, at the least, disturbing. Talk about mal-nutrition!

My freshman year dining hall experience ran the gamut from the infamous (and much-loathed) chili-dogs to a fine-dining item known as "shrimplets": a glob of batter with dessicated shrimp flakes mixed in, molded into the vague shape of an actual piece of shrimp and deep-fried to golden goodness. I knew it was time to get home to a good meal when shrimplets on the menu began to sound tasty. At least if dredged in copious amounts of ketchup.

We also had what was at the time the very cutting-edge new-concept salad bar. But this was in the early 80's, so the salad bar was doused with heaps of sulfites to preserve it's "freshness." This, however, left a bitter taste and had an undesirable mouth-numbing after-effect that left me generally eating only the chow mein noodles on top and none of the wholesome veggies beneath.

My son, on the other hand, is attending a school that touts one of the nation's top-ranked dining hall experiences. So great is the food that it the fact is oft repeated as mantra by most students, faculty and administration. Harvard might boast about its superlative education, but this place, dammit, they've got you by the balls with fabulous food.

When we went to orientation this summer, I was dragged kicking and screaming (almost literally; I detest cafeteria food and had been looking forward to finding a nice restaurant in town, enjoying a leisurely glass of wine and some actual food, not modern-day shrimplets) into the dining hall. My husband insisted. "We have to get the entire college experience," he crowed at me. Why, I have no clue. I'd already attended college, escaped dining hall food with a large supply of ramen noodles, and had no desire to stroll down that Memory Lane again. But I relented so as to not have a hissy fit in front of my son and his potential peers.

When we arrived in the dining hall, I almost heard a choir of, well, not exactly angels, but something that would indicate this place wasn't serving chili dogs. A quick glance around revealed dining stations everywhere: Italian, Chinese, Mexican, sushi, vegetarian, breakfast-for-dinner, a dessert bar (our dessert was one item, rarely something one would choose to eat if given the chance to eat either that or gnaw on one's own flesh). Hell, they even had a churrascaria. Who goes to the trouble to have a churrascaria for a bunch of college students who would gladly eat shrimplets if given no other options?

Now my husband has never met an all-you-can-eat venue that hasn't thrilled him to the core of his very being. He rises to the challenge and slathers his plate as high as it'll hold the food. And goes back for more. And more. And more. He was a very happy camper at the dining hall that night, particularly as he gloated at me, the doubting Thomas, who wanted nothing more than to hate the food and toss it over his head. Take that, dammit, and gimme my glass of wine and my goat cheese appetizer! While the food wasn't exactly Michelin star-ready, I'll tell you this: that Freshman Ten would rapidly have compound into the Freshman Forty for me, especially considering the dessert bar included cheesecake, belgian waffles with ice cream, even mini creme brulees. Ooooh, la la!

Now when my oldest brother went away to college, I, the loving, baking-obsessed little sister that I was, whipped up a batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies to send him. Back then shipping things wasn't as simple as it is today. We didn't keep packing materials handy, things took ages to get to their destination. Undeterred, I rifled through the house and found soft packaging for those cookies: I securely buffered the batch with cotton balls, jammed it into a shoe box, and sent it on its merry way. Where it no doubt sat on a variety of sweltering trucks in the early days of September en route from Pennsylvania to North Carolina over the course of a week. By the time my brother got my well-intended gift, the cotton had glued to the stale cookies and there was to be no salvaging of the things.

I entertained the idea of sending my son cookies. This time I could even overnight them so they wouldn't be stale. And I'd avoid the cotton balls in favor of maybe bubble wrap. The only problem is my cookies will be no draw, compared to the four-berry tart, mousse au chocolat, and the myriad other desserts at his daily disposal.

By extension, those meals he might yearn for served up with my loving hands will pale in comparison to the lobster, tenderloin, sushi and lord knows what else they're offering up at that place.

I want to lodge a complaint! They're making school so desirable that my son will never want to come home!

I guess the upside is it's making my husband want to re-enroll in college, just for the meals alone. Maybe I can talk him into that, and I'll be off the hook for cooking dinner for a couple of years: not such a bad downside to being usurped in my mommy role, eh?


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Oh, Jenny. The horror! Maybe when he moves into his own apartment and start cooking for himself? I bet he'll still call when he needs money, if that does you any good.

Sleeping with Ward Cleaver said...

;-) he he he. I have no doubt about that!

Daisy said...

I worked in college food service. This brings back both good and horrific memories for me! I knew exactly what was safe to eat and what wasn't.
And just to make you feel better; they usually pull out all the stops on visiting days. The food won't be this good all semester.