In praise of the campus dining hall.
For thirteen years now I have taught at the same small women’s college. Its dining hall is an old building with high ceilings, long windows. I love the dining hall. My students hate it. But hating it is their job—I was like them once. I was a freshman grabbing food as if I were still playing high school soccer seven afternoons a week: the hamburgers, the pizza, the Coke machine and fried everything. Fueling the young body at full burn. The sandwiches. The glutinous cookies, perfectly round.
But I spent those freshman afternoons in the library, reading for Intro to Political Science: that fiery body was already gone. And quickly, I had had enough. One November day, I observed a classmate, Jenny, slender and freckled, sitting across the dining table eating a salad. Her plate bloomed with things that had recently lived. Broccoli and snap peas and sprouts and little tomatoes. A green apparition.
“Where did you get that?” I said.
“What salad bar?”
She pointed with a fork. Straight across the center of the cafeteria it stretched. I’d walked past for ten weeks without noticing it.
I see my students’ complaints. The dining hall doesn’t have air-conditioning. The pizzas aren’t great. The cookies are stamped out of the same starch slurry I quit thirty years ago. But the lunch can be glorious. Even in the dark days of our previous chef—his menus were haphazard, though to be fair, he made great soups—the Thursday fried chicken was perfect: crispy outside, the flesh a bruised color, succulent, slipping off the bone in great swaths.
My students say they want more choice. They would prefer to be eating branded food three meals a day. They pine for Chick-fil-A. I wonder if Chick-fil-A wants to improve ventilation in the kitchen, raise wages, stay open year round.
On Fridays, I walk over for fish, sometimes straight beer-battered cod, sometimes amandine. I’ve given up fries, but that frees up room for what’s better, like the spinach. It comes out garlicky, a little wet, and they’ll pinch it, letting it run off before sliding it onto your plate. The collards are fragrant, vinegared and just a shade greasy. Whatever you settle them next to, they invade. Their liquor runs. I will go back sometimes just for a second plate of collards and then walk around campus, my innards knitting happily inside my belly, wringing out the leaves.
“Try first thyself,” says Euripides, “and after call in God.” As my roots have set on campus, I am trying myself. There’s a better meal to be had there, any day. Start the plate at the salad bar, top it with roast beef and pepper relish from the deli, cayenne, parmesan cheese from the pizza counter. A little spill of oil around the edge of the plate. Invention and assembly. Give me a dish of tater tots—I’ll microwave bacon, red onions, and provolone on top. Then pile on olives, tomatoes, pepperoncini, beets, and blue cheese. Even the freshmen lean in to look.
“Where did you get that,” they ask.
I am a teacher. I model resourcefulness.
Our dining services are contracted to a large food-service company, which sends us bulk food, a manager, and a chef supervisor. But the same group of men and women have done the cooking and serving and cleaning for years. That the chicken is good isn’t a function of algorithms and bulk buying. It’s because the cooks know how to fry it. College food service is not a steady twelve-month job, yet these workers are rock steady. When two feet of snow falls in a city that shuts down after two inches, they stay on campus. The students must eat.
Last week the dining hall was in mourning. Mo Drake, a beefy, bald, soft-voiced fellow who’d worked there nearly thirty years, died suddenly on Wednesday. A large bulletin board has been decorated in Mo’s memory, lettered in colored construction paper, with hundreds of handwritten slips from students and staff wishing him well ever after. Miss Pat, who tends the register with a patient, crackling voice—“I know that’s right. Enjoy your lunch”—picked up an old photo of the dining staff and challenged me to match faces then to the faces now. I managed a few, missed others. I wrote a slip out in tribute to Mo, a bit ashamed that I’d only known him by face and light pleasantries. My parents taught me to be grateful for the food on my plate. Mo washed the plates I’d eaten from for thirteen years.
Friday’s lunch was catfish. Rich, dirty rice and hush puppies. I chatted with the servers about fishing spots, what fish you might find in the river still, whether you’d eat one if you caught it. In vain, I looked for slaw: the dining-hall slaw is perfect with fish, sweet and colorful and crisp. Lunch was served on cardboard plates, plastic forks, paper cups. No one new to run the dish line yet, nobody muscling trays into the Hobart.
Fridays aren’t busy days on campus. Gentle light, trees blossoming, sounds of mockingbirds and ringtones. I ate alone. Nice spring lettuce on the salad bar, cut green melon. I finished my meal, drew a cup of coffee, sat listening to the students laugh at the tables nearby.
I have stopped arguing with the students that the dining hall is the better deal. They are paying for this. Most are going into debt for it. They want their choices. I understand. I am the old guy now, reluctant, and I know the rains will bring change. I am just grateful while this lasts: the friendly people, the handful of dishes made very well, the airy room. It is nice to still be here.
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