Reader's Rite: Dining Hall Food
Years after graduating from college, I still have strong memories of dining hall experiences. I attended a small college in a tiny town that only had one stoplight and no sit-down restaurants. On Sundays, many members of the local community would come to the dining hall for Sunday dinner, which always included fried chicken. Did I mention that the school was in the south? The chicken was outstanding, crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, and deliciously seasoned. Families, older couples, and alumni would dine among the students and everyone was dressed in suits and ties, dresses, or other attire considered appropriate for church attendance at that time. I expect that my fellow alums will also fondly remember exam week, when the dining hall would open from 11 pm to midnight for study breaks that included brownies and popcorn served by our professors. It was not uncommon to see students in their most informal outfits, including pajamas on occasion. My most vivid memories of the dining hall were at the end of each week. The staff would throw whatever fruit or vegetable was leftover into their jello. Strawberries in red jello and pears in yellow jello made some sense, but the shredded carrots in orange jello and peas in green jello were choices that still bring laughter when college friends and I reminisce about our time there.
– Dr. Morris
I never really bought school lunches through middle and high school. My mom always packed me something really great and nutritious that I looked forward to eating every day. Stuff like egg white omelets when I had “A” block lunches (at 10:00am) and turkey chili in the colder months. So when college arrived, I felt a bit desolate without her perpetual meal prep program built into my life. The dining hall offered decent options, like lo mein and tofu at the salad bar, but it could never compare to the lovingly-crafted meals my mom used to send me.
I was complaining about it to a friend one day, and she told me about a Spanish class she was in where the students had the opportunity to answer phone calls from migrants being held at the federal detention center in Batavia. She said these people were treated worse than convicted serial killers in high security prisons despite the nonviolent nature of their offense. Sometimes, the migrants who called would say they were hungry, because the meat the detention center kitchen had served was raw, so they couldn't eat it. I looked down at my plate of chicken lo mein and decided maybe it was really pretty wonderful afterall.
The dining hall is dangerous territory for commuters. I say this mainly in part because by the time we need a substantial dinner, we can just go home and eat food there. Yet freshman me said in the Fall of 2020, “hey, why don’t I try the dining hall?” I traversed the grounds of the Student Center and made my way to finding a tray. My head bobbing back and forth to see where everything was located did not help my desire to remain covert, but I digress. I chose pizza and fries because I thought that I ate enough home food to warrant such an indulgence. I also convinced myself that there are proteins to be found, no matter how minuscule they were. Yet my alter ego’s confident personality came to a halt when I saw the price on the cashier scanner. When I tell you that my eyes popped and jaw dropped. My hands became sweaty as I was struggling to find my credit card in my labyrinth of a backpack. They didn’t accept cash, but you would think that I would know that, wouldn’t you? I didn’t.
I don’t remember the exact price, but I do remember flashing a nervous smile to the cashier as I reluctantly slid my card through the machine. I have never given such a dead fish card swipe in my entire life. I didn’t want to look like a dumb freshman who had no conceptualization of the finances regarding her college’s dining hall, but that was precisely what I was (and still am to a certain degree). I don’t want Chartwells to hunt me down for giving a false price and exposing me by giving the proper receipts, so I will stay silent. All I will say is that an 18 year old did not expect THAT price for a slice of pizza and fries, but that’s not even where the story ends. I expected the food to taste amazing, and to my deluded shock, it did not. That was the first and last time I stepped into the dining hall. I forgive, but never forget.
I love grilled cheese. It’s really astonishing to me how good something so simple can be. And I don’t mean any of those highfalutin grilled cheeses with tomatoes or cheese with a French name. I mean grilled cheese, made with regular bread, with cheddar or American cheese. Butter, bread, cheese, a frying pan and a heat source.
With this intense love—passion, really—in mind, I instituted Grilled Cheese Friday at the Canisius Writing Center. It’s simple: I go get a grilled cheese from Tim Horton’s, usually with the fancy chips and a Dr. Pepper. Is it a good grilled cheese? No. It is fine. It is not really normal bread, and it’s made in a panini maker, both of which are against the rules.
But I love it. It brings enough of grilled cheese to the table to make me think of the ideal grilled cheese. Much of life is chasing after the ideal grilled cheese, and not all of them are going to be perfect. So sometimes you eat the grilled cheese in front of you as a reminder of the ones you’ve yet to meet.
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