Before plunging headfirst in the world of campus food I feel the need to explain myself. In an age where the Food Network had become appointment television and supermarkets now stock many ingredients that up until a few years ago were rarely found outside of specialty markets, everyone is a “foodie.” As someone who has been cooking professionally for upwards of five years I have always resented this label. It’s a name for someone that likes to bitch about food, but can’t cook. During the tail end of my sophomore year of high school I started working in an Italian market that made award winning sandwiches as well as offering an extensive catering menu and an in-store section of homemade prepared foods that rendered TV dinners obsolete. I worked with a husband and wife team that cut their teeth cooking long hours in Philadelphia hotels and were now interested in a slightly more stable lifestyle. Over two years, they did their best to turn me into a semi-capable cook. I took a break from cooking in favor of lower impact occupations, but for the most part stayed in the restaurant business. Bussing tables, washing dishes, etc. Last year I returned to cooking at a swim club snack bar as an attempt to ease my way back into what is an infamously grueling occupation. Itching to get back in a real kitchen, this summer I cooked at New Jersey’s legendary wing institution, the Jug Handle Inn.
When asked to describe the Aramark experience to the uninitiated, one simple phrase is more than enough: “Come hungry.”
With that said, I purposely fasted today with the intention of giving the Sadler Center a starved, blank slate. For those interested in record keeping this meal took place Wednesday, September 1 at around five p.m.
Upon entering I was greeted with the familiar sight of the exhibition station’s simmering skillets of beef lo mein. I am a huge sucker for sugary, peppery, MSG injected Americanized Chinese food — the more heavy handed, the better. While not as overwhelmingly sweet as the Asian fare the SC turned out last semester, this dish still needs a bit of fine tuning. The puddle of sugar syrup that became all too commonplace last semester is, thankfully, a thing of the past. However, it is still too sweet. The sesame sauce that is used in this dish is begging for a dash of vinegar or hot sauce to add some bite. As this is my first post, I was reticent to play condiment mad scientist. As the semester goes on and I become increasingly bored, this blog will be aimed more at customizing dishes in an effort to correct the short falls of food that is almost universally frozen and sauces that come straight from the stock room. On its own, the noodles and vegetables were satisfying while the beef was — shockingly — tough. Chicken may be a wiser choice in the future.
My main course consisted of fried chicken, vegetarian jambalaya and macaroni & cheese. The jambalaya was by far the biggest disappointment of the evening. The mixture was completely out of proportion and dominated by what very well could have been canned bell peppers. Kitchen secret of the week: going heavy on rice will give the dinner guest the illusion of eating a meal more satisfying than it actually is. Sadly, there were more shredded carrots and tofu than rice, bringing the dishes shortcomings to the forefront. Rebuffing any attempt to actually discern the spice mixture used, this jambalaya was flat-out funky. I weep for vegetarians on this campus. Don’t get a meal plan. Read our food blog and make your own delicious blood-free meals. Being without shame and dietary restrictions, I see myself as an adventurer in what occasionally resembles a culinary wasteland.
To my relief, the macaroni & cheese is still satisfactory. It’s noodles and fat, which seems oddly appealing in the midst of a menu riddled with question marks. Although I ate mine without any adjustment; mustard, ketchup and/or hot sauce are all flavorful additions for those looking to tickle their taste buds.
Fried chicken was the evening’s undisputed MVP. Crispy, peppery and even, at times, a bit moist. Why they don’t serve this everyday is beyond me. While some dishes can benefit from condiments, a dash of hot sauce is a must have on this southern favorite. It adds the moisture that is usually lacking in the breasts and plays perfectly with the flavor profile already in place. My date for the evening, Virginia Informer Managing Editor Jordan Bloom, was daring enough to try the quiche which he reported to be substantially overcooked. As the goal of this blog is not merely to revel in a self constructed position of power, but to help students maximize their dining hall experiences, I passed on the quiche and advise you to do the same.
I did make a somewhat questionable decision with a chili/baked bean/hotdog for my third course. As much as it satisfies me to guide students through the extremely confusing environment of a collegiate cafeteria, I also feel a certain duty to take risks, to indulge. Whether this overdressed stuffed meat casing was pleasant to eat or not I’m not sure, but I did eat almost the whole thing which is equally my accomplishment and the grill station’s. If you’re feeling a little out-of-control or you just want to send your SC dining hall first-date into a complete tailspin, a light to heavy sprinkling of shredded cheese from the salad bar will at the very least turn a few heads as you proudly strut back to your table. It’s also delicious if you’re drunk. I was not, but be on the lookout for a future blog that deals with that most difficult question: “What is safe to eat if I’m intoxicated and don’t want to vomit in the middle of the dining hall?” The Flat Hat does not advocate doing anything illegal, but it’s been brought to my attention that marijuana could provide a substantial help in making campus food more …appealing. I have a gut feeling that such a combination would inevitably lead to overly ambitious flavor modifications, followed by giving up, followed by eating three bowls of Lucky Charms.
I was also impressed to see pita bread available at the salad bar for the first time this semester. The hummus and the pita that are available aren’t the best, but most certainly serve their purpose, particularly on nights where pickings are slim. When out of pita, making a very thin, very crunchy grilled cheese gives you a flavorful vessel for what is most often not so flavorful hummus. A drop of hot sauce also adds a little excitement. While on the subject of the salad bar, I am embarrassed to admit that I have rarely, if ever, made full use of it. For some reason, I hate salad and eggs not prepared with my own hands. Go figure. The real dark horse of the salad bar is the yogurt. Topped with a generous amount of granola cereal, a bowl of yogurt (strawberry is best, peach is awful) can magically subdue unwelcome tummy rumblings caused by…well let’s say a hot dog covered in chili, baked beans, shredded cheese and, when in a certain mood, vanilla soft serve.
For desert I had what appeared to be vanilla pudding mixed with bananas and some variety of bread. I ate it out of curiosity and am still left with several unanswered questions. Were those croutons?
Before I leave you to explore all that the College of William and Mary has to offer in the way of sustenance, I beg you not to take out your discrepancies with the product served on the kitchen staff. Many of them are experienced and capable cooks, but are crippled by their ingredients. Hopefully sooner rather than later, initiatives to serve locally grown fruits and vegetables in campus dining halls will come to fruition, finally freeing those in the kitchen to cook to their full potential. As this is a new entry into the Flat Hat’s blogosphere, your comments, criticism, ideas and participation would be greatly appreciated. Look out for black olives in the yogurt!