Extending The University Experience Through Fine(r) Dining

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Food Prep At Tulane University  (photo: Tulane)

It used to be, not all that many semesters ago, that colleges put together their food service programs almost as an afterthought — something that was necessary (everybody’s gotta eat!), but not something that should consume a lot of resource, and certainly not something intended to serve as ‘part of the learning experience’.

My, how times have changed.

Amazing options can be found in meal plans at a growing number of institutions of higher education. Options including multiple dining establishments, often with very different menus, sometimes with particularly careful attention being paid to student’s special food needs.

Or special wishes: A new $32 million dining complex at the University of Kentucky, The 90, features a broad assortment of food “platforms” focused on, among other things, fresh produce, bakery items, grilled selections, several pasta choices and a spectrum of vegetarian offerings. Students favoring more traditional ‘meat and three’ dishes with have their choice of those, too, and, in a thrust to expand not just food offerings but cultural experiences, at UK and North Carolina’s High Point University, for example, there are periodic special cuisine days or periods — there’s a different one each each of several school months at High Point — showcasing the cuisine of a different country, or area.

High Point highlights include Chinese, French, Italian and Cajun Creole specialities and, with some, informational presentations about aspects of the culture of the subject area. HPU’s steak house, 1924 Prime, offers a level of cuisine head and shoulders above what’s available at all but a relative few US universities.

The 90 at UK offers more than 20 Mongolian items on one of its platforms. The Western Dining Commons at Miami University of Ohio —  the WDC is one of a dozen food-offering facilities on this campus — includes an International Station where choices include items “inspired by the cuisines of India, Italy, Greece, France, Thailand, China, Korea, Japan, Mexico, Jamaica and more,” a web site says.

The Becker House Dining Room at Cornell regularly features selections that are well beyond the ordinary offerings at most US universities — items such as Hunan Seared Kale, Sicilian Sheet Pizza and, in a mouthful of a soup bar choice, “Miso Shitake Brown Rice Udon Noodle Bowl”.

Cornell also has an annual event called the Diwali Festival of Lights Dinner, celebrating the Hindu holiday of Diwali, or Festival of Lights. The dinner offers a mouth-watering array of Indian dishes including Saag Paneer, Chicken Bombay, Mushroom Biriyani, Malai Murgh, Sweet Potato Chaat, Fattoush, and Carrot Halva.

The Daily Meal noted recently that Cornell has increased the amount of locally-grown or -produced food to 22% of the total it purchases.

At Duke’s Freeman Center For Jewish Life, there’s a gourmet Kosher kitchen called Henry’s Place. It serves special meals for Friday evening Shabbat and Jewish holidays and, During Passover, three kosher-for-passover meals are provided daily. Henry’s also offers a number of vegetarian options, and the staff very strictly observes rules requiring that there be no dairy products used at any point when meat is being served.

Among Duke’s 26 other on-campus dining locations, some are described by The Daily Meal as “serving fare that sounds more suited to a fine-dining restaurant than a college dining hall, such as pan-seared divers scallops with a basil pistou, carved-to-order porchetta with salsa verde, and gnocchi and sage au gratin.

You would expect schools with strong agriculture-oriented programs or are in prime growing areas, such as Oregon State University, Texas A&M, Kenyon College (Gambier OH) and a host of others to have strong farm-to-market programs feeding their dining operations. Increasingly, they do.

At Kenyon, the menu is changed three times a year “to focus in on the climate and the local foods available,” the school’s Dining on Campus website says. Overall, some 40 percent of what students eat is locally grown, US News & World Report was told by Robin Davis, Kenyon’s public affairs director. She noted that the locally-grown fare includes potatoes used for french fries, cherry tomatoes for the salad bar and the basil used in pesto served on pasta. The US News story also noted that Kenyon buys whole hogs and steers instead of packaged cuts or ground meat for its food service, and left-overs from the dining hall are composted to be used as fertilizer around the college’s grounds.

(A few years ago, when she still was food editor at the Columbus Dispatch, Davis wrote how Kenyon chef Walter Miller took a break one weekend to prepare food for 1500 attendees at the Governors Ball, a prestigious Los Angeles party associated with the Academy Awards. That event, for which Miller donated his services, was for a long time catered by “uber-chef Wolfgang Puck,” Davis noted.)

Penn State University also is among the growing number of schools whose catering departments have moved heavily into recycling and, in Penn State’s case, composting. Not just from their dining halls, but from catering operations at some 3000 events per year and, for good measure, office waste is being recycled, too. A total of more than 100 types of food, food service and other waste, overall, resulting in more than 10,000 tons being diverted from landfills, according to a Penn State web site.

Tulane University, which shares a dining program with Loyola University in New Orleans, sources as much as possible of its food locally. Presumably, that includes some of the seafood served at Tulane’s  1834 Club — which has offerings tempting enough to make you want to head for the airport!

Emory University, a leading research facility in Atlanta, has been working toward a goal of having three-quarters of its food locally-sourced. While the food service department gives priority to Georgia farms, the school has “additional partners throughout the eight-state region of Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi,” an Emory web site says.

As well as buying as much as possible of its food locally, Oakland CA’s Mills College cooks in small batches to reduce waste and preserve freshness, The Daily Meal said.

It’s hardly surprising, though, that students many times don’t care about either locally-grown or ‘freshness’ in the sense Mills College means the term. Instead, they want ‘comfort food’ of the type they’re used to wherever they come from — and that translates, in many instances, to fast food as provided by such national chains as Chick-fil-A, Starbucks, Au Bon Pain, and, of course, McDonald’s — among others. Where they don’t actually bring such franchises into their in-house food service program, a lot of universities enable to eat at such places off campus, using their meal card.

A surprising number of schools — even urban ones such as the University of Pennsylvania — offer a few (or a lot of, in the case of U Penn) food trucks within or alongside the campus. These can add tremendously to the variety of foods available to students. At U Penn, in Philadelphia, the offerings include Japanese, Chinese, Greek, Middle Eastern, Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, fruit salad, hot dogs, and something called “Quaker Shaker.”

At Penn, food trucks “date back to when the University was predominantly a commuter school,” a U Penn web site says.  At other schools, the vending ‘tradition’ is nearly as, or just as, short-lived as the trend toward more, better food offerings in general.

The assortment of options already is virtually limitless, and the trend is a healthy one.

This writer recalls a day — some decades ago — when college food service was not far removed, in style or quality, from what students had recently escaped from when they left high school.

If you live near, or will be visiting near a mid-size to larger college or university, check out their web site: You may be able, as a visitor, to enjoy an excellent meal for a student-budget price!

Bon apetit.

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