The college experience is wildly different for everyone, whether you went to a huge state school, a small liberal arts school, a community college, or any of the other countless education programs that form one’s post-high-school life. One thing we seemingly all have in common, though, is the motif of “questionable food” that runs through our late teens and early twenties. College is often the very first time that young adults are tasked with scrounging up meals for themselves, either from the school cafeteria, the grocery store, or the pizza joint in town where the employees are always high. In honor of back-to-school season, The Takeout is taking a look back at the foods that formed our college years, a set of memories that might elicit feelings of nostalgia and horror in equal measure.
I went to a small enough school that the director of dining services was treated like a minor celebrity. (It helped that he was such a character; the man walked around campus with bricks of cheese in his coat pockets and loudly derided the Uncrustables that students demanded in the refrigerator case.) When he came into the job halfway through my first year of college, the changes were sudden and immediate: flavorful Indian and Greek dishes were now part of the weekly menu rotation in the cafeteria. The long-neglected baskets of Red Delicious apples were replaced with seasonal apple varieties that people actually enjoy eating. Three different alternative nut butters and multiple allergy-friendly loaves of bread now sat alongside the peanut butter and multigrain at the self-serve breakfast station. And most importantly, he supplemented the school’s Sysco contract with lots of local produce grown in the surrounding area, in partnership with local farmers. And this was how I came to eat my first-ever fresh-from-the-ground green bean.
As someone who only ever encountered wet, metallic canned green beans before age 19, I didn’t know they could look or taste like this. Vegetables, it turned out, could be sweet? And snappy? And refreshing? They weren’t a chore, and they didn’t have to be dressed in layers of bottled dressing? For the first time in my life, I understood that people who say they “love vegetables” aren’t just lying to themselves. With that profound introduction to local foodways, I ate those green beans every single day—perhaps also hoping that their vitamins could counteract the nine slices of bacon pizza I’d eaten at 2 a.m. the night before. —Marnie Shure, editor in chief
Like Marnie, I attended a tiny, tiny school. Unlike Marnie, I was at the mercy of the world’s worst dining services director, a waxy-faced man with a strangely pervy glint in his eye who must have derived pleasure from serving outrageously bad food. Our campus cafeteria was half the size of my high school’s, and it served up a unique kind of slop that offered the absolute bare minimum in terms of taste, texture, and nutritional value.
I soon learned to avoid the cafeteria, only making exceptions for periodic visits to the soft serve machine. The only other on-campus dining was the Campus Exchange, or CX, which served deep-fried pleasures at most hours of the day. There, I developed a dependency on the world’s firmest black bean burgers. These things were the rough size and consistency of a hockey puck, with charred edges and often mushy middles, and they were excellent dipped in huge puddles of ranch dressing. I probably ate three or four a week, scarfing them down quickly in between stints at the campus newspaper and my daily prowl through the men’s soccer quarters. (“Oh, hello, handsome goalkeeper. So funny to see you here! No, that’s not a black bean husk wedged between my front teeth. Would you like to kiss?”) These days, I can’t stomach a black bean burger, but I’m grateful that their dubious nutritional value fueled my bachelor’s degree.—Lillian Stone, staff writer
I went to a big-ass school where I felt very small. Our dorm food was generally okay, and I didn’t have too much to complain about at the time. If I wasn’t in the mood for whatever hot food was being served (this was the first time I encountered chipped beef), I’d simply make a monster-sized salad from the salad bar and eat that. But if I wasn’t even in the mood for salad, there was always dorm pizza.
When I say dorm pizza, I don’t mean pizza ordered from an actual pizzeria and consumed in my dorm room. I mean, this pizza was actually cooked in a different dorm cafeteria, and the finished product was delivered to you. I mean, come on, that’s pretty awesome for a college student. It counted as a meal within your weekly meal plan, and if I recall correctly, you could get them pretty late at night.
Oh, also, they were fucking terrible.
That’s why everyone loved them. The closest thing I can compare them to is Totino’s party pizzas. If you ordered one with sausage, it was this weird-ass finely crumbled stuff that had a similar texture to Taco Bell meat, only dried the hell out. Someone once described these things like cardboard topped with ketchup, and that was a pretty apt description for them. If I think about it for long enough, I can actually remember what they taste like. I’m nostalgic for the specific fact that they weren’t any good, but we all ate them happily anyway. —Dennis Lee, staff writer