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Spring 2004

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Day at the d-hall

Once upon a time, dining-hall food was the stuff of legend, so bad it was good—to gripe about. The mystery meat with the oily moiré finish, the roast chicken whose joints ran red, those defeated vegetables slumping on steam tables… As a source of lousy-food jokes, the school cafeteria was second only to the army mess tent.

But these days, upwardly striving colleges are competing hard to woo students with polished presentations, abundant selection, and improved nutrition. And Skidmore is working to keep up with the trend, swapping the institutional chow line for something closer to a well-stocked home kitchen or a large food court.

Collegiate nouvelle cuisine is driven partly by the increasing sophistication of students’ tastes and partly by their busy schedules. “The days of the hour-long block when you fed the masses are gone,” says Jon Neil, Skidmore’s food-service director. “You’re no longer cooking huge batches and bringing them out.” Instead, Skidmore’s d-halls provide setups for do-it-yourself tacos, eggs, sandwiches, and more; at “exhibition” stations, a chef stir-fries, wraps, or grills to order. Even the kitchen-prepared entrées (pork ribs in brandywine sauce, anyone?) are made in small batches. Ingredients lists are posted above most dishes for the delectation of vegans, foodies, and the allergy-prone.

To evaluate today’s Skidmore d-hall, Scope editor Sue Rosenberg (Kenyon College ’78) and writer Barbara Melville (Caldwell College ’66) sampled several meals there. Some findings:

At 9 a.m. on a weekday morning, the ambience greeting the large breakfast crowd in Murray Dining Hall is surprisingly pleasant. No canned music, no irritating kitchen clatter, no CNN, no glaring institutional lighting.

Pancakes: Two forks up. Hot, freshly made, nice texture, fine taste, but agghh—chocolate chips inside! (A shock to mature tastebuds, but popular with students, we’re told.) Plain or blueberry can be requested.

Bacon: Big meaty strips with plenty of fat, only slightly dried from the heat lamp.

Waffles: Pour the premixed batter (ingredients? don’t ask; we didn’t) into the automatic griddle, wait three minutes, and voilà! Thick Belgian-style waffles, ready for butter or margarine, maple-flavored syrup, artificial whipped cream, defrosted strawberries and blueberries. Two forks up, with moans of delight.

Omelets: One fork up. Assemble favorite fillings (diced ham, cheddar, onions, etc.) and hand them to the omeletier, who pours prebeaten eggs (or egg whites, or EggBeaters) from cartons and expertly cooks to order.

Herbed red potatoes: Sweetly browned, very good.

Oatmeal: Offered by the kettleful, startlingly salt-free.

11 a.m. sees a swift transition from breakfast to lunch in Murray Dining Hall, where a burrito bar supplants the omelet fillings and lunch entrées replace scrambled eggs and pancakes. (The do-it-yourself egg griddle, waffle iron, bagels, and muffins stay out all day.) Now Aikins, Murray’s twin, opens up too, featuring burgers, a deli bar, premade submarine and pannini sandwiches, and red sauce with pasta—today it’s frilly little radiatore.

Jamaican three-bean stew: Two forks rampant and a vote for seconds. A vegan dish of legumes and winter squash in a palate-warming sauce, musky with cumin and rosemary.

“South of the border” chicken: One fork up. A nice cream sauce with chicken-breast chunks and rings of jalapeño, served over white rice.

Turkey tetrazzini
: Two limp forks. Here’s your classic cafeteria fare: a gloppy casserole with a bouillion-flavored base reminiscent of Campbell’s soup. Still, it does score comfort-food points.

Steamed vegetables: A perfectly acceptable mix that might include summer squash, zucchini, bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower (some fresh, some frozen).

Pasta salad: One fork up, one swaying. Radiatore with artificial bacon bits, fresh baby spinach leaves, diced celery and scallion, and freshly shredded Parmesan. Delicate, unusual, intriguing.

Italian burger
: A tasty though well-done hamburger, accessorized with provolone, leaf lettuce, and red pizza sauce, served in a plastic basket lined with a red-and-white-checked napkin. Wins points for retro pizzazz.

French fries: Professionally rendered juliennes, delicious and McDonald’s-style, which is good, but lukewarm, which is not.

Salad bar: Two forks way up. Fresh and extensive, including tofu, hummus, feta, and other vegetarian favorites; three kinds of lettuce; black, navy, kidney, and garbanzo beans; tuna, ham strips, cheeses; slaw, salsa, chopped olive salad; fruits, even Jell-O cubes—75 items at any given time. (“We never had water chestnuts on our salad bar,” recalls Rosenberg. “We never had a salad bar,” laments Melville.)

Soup: Two spoons set hastily down. Pork-and-cabbage soup is thin and salty, evidently made with a commercial base; the cabbage looks more like spinach, and the pork seems processed. An appetizing-looking cheese soup tastes like a Velveeta sauce for nachos. These are strictly school-lunch.

Battered cod: Two forks up. The breading is fine, the fish surprisingly tender and tasty, and the homemade chopped-pickle tartar sauce superb.

Chicken teriyaki pizza: One very surprised fork up. The sweet teriyaki taste actually works well with pizza. (N.B.: Anywhere on campus, Skidmore pizza is reliably good. Made in brick ovens, it always has a thick crust, good sauce, and fresh toppings.)

Lunch fades away, and, with a few quick changes of entrées, here’s what’s for dinner:

Chicken quesadilla: Two forks up. Handmade with good cheese; mild and rich. Sliced scallions, a nice black-bean or tomato salsa, and real sour cream for toppers.

Marinated flank steak: Two forks up. A little chewy but medium-rare and delicious, witha light, smoky herb marinade.

Mashed potatoes with bacon and cheddar: One fork up. Made from boxed potato flakes but yummy, with a smoky flavor.

Gnocci with seafood: Two forks up with gusto. Shrimp, white fish, scallops, all tender and tasty, plus slightly doughy gnocchi, with shallots and other vegetables in a light, buttery white-wine sauce.

Chicken Caesar salad: One fork down. The romaine is fresh and impressively crisp, but the chicken chunks are unnaturally rubbery. (Curious, since the grilled chicken chunks on the deli bar in the other d-hall are delicious.)

Cannoli: Forks crossed. Good crunchy shells, but the filling, instead of being of ricotta, resembles thick vanilla pudding with a soupçon of butterscotch flavoring.

Trifle: One fork wavering. Commercial vanilla pudding, a few mixed berries, fake whipped cream, and cubes of white cake jumbled loosely in a cup. Not bad, but seems more suited to a Meals on Wheels or airline menu.

Ice cream
: Four serve-yourself flavors (including Stewart’s wonderful toffee-laced Adirondack Bear Paw) and two kinds of cones. Also a good selection of Popsicles and other novelties.

Our verdict? We admit that as adults with full-time jobs, we were charmed by the prospect of meals free of shopping, schlepping, chopping, cooking, or cleanup; simply maintaining our critical integrity was a moral victory. So, from where we sit—firmly astride middle age—we’d say today’s students have little cause for complaint. Now, pass the broccoli Mornay. —BAM, SR


© 2004 Skidmore College