Imagine a fine dining restaurant: soft lighting, thick carpet, potted ferns, elegant tablecloths. A waiter summarizes the order that a well-dressed couple has just placed.
Waiter: Here is what I have: Sir will have the dungeness crab and avocado appetizer, rack of lamb with cous cous and salsify, and seasonable vegetables?
Sir: That’s right.
Waiter: And Madam will have the Fuyu Persimmon Squash Soup, followed by duck breast with kale & chorizo-cornbread stuffing and sauteed greens?
Madam: That’s correct.
Waiter: Very good. Ah, there is one final matter…
Waiter: Would you like fries with that?
Both: Of course!
You may laugh — I rather hope that you do — but once or twice a week, I eat in a restaurant where fries come with everything.
I work at a public university. We produce scholars, technocrats, well-rounded individuals. Or that’s the theory. But it’s plain fact that we also produce colossal amounts of food.
University’s massive food mills roar for all the day and half the night. They must: scholarship withers on an empty stomach, and the academic pace is faster than it’s ever been.
The cavernous dining halls gape open from dawn to near midnight. Come in, line up at the pizza bar, the omelette bar, the salad bar, the burger bar, the taqueria bar, the Cajun bar, the vegetarian bar. Stir fry to your left. Spam fried rice and shoyu chicken to your right.
Add whipped cream and Nutella to anything you want. And Sriracha. And ranch dressing: they practically serve it with fire hoses.
Your brain will not lack the protein it needs to ace that mid-term, or to hack out the last ten pages of a term paper before the sun rises. And there’s way more variety than I was offered as a dormie, 40 years ago.
Dining hall food is still institutional food, for better or worse: only so much finesse can be blandished on tens of thousands of meals a day. Much of the meat is prefab, and I’ll swear the pizza is made by ink-jet printers.
But you can also find fresh vegetable dishes, good salads, healthy ethnic casseroles, whole grains, stir-fry and “real” chicken. And sometimes pork pineapple curry, just for the hell of it. I choose carefully. Many students do, too.
But there is the matter of fries. They may be straight, or curly; they may be potato, or sweet potato. But they are almost always available, in one “bar” or another. And the students will eat them with absolutely anything. I look at their plates and shudder.
Hey, pepperoni pizza — and fries! Lasagne bolognese — and fries! Broccoli beef on white rice — and fries! Pad Thai with shrimp — and fries! And ravioli and coleslaw and fries, vegetable lo mein and fries, spaghetti and fries, and my personal vision of hell: white rice, corn, and fries, with ranch dressing.
Perhaps it’s a phase and they’ll grow beyond it. You can tell yourself that.
But did the boomer generation — my generation — outgrow the grotesque foods of its youth? I need only step out of my office door to find all the snacks my co-workers have brought in to share: giant marshmallow cookies; peppermint Oreos dipped in chocolate; industrial-grade chocolate chip cookies, guaranteed 80 percent sugar and 15 percent stabilizers; and of course Girl Scout cookies.
“Oh, I shouldn’t, my diabetes..” my co-worker moans. and then dives right in. Greasy hamburgers are fashionable again; so are “gourmet” mashed potatoes.
We boomers never outgrew all the questionable food choices of our youth. Will today’s generation, in their venerable years, gather with their descendants for a festive Thanksgiving dinner of roast turkey — with fries?
And ranch dressing, of course.