There is nothing like the smell of Sterno to remind me of the taste of institution food. This past week, that scent was strong. Let me backtrack. I spent the last eight days in Louisville as a guest of the College Board reading essays for the Advanced Placement Language and Composition exam. To get any doubts out of the way, yes, it is insane, but it is also a wonderful opportunity to meet other equally crazy English teachers and to share with them best practices in the classroom and our favorite books and movies. However, whenever anyone tries to feed close to 2,000 people at a crack, the food is not going to be what your mother made, unless she was the cafeteria lady of a large high school.
Institution food suffers from trying to feed many people in a reasonable amount of time. The many people part means that the choices are driven toward the taste of the masses. You are not going to find Brussels sprouts being served, for example. You will find chicken breasts and sliced turkey, beef in barbecue sauce and poached mild fish. Basically, you'll find anything that keeps reasonably well in a chafing dish, but the food is never quite warm enough and always too salty. Unfortunately, the only seasoning used IS salt. Correction. We were served mixed vegetables that were heavily seasoned with oregano. While I love oregano on pizza, for my money, it doesn't enhance broccoli mixed with carrots and corn.
The salad bar suffers from the opposite problem: it is difficult to keep the greens crisp and cold in this environment. The toppings look tired after the third day. And I'm a dressing snob. At home, I drizzle only the finest extra-virgin olive oil into a bowl that I have rubbed with the cut side of a clove of fresh garlic, then I add a smidgen of red wine vinegar (made in small batches and sold in one of my very favorite stores in Philadelphia's Italian Market), a dollop of dijon mustard, and a generous sprinkle of chopped fresh herbs. The dressings in the cafeteria line were mass-produced, gelatinous, overly salty, and probably very bad for anyone with high cholesterol.
The foods that are most successful for a crowd are the very foods that I should be avoiding: the starches (they serve a wide variety of potatoes and pasta salads) and desserts (the brownies were out of this world). It is far to easy to justify dessert when the rest of the meal felt unsubstantial. However, the bottom line is that calories, whether they taste good or not, are still calories. Did I need that slice of cake? Of course not. I am no where close to starvation. Yet, somehow it jumped onto my tray and disappeared.
As an adult, I feel silly jockeying for position in a cafeteria line, juggling a tray, eating off of plastic plates with plastic forks that break before the meal is over. I revert to my adolescent whine as I criticize each bite I put in my mouth. However, even as I complain about the mystery meat and the wilted lettuce, there is a part of me that appreciates the fact that I did not have to plan the meal, shop for the ingredients, or cook.
And now I have to figure out what to make for dinner tonight. Hmm. Is there any cheese to go with this whine?