It is the time of year when applicants are deciding which college to attend. For these youngsters the food on campus will have a major impact upon quality of life. College is a time when students encounter the heights of human experience, expression, and exploration. But often it is a time when they discover the worst in American cuisine. For those students I have ventured where few food critics have gone before — the college cafeteria.
Southern Maine offers the opportunity for a controlled experiment in college cuisine. It is important to find schools where the students are a little isolated, so that campus food is the only viable option for most meals. To Portland’s north, at Bowdoin in Brunswick, is what is reported by US News and World Report to be the nation’s best college food. Equidistant to Portland’s south, at the University of New England in Biddeford, is a cafeteria run by the massive Sodexho Corporation. Sodexho, which last year settled a racial discrimination suit for $80 million, is the outsourcing king of American institutional cuisine. These schools represent the two poles of American colleges’ approaches to feeding their students.
(Full disclosure: UNE is my employer, though I never eat at the cafeteria. I do not like the idea of my students seeing me chew.)
At Bowdoin’s Thorne Dining Hall students moved calmly and cheerfully through the charmingly small feeding zone where food is dispensed. They seemed to me almost odd in their tall sun-kissed healthiness. Their fleece, and even their hoodies, looked expensive. They seemed smart and engaging, though the visage of a few evidenced that haunting patina of privilege reminiscent of Duke athletes.
The room is lovely. The wood slate ceiling looms forty feet above a floor that alternates between stone and hardwood. Hanging in between are light fixtures that could have been designed by Calder. With the touch of a button they can radiate their soft glow in any color you desire.
Bowdoin’s food is a homemade, in-house affair. In season the vegetables come from the college’s organic garden. But given all the hype the food was a little disappointing. The menu was heavy on vegetarian fare — almost self-righteously so, it seemed to me. A vegetarian Reuben is an interesting idea, but the purple cabbage lacked a sour zing, and the bread was too cool, allowing the greasiness to turn rubbery. The noodles in a Thai peanut sauce were over-cooked, and the sauce was a little goopy and sweet. For meat-eaters there was a sort of hamburger-helper type elbow-pasta mush. It tasted fine but you could get its sort anywhere. A matzo-ball soup was a little salty but quite good. They also had a Passover cookie that was like a lemony macaroon. A blonde brownie — moist and gingery — was great.
Given my experience at America’s #1 college cafeteria, I walked into UNE’s dining hall a timid soul. The students were pleasant but seemed busier and moved faster, so you have to protect your tray more carefully from errant elbows. I think a lot of them must have extra jobs to get to. The view from the large dining room is truly lovely. A long elegantly curved wall of windows looks over a campus green onto the Saco River just preparing to spill into the Atlantic.