Welcome back to Off the Menu, where we bring you the best and strangest food stories from my email inbox. In honor of Thrillist’s College Week, this week we've got a new subject: stories of complete asshats, gibbering dinguses, or epic food disasters in campus dining halls. As always, these are real emails from real readers, though names have been changed.
The students aren't always the dumb ones...
"I worked in my college cafeteria. One day, we were providing food and drink for an outdoor event and, this being the South, iced tea was de rigueur. We had two tables with filled cups -- one table marked 'UNSWEETENED,' the other 'SWEETENED,' although as this was the more popular option, we'd prepared so many cups that this sign was frequently obscured.
"The college dean came up. Evidently good at raising money, he possessed -- as my father would say -- a 'room-temperature IQ.'
"He exclaimed, 'Oh! Iced tea!' followed by, 'Why are they on two different tables?' Since he was standing an inch from the massive table-top sign saying 'UNSWEETENED,' we just stared at him. He studied the sign for a while then reasoned it out -- 'Oh, these are unsweetened!'
"'So what are the other ones?'" -- Tammy Trainor
Ranch abuse, part 72
"In college, I worked at the dining hall on campus. I was occasionally in food prep in the back, but was usually in the dish room. In general, the dish room was actually the best place to be -- except on chicken nugget night.
"There were the standard plates, bowls, utensils, mugs, and plastic glasses, but there were no small dishes that would be just right for putting sauces in… so people would use the bowls for BBQ sauce and ranch dressing instead of putting it on their plates.
They would literally fill the bowls with BBQ sauce or ranch like it was soup.
"But they wouldn't just take a little. They would literally fill the bowls with BBQ sauce or ranch like it was soup. And it wasn't like a group of people would share this, so when the dishes came into the dish room, they would basically still be full bowls of BBQ and ranch. Sure, sauce on chicken nuggets is good and all, but it would take a serious amount of chicken nuggets to use an entire bowl of BBQ and an entire bowl of ranch.
"In the dish room, we would move fast, spraying off dishes, loading them on racks, and sending them through the washer. You inevitably got splashed with water and bits of food. Whatever -- not a big deal on most days. But on chicken nugget day, we would get covered in an ever-thickening sticky layer of BBQ and ranch covering. The smell of the two combining was truly awful, and would just seep into our pores.
"It took me a full five years before I could eat BBQ sauce again, and more than 10 until I could eat ranch without gagging at the smell. This would happen every single chicken nugget day, and I still find it baffling that people did not learn that they did not need a full bowl of BBQ and ranch." -- Rebecca Saddler
The soup that should not be
"When I was a junior in college, like most poor college students, I was on the extortion-like meal plan. Only so many meals per week, and never enough cash on the account to make up the difference.
"I am, since college, extremely hesitant to order soup, ever, when eating out. Here's why.
"It was April of my junior year on a Sunday. It was a chilly weekend, so clam chowder was, in all honesty, kind of enticing. I could see the small printed card on top of the pot, labeled "Clam Chowder," and walked toward it. For whatever reason, it went mostly uneaten by the on-campus population.
The vomitous odor that poured out of the pot when the lid was opened was like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel.
"Tuesday rolled around, and the gloomy April weather had not abated. So the kitchen staff, in their eldritch wisdom, offered a new soup to warm the bones: corn chowder. This one wasn't bad, actually. Tasted like it was actually made by humans, with earthly ingredients. The person who made it would later be fired for extreme competence in the face of Sodexo.
"Wednesday has a soup called Taco Soup, or 'Let's just not give them tortillas and call it a soup.' I am not ashamed to say that yes, I ate it anyway. Taco meat is delicious.
"Then… Friday. Fittingly, it was the darkest day of the week: rain, heavy gray clouds, chill winds. I figured what the hell and made my way to see what soup was in the pot… but the card on top was crossed out. The word 'Chowder' was still left untouched, but above that, someone had hastily written (in what had to be a moment of mad glee) 'Taco Clam Corn.'
"TACO CLAM CORN CHOWDER.
"The vomitous odor that poured out of the pot when the lid was opened was like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel.
"And people wonder why college students eat so much damn pizza.” -- Steve Ranger
[Editor’s Note: I’ve written about this before, but one Sunday at a brewpub where I was working, one of the chefs decided the soup that day would be "French Onion Cheddar." It was French onion broth with nacho cheese dumped in it, and it was somehow even worse than you are currently imagining.]
The incredible human vacuum cleaner
"I happened to go to a football and basketball powerhouse university at the height of its powers. One night, I was in the dining hall with my bestie and we noticed one of the most impressive and beloved basketball players was at the table next to us. We giggled, because he was just finishing what was obviously a huge pile of paella and had about three glasses that once held soda standing around him. He got up with his tray and glasses and left, so we focused on our own dinner and bitched about how awful our professors were.
"Then he came back, this time with three more full drink glasses, four triple cheeseburgers, and a plate filled with fries all crowded onto one little mess-hall tray. He sat down, and in the time it took each of us to finish one plate of paella and one bowl of salad (admittedly, we kept on stopping and staring), he inhaled all four burgers and all the fries, generously washed down with Coke. At this point, we were feeling a bit ill just watching him, and were glad when he got up to leave again, so we continued yakking. Not two minutes later, he came back with more soda and a giant bowl filled with the biggest ice cream sundae you ever saw.
"I wasn't sure whether to be horrified or amazed." -- Colleen Perlman
Never get between a football player and the buffet
"My parents owned several restaurants and a catering business when I came into the world and my mother, being the hard-working, small business-owning woman she is, continued to work right up until she went into labor.
"From time to time, they would cater meals for college athletes. At one such event for the football team, they had set out a buffet. The team STORMED the dining room and before my very pregnant mother could get out of their way, one player lifted her (and therefore me, as well) up and OVER the buffet table. Considering I was a fetus at the time, I'm not sure how big this guy was, but he was definitely big enough and tall enough to pick her up and over a table and set her down on the other side.
"I suppose the moral of the story is either: don't get between a hungry football player and the food, or be sure to wait for someone to move out of your way before crushing a buffet, depending on which side of the story you're on." -- Kerri Morgan
"You don't have to be so mean about it!"
"In college in the late '90s, I worked as a student supervisor for one of the campus cafeterias. It was a good job, except for the customers: my fellow college students.
"The ice cream machine was terrible. It would 'work' before the ice cream would freeze, which meant tons of melty ice cream leaking out of bowls everywhere. So we had extra steps to discourage ignoring out-of-order signs. We'd remove the bowls, turn the machine around backwards, and cover the toppings.
"One particularly slow day, I'm cleaning the beast of an ice cream machine and parts are all over the counter. Rags are hanging out of the machine. Bowls have been removed. A girl approaches and sees there's no bowl and turns to leave… or so I think. Instead, she goes and steals a bowl from the salad bar. She then tips up the large, heavy, not-at-all transparent cover to the toppings and reaches over the parts to the ice cream machine to add some toppings to her bowl. This still doesn’t phase me, because sadly people just get large bowls of caramel all the time. She then approaches me as I'm elbow-deep in the machine and asks, 'Is the machine working?'
"I look at her bowl, I look at the covered toppings, I look at the parts of the machine scattered over the counter, I look at my arm elbow-deep into the front of the machine, I look around to check and see if someone is peeking around a corner laughing at me, because there is no possible way. Finally, I answer, 'Uh… no?'
"'Well… you don't have to be so mean about it!' With that she huffs, turns on her heel, and storms off." -- Regina Cryner
Brent, the dining-hall tray hero
"I went to school on the East Coast and my freshman year was one of the snowiest on record. The campus was made up of big hills, so when we were walloped with our first blizzard all anyone could think of was going sledding. No one was prepared for the snow so we improvised. People brought out their laundry hampers and tried to use them with mixed success. Then our savior, Brent, appeared.
"Brent was a weird guy. He did stuff for the lulz before that was even a thing. He used to climb onto the buildings (his favorite way to get into his third-floor dorm room was to climb into the window). He would swim in the fountains, and he'd hold court with the squirrels on the green. He was a practical joker and shit stirrer, but somehow could always charm his way into places he shouldn't be.
Like the fairy godmother of stupid student antics, Brent walked around to all the dorms with his cart of trays.
"While no one was prepared for the blizzard, Brent had a plan. The massive dining hall on campus was never locked. Students had 24/7 access to it, and it usually had a skeleton crew of staff who were hardened against student shenanigans. Either they didn't care or they didn't notice as Brent walked in, stole a catering cart, and loaded it up with every single plastic tray in the place. Every. Single. Tray.
"Then, like the fairy godmother of stupid student antics, Brent walked around to all the dorms with his cart of trays and gave them out for people to sled on. They were absolutely perfect. They were just big enough to sit on, and they were easy to hold as you careened down the hills. We spent all afternoon and a big part of the night outside, sledding on the trays and having snowball fights. Honestly, it was one of the most fun nights I had as a freshman. Brent became a hero that day.
They had to just buy all new trays and they were kept in locked cabinets except during certain meal times.
"The next day everyone staggered into the dining hall and we discovered the place was completely out of trays to hold our food. The staff was completely bewildered. We laughed and made do for the morning. Some people returned the trays they had used, though a fair amount had been broken or just completely lost. We were without trays at dinner that day, and then the next day, and the day after that.
"The president of the university sent out a campus-wide email asking for any trays to be returned. The trays they did get back were too warped and scratched to be really used anymore. Defeated, they had to just buy all new trays and they were kept in locked cabinets except during certain meal times.
"As far as I know, Brent never got in trouble for stealing all the food trays. That winter was a beast and we had constant snow on the ground. When it finally started to melt, we kept finding food trays all over the place. They were still being discovered in snow banks all the way up to spring break." -- Meghan B.
One goes "oink," one goes "moo"
"I used to work as a server at one of the freshman cafeterias in Davis, CA, and once a month we would have a burrito bar styled after Chipotle. We had rice, two kinds of beans, various sauces, and a choice of beef barbacoa or pork carnitas.
After a long pause, I slowly responded with the only thing I could think to say, "One is beef… and one is pork…?"
"On one of these burrito bars I had been assigned to dish out the choice of meat on each of the burritos, and instead of saying the full names of the meats, I always asked, 'Would you like beef or pork?' When asking this of one of the freshmen, I received a question that still confuses me years later: 'What's the difference?'
"After a long pause, I slowly responded with the only thing I could think to say, 'One is beef… and one is pork…?'
"I still can't understand how someone made it all the way to college without knowing the difference between a cow and a pig." -- John Mulligan
[Editor’s Note: These are my favorite sorts of stories, because without fail someone always -- ALWAYS -- jumps in to defend the person, like making it to college without knowing the difference between a cow and a pig is completely normal. The funniest part is when they bring, "WELL MAYBE THEY'RE FROM A RELIGION THAT DOESN'T EAT PORK, DID YOU THINK OF THAT?!" as if it's not inherently insulting for them to believe Muslims or Jews don't know what a pig even is.]
Do you have a restaurant, home-cooking, or any other food-adjacent story you’d like to see appear in Off the Menu (on ANY subject, not just this one)? Please email WilyUbertrout@gmail.com with “Off the Menu” in the subject line (or you can find me on Twitter @EyePatchGuy). Submissions are always welcome!
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