“Oat” Cuisine: Life as a Dining Hall Gastronome

dining hall oatmeal ; best consumed between long stretches of text and time

I do not mind dining hall food most of the time. Maybe it is because I have spent cleaning crew weeks without kitchen access, subsisting on granola bars, almonds, and apples, but when there is a skilled grill staff, a stocked salad bar, and tubs of cereal when all else fails, I cannot complain about the occasional day when Scheherazade casserole (thankfully discontinued, as far as I can tell) or other dubious concoctions are the main offerings.

Yet, there are days when I find myself dreaming in flavours that I once took for granted. Pieces of sashimi as slippery as sin and succulent scallops, seafood delight all year-round. Marbled tea eggs simmered all day in pork broth that invite you in like a mother’s embrace. Caramelized onions that fill the whole house with a mouth-watering aroma. An array of brand-name cereals with the perfect yogurt complements divvied up in a daily family communion. Fragrant green tea leaves and soothing Twinings™ Earl Grey tea bags that, along with hearty conversation, fuel Sunday morning teatimes. And, above all, I crave fruits. Creamy avocados sliced over salads and sandwiches or scooped out and scrambled with eggs fluffier than cumulus clouds—my kryptonite. Peaches bursting out of their velvety skins that dribble juice down your hand—my nectar and ambrosia.

I remember the first peach I had in college. It was freshman year. I had happened to be eating in my future house’s dining hall, and had spotted a basket of peaches tucked away on a table in the corner. I practically pounced on it. They bore signs of jetlag, but I did not care. The peach bruised at my fingertips as I built up to that first bite, a moment of great anticipation; the seconds following, of bitter disappointment. It was an experience comparable to, I imagine, eating a hairball. I finished the peach on principle, before retreating to fantasies of peach jam and peach cobbler and peaches in their purest form, plucked straight from the tree on an Okanagan family vacation.

Sometimes, I cave and stop by the corner store on my way home from class. I might buy a bag of cherries as precious as polished rubies, or the cheapest Greek yogurt that a drizzle of honey can still elevate, eaten out of the container with roommates. As a college student on a budget, I subscribe to a lowbrow brand of epicureanism.

On occasional restaurant outings with friends, it unsettles my stomach when someone admires her food, nibbles on it, and lets the server whisk it away, to be disposed of later. Residual guilt for not getting my parents’ money’s worth out of all-you-can-eat buffets to which they sometimes treated my sisters and me. Never mind that gluttony is a deadly sin; I shudder at the schadenfreude in the viewing, and not savouring, of a pig painstakingly compartmentalized into a pork medallion.

But my friends do not belong to the society of supercilious individuals who experience food through its superficial documentation and not through gustatory gratification. They indulge my insistence that they try amuse-bouches that I concoct out of dining hall food: oatmeal faux-risotto peppered with parmesan, frozen yogurt sundaes crowned with cottage cheese or tofu crumble, and make-do mezze dipped in pools of hummus. They also like to examine—and eat—the results of experiments that I take to the kitchen. When I bake a cake, I level ½ c. flour using the blunt edge of my knife, the only one that I own. Imminent deadlines, unremitting to-do lists—none of that matters when I am measuring out ¼ c. milk and 1 tsp. lemon juice, because the recipe calls for buttermilk of which the dining hall had none, and I did not want to bother buying any.

Having no electrical appliances in my dorm kitchen is, in a sense, a blessing. I enjoy the monotonous motions of weighing flour and beating eggs as much as the creative aspects of cooking. Cooking requires as much measurement and muscle as it does instinct and improvisation. They are all part of the process in which I have faith. If I whisk butter over low heat for long enough, it will form amber specks and acquire nutty flavour, and if I knead dough for long enough, it will become pliable, and if I bake a flan in a bain-marie for long enough, but not too long, it will still quiver in the centre when my friends scrape spoonfuls from the edges and tremble in ecstasy as they lick their utensils clean. No matter what, if I follow a recipe, I will at least approximate what I set out to achieve. Sometimes, I will even surpass that.

I have rarely gotten homesick during my four years of college—it has become a second home to me, one that will feel bittersweet to leave at this month’s end. Maybe part of it is that re-evoking those feelings that arise from good food shared with family—and adoptive family here at school—lets me create a home wherever I go. And that is something that I will always love and strive to do.

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