Sunday, April 6, 2008

Spanish Rice and Turkey Brazil

My college experience was a remarkably happy one. I attended a small Catholic institution 30 miles from Chicago. The school was a little gem residing in an idyllic setting. Our enrollment was under 800 and we had a faculty-student ratio of 11 to 1. Everybody knew your name - from the college president to the guy who trimmed the bushes. We were a family in a nurturing - albeit academically rigorous - environment. It was nearly perfect. There was only one drawback: the cafeteria food. Suffice to say that there were many plaintive calls to home asking for pizza money.

In the best of circumstances, institutional food is rarely desirable. In the worst, it isn't even identifiable. I have a vivid recollection of my first day on campus eyeing a large container of carrot-raisin salad when one of the "raisins" flew right out of the bowl. I'll pass, thank you. Then there was the taupe gelatin mold. I like taupe in a suit or a sofa, but not as jello. How did the food service come to such a hue? By melting red, green, and yellow leftover gelatin and recasting it - an effort toward recycling food to save money. The addition of canned fruit cocktail with its day-glo red cherries didn't help and made the whole thing look like it came out of a bad horror movie such as "The Revenge of the Cafeteria Workers". It was a shimmering, wiggling, rubbery mass that might be mistaken as the result of nuclear fallout. A biological hazard with a seemingly long half-life. With the exception of the cottage cheese, the "salad" table, as far as I was concerned, was officially off-limits.

There were a few highlights and we always had the makings of a PB&J sandwich. Saturday was "steak and shrimp" night and although the steaks were something like "grade x", the french fried shrimp were acceptable and with a little cocktail sauce and a squirt of lemon, were pretty tasty. The sour cream and butter laden baked potatoes passed muster and there was chocolate cake and ice cream, with seconds if you were so inclined (I was) - but only on Saturdays. I was young and lean and had the metobolism of a roadrunner so I could put down a fair amount of groceries. My third floor dorm mates and I would often eat dinner at 5 and then order a couple of large pizzas or a sack of Italian beef sandwiches to be consumed during the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" in the early evening. "Creature Features" came on at 10:30 and we'd contentedly munch on candy bars while we watched monster movies and wondered if the gelatin mold would show up as one of the characters.

One of the things that human beings seem to need is certitude. It's the reason we're hooked on routines. Certitude gives us security and makes us feel safe - most of the time. Among the cafeteria constants were Spanish Rice and Turkey Brazil. You could count on their presence as surely as night follows day. In fact, Spanish Rice was served every day at lunch and dinner during my entire four years as a student. I have nothing against Spanish Rice - but every day for heaven's sake? The "Turkey Brazil" was another matter. It was served no less than three times per week, the only constant being the water chestnuts - the rest was unknown - worthy of a spot on "Unsolved Mysteries".

How the food service came up with the name "Turkey Brazil" is also a mystery. I suppose it just sounded more exotic than "This Week's Leftovers Casserole". I doubt the Brazilians have such a dish, although they have a heady sugarcane spirit called cachaça which makes a potent drink called caipirinha. It's a wonderful drink going down but if you're not careful, you'll wind up with a rubber mallet headache for days. I never actually ate the Turkey Brazil as I didn't think food should be frightening. A classmate once tried to salvage it with a healthy dose of Tabasco, but it was a lost cause.

Sadly, the college has closed and the cheerful cafeteria with its beautiful view is a distant memory. There were some good times in that dining hall, like the turkey-with-all-the-trimmings banquet the week before Thanksgiving break and the pie eating contest, which I won my junior year (OK, I got sick but it was worth the pain). I remember the "all-you-can-eat-sundae" Sundays and sitting around the cafeteria after breakfast with my classmates trying to unravel the mysteries of the universe. A few years ago, I returned to the college for a big reunion. It was a three-day affair with the Saturday luncheon being served in the cafeteria. On that day, I half expected to see Spanish Rice and Turkey Brazil. Instead, I found a lovely catered event with white tablecloths and flowers, proving that you can indeed go home again, but it just won't be the same.

Like most people, I have a few regrets - things I might have done. I often wonder if I'd started a pizza business in a college town, if I would have been able to retire years ago.