As a freshman arriving on campus for the first time, campus life was a whirl of excitement, mystery, tradition, and freedom.
It was a culture we were all thrust into: some crying and clinging to their bags, drawing in the fading scent of home as they watch their childhood minivan disappear over the Johnson Center hill on orientation weekend; others barely looking back as they excitedly swipe their hot-off-the-press IDs at the doors of their residence halls and toss their belongings into their new living space, seemingly without a trace of sentiment.
But no matter what initial approach students take, there are facets of campus life that are strange and new to all alike. The one I recall that gripped me most was the idea of having unlimited access to a dining hall.
I had never been on a cruise ship, but I’d heard stories of vacationers spending their days on the sea in luxury, wandering into various restaurants eating whatever sounded good to them, leaving without having to look at a bill.
As the son of a woman who always got the most for her money, storing wads of coupons in the pocket of the kitchen calendar, scoring countless deals at the thrift store, and always knowing what grocery items were on sale at which places, I’ve been conditioned to appreciate things that are free or at least inexpensive and taught to milk the deals in life.
The possibility of purchasing an unlimited meal plan which I could take advantage of whenever I wanted was perhaps the greatest truth about my young college experience. My mom always joked that buffets lost money on me as I’d go back to the meat selection at the Golden Corral for my third plate of steak and clam strips.
Could it be true? Could I really outsmart the system?
I was certainly ready to take full advantage of AVI. Each time I bounded up the steps to the cafeteria there was determination in my spirit—to eat, to not waste, and to leave a full man.
I’d pile up plates of salads, topped thick with cottage cheese, cheddar cheese, ham cubes, juicy beets, and seasoned croutons. I’d drizzle a healthy dose of ranch over all of it and sprinkle a handful of sunflower seeds to finish off my creation. All of these ingredients at my disposal.
One of my favorite creations was a sandwich I’d refer to as the “Veggie Delight”—hummus, spinach leaves, tomatoes, and cucumbers spread between two slices of wheat bread. I imagine the Veggie Delight would have tasted even better cut into bite-sized morsels served on toothpicks accompanied by cocktails (off campus, of course).
Sure, the cafeteria lost its luster after the first few weeks, and certain dishes seemed to carry the same “AVI taste” that leaves one smacking his tongue against his lips, fork steady in midair, brow furrowed in uncertainty bordering fear, but the fact remained—there was always food.
After having spent three years in the dorms with a meal plan, I decided it was time to live off campus and learn to fend for myself a bit.
While there are moments of delight that accompany this choice—such as feeling like a grown up in the checkout aisle of the grocery store as I bag up a carton of eggs and a gallon of milk, or having a bit of peace away from the chaos of the cafeteria to prepare a meal at home—there are times that I greatly miss the reliability and relative selection of AVI’s dining options.
These days my meals are limited to just a few items—a piece of chicken I didn’t quite defrost all the way before cooking, a bowl of beans from the Tupperware container in the fridge for which I struggle to remember the date of storage, and baby carrots taken from a bag that didn’t get closed correctly.
It’s a convenience that should not be overlooked: to get a glass of milk without having to check the expiration date or having your nostrils met with the pungent odor of curdling dairy.
Some days I’ll come home tired from a full day of classes, open the pantry door, and stare blankly at my shelf of canned beans, the cold stove, the skillet soaking in the sink with burnt pieces of egg yet to be scrubbed free, and I’ll throw my shoes back on, head up to the cafeteria, and petition a guest pass from a generous passerby.
The transition from thoughts of the preparation involved in getting a decent and nutritious meal into my stomach at home to a dining hall of fully prepared dishes and a whole salad bar of nutrients (the lone bag of spinach leaves in my fridge right now is two days outdated) is overwhelmingly pleasant.
Because of my schedule of classes and the time it takes to eat well, I’ve mostly been limited to eating one good meal a day. The rest of my calories come from a couple pieces of toast with butter, saltine crackers and a slice of cheese, or a banana topped with a thin peanut butter glaze. Inevitably, I live with an impending hunger as I go through my day.
Perhaps hunger drives a man forward about his business, urges him to press on. But it’s nice to get a guest pass back to the old cafeteria every once in a while where I can walk through the exit feeling a bit of squishiness about my stomach.
So if you see me hanging around the great hall, consider showing kindness to a poor commuter. If you can’t enjoy the food, at least be blessed by the glow on my face as I cross over into the cooking man’s Promised Land.
Akash Negi is a senior English major.