Guilford cafeteria feeds masses

by Brian Clarey

The vegan stir fry smells awesome.

Fresh vegetables… basmati rice… a hint of soy sauce in the air….

It’s hard to believe I’m in a college cafeteria.

We didn’t have stuff like this when I was in college. Our cafeteria served hard and gristly burgers double cooked on the grill, wilted French fries that sat too long under the heat lamp, greens boiled to within an inch of their lives and the most disgusting tacos you ever tasted. And, according to rumor, there was a “secret ingredient” in the food that made you go to the bathroom almost immediately after finishing your meal.

But this… this is pretty nice, the main dining facility in Founders Hall, smack in the center of the Guilford College campus.

But because it’s Guilford College, the line for vegan stir fry is already five environmentally-conscious hipsters long, and there are some food items for which I will not wait in line when others are readily available. Vegan stir fry is one of them.

I have plenty of options. All the basics are covered here: pizza, sandwiches, hot dogs (both boiled and broiled! With chili! If you want!), noodles, a salad bar with 20 or so items, curly fries. Add to that a couple hot lunch offerings – today it’s chicken piccata, steamed cauliflower, sautéed snow peas with mushrooms and a fish sandwich fashioned from one of those square slabs of battered, fried fish.

And because this is no mere restaurant, it has all the comforts of home too. There’s loaves of light bread, all manner of cereal, bagels, a waffle iron, peanut butter and jelly. The wall of drinks offers sodas, juices, punches and ades, coffees and teas. There’s a push-button espresso machine and four kinds of milk.

And for $5.50, you can have at it.

So I coughed up the dough, set silverware on my tray and went to work.

People who know me know I love buffets. Those selfsame folk also know that I like to take multiple laps, explore different options and maximize value. There is a very sophisticated formula I run through my head when I eat at a buffet that involves the intensity of my hunger, variety and size of the menu, nutritional and taste density of the foods and amount of time I have before I need to get up and start walking. It also takes into account any particular cravings I may have at the time of the feast. It is an equation I devised, believe it or not, in the cafeteria of my college.

I make for the hot food line and load up with some of that chicken piccata – no noodles, thank you – some of those snow peas and a floret of cauliflower. Then I sit amid the long rows of tables that run across the room like bowling lanes and set to work.

The entrée suffered a bit from its time on the steam table; the breading is a tad rubbery and the capers have lost their bite. But then, all things considered, it’s still a winner. The veggies are not at their best – what vegetable is after being prepared en masse and put on display like that? – but the cauliflower retains some of its natural resilience and the snow peas with mushrooms, a surprising side item in this institutional setting, have a lot of integrity.

And, I suspect, the vegetables in that vegan stir fry, each serving prepared to order, would show much better. But still the line is clogged with sallow-faced youngsters and nubile young women in short, billowy dresses.

I make another pass along the hot food line, score more piccata and veggies and then polish them off.

Then I make a move to the dessert cart, positioned by the east window. I get a brownie, a caramel brownie and a chocolate-chip cookie along with a glass of milk. Milk!

This, people, is why there’s such a thing as the Freshman Fifteen.

Then I’m easing back in my seat and catching my breath when I feel a familiar sensation in my gut. I flash back to my own college cafeteria, the whispered rumors, the urgent sprints for the bathroom.

Good God! They do it here, too!

A subsequent visit to Guilford College’s website and a page with FAQs concerning “dining service myths” eases my mind.

Myth Number 3: The staff puts laxatives in the food.

“This is a popular urban legend that has been dispelled throughout time,” it reads. “Upset stomach is most likely a result of being exposed to different and unlimited food choices.”

Good to know.

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