Friday, November 18, 2011

Mixed selections

"What does 'mixed selection' mean?"

"You don't want to know."

"No, really, what does it mean."

"It means - well, let's just say it's a good idea to keep a note of which meal was served on which day of the week."

"Why?"

"You don't want to know."


***

It's about my fourth week living at a Melbourne University residential college that shall remain nameless except to say it's not Trinity, Hilda's, JCH, Ridley, Whitley, Queens, Newman, St Mary's or Ormond.

All of us first-years have started to lose our country-stunned expressions and drift vaguely into groups. We're all just out of high school, so from the footy-heads to the musical theatre nuts to the science nerds to the constantly drunk medical students, the social groups are roughly the same as in high school. I've determined that all the male students are named Andrew or David, and all the female students are named Jenny or Kate. This saves a lot of time. I personally have decided to answer to Kate, as I am not blonde enough to be a Jenny ('microwave Jenny' or otherwise).

We've gotten past the stage where all we can think of to ask each other are the two first-year-student-from-the-country questions: "Where are you from?" and "What course are you doing?" (Warrnambool; Arts/Science), and have moved on to discovering that we both taped the same obscure 1970s Jacques Rivette film off the telly, and have well-loved copies of 'The Castle of Cats' in our bedrooms.

We've also moved on to the most important and long-running intellectual discussion of our residential years: college food.

College food has a reputation. It starts off okay, I'm told, to lull the first-years (and their nervous parents) into a false sense of security. Then there is an almost imperceptible slide into a kind of tolerable yet soul-destroying mediocrity you can only otherwise experience by listening to Coldplay on the headphones that came with your iPod in a Hoyts cinema foyer while eating supermarket potato salad.

The first thing to note about college food is the smell. It doesn't matter what's for dinner, it still makes the dining hall smell sweet and meaty, a bit like the smell of a McDonalds hamburger bun. It's the kind of smell where for a minute you can't tell whether it's something nice or something rotting.

"What's for tea?"

"Armenian lamb, apparently."

"BMP?"

"BMP."

There are many varieties of stew served at college. They go by such names as Armenian Lamb, Mongolian Beef, Indian Lamb, Mediterranean Beef, Moroccan Lamb and they all look and taste exactly the same: they are basically brown meat in a pot. The BMPs that are supposed to be curry-flavoured are often served with enormous amounts of pale, not-quite-deep-fried-enough pappadums which have been dumped into large metal bowls without being drained properly, so by the time we get them they have cooled, and developed little pockets of solidified fat in their undulations.

It doesn't pay to be vegetarian at college, either. The vegetarians are faced with a seemingly endless procession of 'slice': lentil slice, zucchini slice, and several others that go by different names but are essentially lentil slice and/or zucchini slice. I find this baffling: it is so easy to make tasty vegetarian food, even in slice format. The vegetarians at college go through a lot of tomato sauce.

Friday is the holy grail of college mealtimes. We all come back to college for dinner on Fridays, following some kind of deep, primal instinct that leads us to the dining hall like cartoon mice drifting nose-first after an illustrated ribbon of cheese-scent.

Friday at college is fish 'n' chips and ice-cream night.

*cue heraldic trumpets*

True, the fried-solid planks of fish-like substance are affectionately referred to as 'surfboards', but there's CHIPS and there's ICE-CREAM and there's shitloads of toppings and nuts (which you may also put on your chips if you wish, it's your call. We've all dipped McDonalds fries into a chocolate fudge sundae, so no one's judging). Those of us who return multiple times to the industrial-sized bottles of topping develop a kind of fiddler-crab-esque, overly muscular right arm from pumping the sauce.

I'm a bit funny about food at the best of times, so - Fridays aside - college food fills me with a combination of revulsion and amazement. I attend dinner like I'm performing some kind of experiment:

How many different sorts of soup can possibly just taste like thickened cornflour broth with salt? (Twelve.)

How thin can meat be sliced so as to feed as many students as possible? (0.3mm.)

How many servings of chocolate ripple cake can one footy-head balance up in a single bowl? (Five, but it isn't pretty.)

What is that? (It's carrots. Really. It's actually carrots.)

I try to work out why this sort of food unnerves me so much. I find the volume of it, the sheer enormity of a curry for 160 people, quite repulsive. There's so little detail in that amount of food, it reminds me of feeding the pigs on my friend’s farm. I know it sounds melodramatic, but there's something dis-empowering about being served up 3 mass-produced meals a day. I'm not an individual to this food; I'm an 18-year-old Jenny-or-Kate from the country who needs x amount of nutrients in order to get to three 8am Biochemistry lectures a week. In a way, this is true. So why does it make me feel like I should start learning synchronised gymnastics routines and move to North Korea?

***

“What does ‘mixed selection’ mean?”

“You don’t want to know.”

I’m standing in front of the daily black-board menu next to Sean.

"No, really, what does it mean."

"It means - well, let's just say it's a good idea to keep a note of which meal was served on which day of the week."

"Why?"

"You don't want to know."

I find out what ‘mixed selection’ means that evening. At my college, ‘mixed selection’ refers to the entire week’s leftovers, re-heated and served up in the bain-marie. You choose your poison. The trick is to try to remember if the dried-out Beef Wellington (another form of BMP – brown meat in pastry) was first served closer to Saturday or Thursday.

Sean, Laura and I survey the gently steaming array of food on offer.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“I think that’s Tuesday’s rissoles mixed with Thursday’s risotto,” says Sean.

“Why are there chips in with the croissants?” I ask.

“Oh,” says Laura. “I think I’ve worked it out. They’re serving things alphabetically.”

“That doesn’t explain why the lasagne is next to the zucchini slice,” I say.

Sean and Laura reply in unison: “That’s lentil slice.”

We make our choices. My choice is to move out of college with Laura at the end of the year, into a terrace house in Carlton that has a rosemary bush which threatens to take over the backyard every couple of months, and neighbours who regularly seem set things on fire:

“Who lit the fucken bin?”

“Don’t call the fire brigade Belinda, the car’s on fire but I’m puttin water on it!”

“Look Belinda, I’m a fireman, I’m a fireman!”

On the first night in our little house, I fry an up an onion with garlic, a tin of kidney beans and a tin of tomatoes. In case you can’t tell, I really don’t know how to cook yet. Laura is kind enough not to comment. I ladle the weird concoction into two crazed white bowls that my parents have had since the 70s, and we sit down in the tiny kitchen.

The onion is undercooked and crunchy, the whole thing is crying out for salt, and I didn’t rinse the kidney beans well enough.

It’s one meal, made for two people, to be eaten on one night.

I eat my whole bowlful. It’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted.

5 comments:

arabesque said...

ugh, how can this be so ridiculously funny even as deep foreboding creeps up on me?
I'm hoping to be a college student at unimelb next year, teach me your ways.

nixwilliams said...

This is such a great piece!

greenspace said...

fried onion & garlic with a tin of kidney beans and a tin of tomatoes sounds excellent! maybe needing a bit of refining, but the basics are good.

students would have to be incredibly resilient and not in the least picky, sensitive or concerned about food to survive the university fodder without becoming more than a bit funny about food, even if they weren't to start with.

Rita (mademoiselle délicieuse) said...

I possibly would have died if I was fed that rotational food on a weekly basis. Or lost a lot of weight. Or started my own mini-in-room-kitchen with a microwave, or grill.

Anna said...

@arabesque - good luck! I hope things have improved over the years...

@nixwilliams - thanks :)

@greenspace - perhaps there needs to be some kind of college food survival handbook for 1st years?

@rita - you would have had a mini-master-chef kitchenette set up by week 2 I think :)