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Fallbany Conflicts

October 15, 2012

One day I should try to eat in some dining hall on the SUNY Albany campus. Part of that would be to observe the state of food being served to college students in this town. But the other part of that would be to see how college kids eat.

A million years ago when I was in school I ate like shit. But it was Philly and at the time that seemed like part of the regional culture. You know, steak sandwiches with grilled onions and cheese sauce plus french fries with even more cheese sauce on the side. Naturally there was soda to wash it all down and for dessert, ice cream. Always ice cream.

But I justified it because I’d usually only be able to afford that one meal a day. Dinner was often a roll, potato salad or a pack of ramen. Wow, that sounds bad. I’ve come a long way from those dark days. And even though there were presumably healthier choices I wasn’t making any of them.

Still, today we are living under a much more pervasive food culture. Kids now are familiar with Fast Food Nation and many know of Michael Pollan. The farm-to-table ethos was ballyhooed by the SUNY Albany dining folks earlier this year, even though I had my reservations. And just this weekend the university hosted a farmers market.

Sadly, I seemed to be the only one heckling the event.

When I arrived Kristi Barlette was judging a hot dog contest. Not an eating contest, mind you. But students had come up with phantasmagorical hot dog creations. Really they were just regular hot dogs topped with a god-awful quantity of toppings. Things like ranch dressing, Funyuns, ground beef, jalapenos, American cheese, lettuce, bacon, tomatoes and pickles.

Maybe I missed out on the bit about where these hot dogs came from. At best I think we can hope that they came from some local producer like Helmbold’s. But it would be amazing if the University actually sourced hot dogs made from great meat like the ones from Northwind Farms.

However, there was a concession stand near the stage, where the hot dogs seemed to be coming from. And the menu there listed farms for the burger and the Italian sausage. But there was no such designation on the hot dog.

Now generally I love it when farms are listed on the menu. But I’m concerned that some places are starting to take advantage of consumers by listing larger scale, industrial agricultural enterprises, rather than smaller operations that are truly producing more special food. All food grows on farms. I don’t care to know who grew the genetically modified corn that’s in the tortillas.

The good news is that the burger being offered at the concession stand was grass fed. The bad news is that I can’t find any information on the farm. The menu said it came from, “Agriculture Farms, Columbia, NY” and for the life of me I can’t find any mention of this place online. The same is true for the farm associated with the Italian sausage, “JD Farms, Sherburne, NY.”

Not even to mention that the grassfed burgers were being served on Sysco buns made with high fructose corn syrup. They were also being served with packets of Heinz ketchup which is made with high fructose corn syrup. And they were being offered with sodas sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.

All of this just made my head spin. I must have looked ill at ease because some kind alumnus came up to me and gave me a couple of free tickets to the beer tent. And that did take some of the sting out of the event.

There were still a few cooking demonstrations to come that I had wanted to see, especially since I’m now a big proponent of teaching college kids how to cook.

The big bummer is that the cooking demos were largely scheduled for after kickoff, so there weren’t any students watching the chefs as far as I could tell. Also, they weren’t offering tastes of the dishes they made, so even if there were students, they might remain unconvinced that the juice is worth the squeeze.

I had hoped the recipes would be more tailored to a college crowd. But a couple of them took the better part of an hour, and I can’t really see college students getting excited about tofu marsala. Plus the takeaway recipe cards were both written poorly and for massive quantities of the dishes (which is useful for a dining hall, less so for students).

The heckling really only happened when I was watching one of the cooks put together a chili with beef and a lot of vegetables and seasonings. But there wasn’t once a mention of salt. He didn’t season the meat. He didn’t salt the vegetables. So I had to shout out, “What about salt?!”

To which he sheepishly explained that they try to cook without it and let the students season the food for themselves at the table. Sadly, that’s not how salt works. Somebody needs to get in there and teach these kids about good food. Otherwise we’re going to end up with a generation that lives on Red Bull and Lunchables, and we’re all going to suffer.

If anyone from SUNY happens to read this, I’m happy to volunteer.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2012 9:57 am

    Hotdog topping contest at UAlbany (my Alma Matter) and no meat sauce? The organizers of “Fallbany” are living a lie.

    • Daniel B. permalink*
      October 15, 2012 10:17 am

      The problem is kids today. You should probably get in there too and show all these students from Long Island what it means to eat like a denizen of the Capital Region.

      • Mr. Dave permalink
        October 15, 2012 10:40 am

        I have said it before (and it seems to be controversial), but I have long since given up on anyone who dwells south of Orange County. They do not know the song of my people.

  2. Ewan permalink
    October 15, 2012 10:55 am

    Daniel –

    – I would be delighted to take you to lunch at the Patrron Room one day; I’ve been pretty impressed (especially this year) with their quality of food and efforts to at least move in the direction of local sourcing. Let me know? I know the staff there pretty well, and I bet they’d be very happy to talk food with you regarding the other dining halls also.

  3. October 15, 2012 11:00 am

    Phantasmagorical – really?

    I have family that lives in Sherburne and I drive through there often. I’ll try to look into the JD Farms situation for you.

    I guess we need to give UAlbany a little credit for trying. It’s a valid attempt. Maybe next year will be better. (Small steps towards change usually yield more permanent results than flash-in-the-pan revolutions, right?)

  4. October 16, 2012 6:51 pm

    I think Deanna has it about right. Changes are best experienced incrementally, so they have a chance to sink in. Great of UAlbany to make the effort, and maybe it’ll be a little better next year.

    When I was in college in the late 80s my favorite items were a basic beef stew and the pre-packaged chicken cordon bleu they served once a week. I remember finding a metal object of some sort once in the stew, and going up to the servers at the counter, returning the unidentified piece, and getting a second helping. I went back for a reunion 20 years later and found the dining hall completely different: sushi stations, a completely vegetarian dining room in one part of the building that had incredible salad fixings on display along with some great Indian dishes I had a chance to sample, and just a completely different vibe. Furthermore, the dining manager with whom I spoke indicated that every effort was made to source ingredients from local farms and butchers. I think that’s partly due to the fact that colleges have to have great facilities to compete for students, but also owes something to the idea that Alice Waters and others have fostered over time that if you want to get the notion into people’s heads that local, sustainable food are essential, you start with students and work from there.

    It all made me really sanguine about the future of good food in America, at least among those who’ve experienced it. But there’s the rub: I think the bigger question goes directly to the issue of economic stratification. When you have entire urban neighborhoods that don’t have easily obtainable groceries, and it’s easier and cheaper to order from the McDonald’s dollar menu than to buy quality, nourishing goods, you have a much larger societal problem than whether you can introduce your kid to the pleasures of eating coquilles St. Jacques or jambalaya, for instance. Those of us who have the economic means to buy the food that we prefer can make choices that others can’t always make. And that troubles me, and makes me wonder if thirty years from now half of us are going to be buying terrific, locally-grown food (a success by the measures we seem to have defined) and the other half are going to be surviving on Whoppers, Cracker Jacks and Ho-Hos, and dying at 50.

    In any event, thanks for the usual interesting read!

    • October 17, 2012 11:07 am

      Hey! No one ever agrees with me (or rarely, at best). Thanks buddy!

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