As I was reminded on a trip to a packed Target the other day, the back-to-school season is upon us. Seeing carts filled with things like electric hot pots, microwave popcorn and instant soup got me thinking about dorm life...which brings me to our latest Inviting Writing theme: College food.
As always, the rules are simple: Tell us a story! We're looking for true, original, personal essays inspired in some way by our theme. Please keep it under 1,000 words, and send it to FoodandThink@gmail.com with "Inviting Writing: College Food" in the subject line. Remember to include your full name and a biographical detail or two (your city and/or profession; a link to your own blog if you'd like that included).
I accidentally became a vegetarian a few weeks before my freshman year of college began, and I decided to stick with it. But while young adulthood may be idiomatically called one's "salad days," I didn't eat much in the way of leafy greenery that year. "Carbs and sugar days" would be more accurate. In my dorm-room hot pot, I cooked up vast quantities of macaroni and cheese, minute rice and ramen noodles. I ate any kind of snack that could be bought in bulk and stowed in a plastic storage bin for weeks at a time: Goldfish crackers, chips, pretzels, Twizzlers, Skittles, M&Ms, Swedish Fish, matzo bread, animal crackers. I experimented with dipping all of those things—and even, occasionally, sheets of raw ramen noodles—in Marshmallow Fluff. (Yes. I know. I should have warned you not to read this while eating.)
In the cafeteria, I gravitated toward cereal and dessert, sometimes combining the two (frozen yogurt mixed with Corn Pops! giant rice crispy treats!), and felt justified in this because, hey, it wasn't meat, after all. As long as I wasn't eating that, my diet must be "healthy," I figured. I mean, who ever heard of a fat vegetarian? (Ah, the wisdom of a 17-year-old brain.)
Then, one day, a friend casually mentioned a fact that rocked my world.
"Did you know gelatin isn't vegetarian?" she said, gesturing at my bag of Skittles. "It's made from animal bones. So real vegetarians don't eat it."
That stung. Given the sketchy circumstances of my conversion, I was eager to prove to the world that I was a "real" vegetarian. I'd read the brochures about animal rights, and I'd heard the statistic about how dozens of hungry people could potentially be fed with crops grown on an acre of land that, used for cattle grazing, would yield only a handful of hamburgers. A copy of "Diet for a Small Planet" was prominently displayed on my bookshelf (though I hadn't actually read more than a few pages at that point). I was serious about this, gosh darn it!
So I gave up gelatin. Since this suddenly ruled out things like rice crispy treats, Fluff, and many types of candy, I was forced to adapt my diet. I finally read that book, and a few others, and learned about the importance of balancing one's carbohydrate, protein and fat intakes. I started eating more salad, and less sugar, from the cafeteria. I discovered chickpeas and hummus. The "freshman 15" disappeared rapidly.
College, I realized, is all about learning to balance—time, workload, opinions, allegiances and so on. Food is only the beginning, but it's a good first step when still recovering from the wobble of leaving the nest.
By the start of my sophomore year, my roommate Jenna and I formed a pact, scribbled on a sheet of notebook paper and officiously signed by each of us and a bemused "witness" (the girl who lived across the hall). I still have a copy. It's about boys, because we'd just had a shared epiphany that they could be a terrible distraction from more important matters such as studying, exercising, and staring dreamily at world atlases.
We promised, in writing, never to let ourselves become inordinately obsessed with a boy. And if I did?
"My roommate, Jenna, has permission to force-feed me gelatin."