Inviting Writing: The Salad Days of College Food

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Today's Inviting Writing post puts a twist on the college food theme by venturing beyond campus—and beyond the typical age range for most freshman students' choice of dining companions. Our featured writer, Leah Douglas, is a Brown University student who contributes to Serious Eats and also has her own blog, Feasting on Providence.

Salad Days By Leah Douglas

I’m not one of those people who loves to hate the food provided at my university’s cafeteria. Sure, the meat seems dubious at times and the “nacho bar” appears too frequently for anyone’s gastrointestinal comfort. But as a vegetarian, I appreciate the somewhat creative non-meat dishes, and the extensive (if a tad wilted) options at the salad bar.

All that being said, I do not reflect on my first year of college eating with rosy-colored glasses. I would go for days without much in the way of protein, and late-night burrito and pizza runs happened far too frequently. For someone who thinks, reads, and dreams about delicious food, I felt slightly stalled and unsettled by my limited options—but frankly, and perhaps fortunately, there were more important things on my mind than my next meal.

Except for the nights I ate at Red Stripe.

The French bistro, my favorite restaurant in the college neighborhood, is somewhat pricey and a bit of a walk from campus—two factors that keep the majority of the student population away. However, I am the truly fortunate student whose grandparents happen to live half an hour away from my dorm.

That’s right: Lucky duck that I am, I attend college within an hour's drive of several family members. Suffice it to say that I never really had any problems with moving furniture, getting to and from the train station, or running out of shampoo during my first year. But neither did I have the expectation that my grandparents would end up saving the most valuable part of my person—my stomach—from complete deprivation.

I can’t remember the first time we went to Red Stripe, but I know that I ordered the “Everything But the Kitchen Sink” chopped salad. How do I know this? Because I have ordered the same thing ever since. Pshh, you’re thinking, she thinks she’s an adventurous eater?! Scoff if you will, but then try this salad. Hearts of palm, house-marinated vegetables, chickpeas and olives and tomatoes; oh my. It is heaven in a very, very large bowl. Not to mention the warm, chewy, crusty, perfect sourdough bread served endlessly on the side, with whipped butter…Excuse me. I may need to go get a snack.

My grandparents branched out far more than I, ordering everything from short ribs to grilled cheese. I appreciated their sampling, of course, since it meant I got to taste extensively from the bistro’s excellent menu. The food was prepared in an open kitchen by young, attractive chefs who liked to glance my way as I grinned through their hearty meals. Before long, we had a regular waiter who knew us by name, and with whom my grandfather found a partner in friendly rambling.

As we ate, my grandmother would hold my hand and question the sanity of my far-too-busy schedule. My grandfather would dutifully remember the names of two to three friends to ask about, and I would share as many grandparent-appropriate details as I could. I looked forward to their tales from “the real world,” where work ended at 5 and social engagements featured cheese plates rather than Cheetos.

Over that large salad, in dim lighting and sipping an always-needed Diet Coke, I would feel the knots in my brain unwind and nutrition seep into my slightly neglected body. These dinners were heartwarming and soul-strengthening beyond their cost and deliciousness.

And at the end of another lovely meal, I would inevitably take home half my salad (I promise, it is huge) in a plastic container. This would be my late-night, or perhaps very early morning, connection to the world beyond exams and parties. If I couldn’t control what time my first class started, or whether my roommate had decided to host a gossip session ten feet from my head, at the very least I could satiate grumblings with a reminder of the food world I so missed. These treats were the bright spot in an otherwise nondescript freshman year of eating.

My grandparents will always insist I am doing them a favor by taking the time in my schedule for our dinners. Little do they know how much my stomach is truly indebted to their generosity.

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