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Guide to Cafeteria Cooking Makes Lobdell Fun

Column by Bill Jackson

Denture Wearer

We're a few weeks into the term, and ARA food is getting to be a bit bland. Luckily, there is relief on the way.

MIT employee Lynn Harris has co-authored a new book called Tray Gourmet: Be Your Own Chef In The College Cafeteria. Harris, who works in the former Undergraduate Education Office, co-wrote the book with two of her friends from Yale, Larry Berger and illustrator Chris Kalb.

Harris told me that her fascination with cafeteria cooking began during her sophomore year at Yale. At first, she says, "I was just fooling around, experimenting, but soon people were asking, `Hey Lynn, could you make me that banana thing?' " Soon Harris was gaining notice for her special cafeteria food, from Fettucine Alfredo to Cheese Fondue.

The resulting cookbook is designed to help college students use the food in their cafeterias to make a variety of interesting dishes. Many of the dishes sound great, and the book is presented with a sense of humor. For example, "Cliff's Oates," a parody on the famous summarizing booklets, discusses the benefits of cereal while maintaining the "Cliff's" style. (Sample from the Questions for Review: "Construct a Freudian interpretation of the recipe, centering on the role of the banana. Apply your interpretation to a personal experience.")

So I assembled a crack squad of Tech staffers to attack Lobdell with recipes. The team consisted of myself, my fellow opinion editor Matthew H. Hersch '94, contributing editors Lois E. Eaton '92 and Deborah A. Levinson '91, and production staffer Chris Council '94. Each was given a recipe and challenged to make it only with ingredients available in Lobdell.

I was to make "Pesto Muffins," consisting of pesto sauce spread on top of english muffins. I was doing pretty well at finding ingredients: Parmesan cheese was available on the salad bar, and the oil I needed was among the salad dressings. Finding chopped basil leaves, however, was another matter.

Me: "Excuse me sir, I'm trying to make pesto sauce. Can you tell me if you have any chopped basil leaves?"

Tom Rizzo, Lobdell Manager: "Chopped basil leaves?"

Me: "Yes."

Tom Rizzo, beginning to see what he thought would be an average dinner shift turn into a nightmare: "I think we have some in back. Maybe downstairs in the kitchen. Just a minute."

He disappeared. A few minutes later he re-appeared behind the Deli counter. "How much do you need?"

"It says `Two soupspoons.' "

Mr. Rizzo, nodding in semi-disbelief: "Sure." He poured some basil leaves into a cup.

"Now," I asked, "I need just a pinch of garlic powder."

I hope somebody at ARA gives this guy a bonus.

As I combined the ingredients, I checked on the progress of the other team members. Mr. Hersch had Mr. Rizzo cornered, demanding one handful of chopped eggplant for the Ratatouille he was attempting to make. Hersch learned that eggplant was unavailable. Finding this situation as untenable as the political climate in Singapore, he asked for some zucchini. Mr. Rizzo went looking again.

Ms. Levinson was attempting to make "Chinese Peanut Pasta." "God save me!" exclaimed Margaret White, who was working the deli when Ms. Levinson approached looking for ingredients. Ms. White gave out a scoop of peanut butter. When Mr. Council showed her that the recipe he was working on, "Pa amb Tomaquet" (Bread with Tomato, a Catalan dish) required "6-inch length French Bread," Ms. White went to great pains to make sure the bread was exactly 6-inches long. Ms. Eaton seemed to be having little trouble with her item, the "Greek Week Burger," since the feta cheese and peppers required were on the salad bar.

Meanwhile, I came to the harsh realization that although my pesto sauce was looking (and smelling) pretty good, Lobdell doesn't have english muffins after breakfast. I was forced to settle for different types of breads on which to spread the sauce. Meanwhile, Mr. Rizzo returned from the downstairs kitchen with a summer squash for Mr. Hersch -- not quite a zucchini, but in the same family -- and the satisfied columnist called off the tactical air strike he had been planning.

We went to the register. I gulped as I watched each of the five meals rung up, not to mention a couple of sodas and extras. The total bill for all of the above items? $11.75. Not bad. I think the unusual combinations confused the Lobdell pricing system.

And the results? Excellent. After sampling all of the dishes, the consensus was that Ms. Levinson's peanut pasta was the best, although the pesto sauce had its share of fans and the bread with tomato was excellent as well. The only limitation was that many of these dishes (including the bread with tomato) require a microwave. Because there isn't one in Lobdell, we used the nuker in the Tech office to complete those recipes which needed heating. Perhaps these would work better in house dining halls where students could ask to use a microwave (or take them back to dorm kitchens with microwaves.)

Tray Gourmet is on sale now, although it may be hard to find due to high demand. The Coop is expecting to receive it any day now, and it should be available at the Harvard Book Store and other local bookstores. A portion of the authors' proceeds go to the Children's Defense Fund.