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The College Diet: Breaking Down the Food at SMU's Cafeteria

Real Food On Campus
Real Food On Campus

America's future leaders are piling back to their schools, and we're honoring them with how-to's, survival guides and personal stories of failure from Observer staff. That's right, It's College Week. See also: The Top 20 Dorm Room Posters Of All Time

As Nick and I walked into SMU's RFOC Cafeteria (Real Food On Campus), a nice lady greeted and gave us the rundown. For $8.75 we had unlimited access to a world's bounty. "It's Asian day," she told us, and pointed to a station tricked out with saucy stir-fries. She motioned to the salad bar to our left and told us the cereal bar was tucked just around the corner.

Ah, the cereal bar. It's been a long time since I've been in a college cafeteria, and a lot of things have stayed the same. As the woman swiped my credit card I remembered some familiar feelings as I surveyed the room and tried to formulate a plan. The various stations laid out an endless tapestry of prepared food that was mine for the taking and I was overwhelmed by a sudden, almost giddy and uncontrollable desire to eat everything.

And then I did.

The College Diet: Breaking Down the Food at SMU's Cafeteria

Nick attacked one of the hot stations, composing a plate of french fries, a grilled cheese sandwich and a sloppy joe he assembled with onions, pickles and a bun that might have been slowly toasted on the hood of a car. The grilled cheese sandwich was dry, too, resembling a thin whisper of Velveeta between two lightly buttered saltine crackers. The french fries were abysmal. The exteriors were tough and chewy and yielded powdery insides. McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's all do a much better job of flash frying spuds.

Meanwhile, I slathered a flour tortilla with refried black beans and then added eggs, some tater tots shaped like hockey pucks and a ladle of salsa. As far as breakfast tacos go, and considering what I was working with, I was pleased with my creation. But I was just getting started.

The College Diet: Breaking Down the Food at SMU's Cafeteria

I attacked the Asian station for round two which gave diners a choice between two starches. The lo mein noodles wore a glossy sheen of oil, and fried rice was mostly plain, save some large clumps of scrambled eggs. Beef and broccoli filled one dish and a chicken stir-fry with peppers filled another while two dishes of vibrant peas and carrots hid at the end of the run. They looked like the most fresh and delicious thing in the cafeteria, but fuck that: Nick found pizza.

Not good pizza, but pizza. Cici's serves better, and if you're paying attention you'll begin to notice a recurring theme. A lot of fast-food places offer better chow than can be had at the RFOC. And it's often cheaper, too. Granted, Chick-fil-A around the corner doesn't offer an all-you-can-eat option, but at least there's real(ish) chicken on their sandwiches, which is more than I can say for the chicken stir-fry, here.

The picture's a little blurry, but there's really not much chicken in that nugget.
The picture's a little blurry, but there's really not much chicken in that nugget.

As I bit into one of the crunchy, breaded morsels I was absolutely astounded that it contained no chicken. There were small threads of what used to be fowl, but the bird was long gone -- completely fried into oblivion leaving nothing but chewy, oily starch in its wake. The beef had some bulk but was just as arid. I guessed over-cooking might have been partly to blame but I wondered if I'd discovered some latent impact of last year's drought on the beef industry.

If I werer an SMU student and my diet consisted of three meals a day, every day, at RFOC I'd be on antistatins in a month at my age. I'd also be depressed. What started off as a fun idea for a blog post to welcome students back to campus, turned into a very sad realization: This food was much worse than I imagined. This is the foundation of the freshman 15.

It's not all grease and cheese. There's a modest salad bar set up as you walk in. It tempts you with a few trays of lettuce, some vegetables and a selection of dressings you can pour over your healthy creation like pancake syrup. Twice the real estate in the dining room is devoted to a desert bar, though. Why eat carrots when you can eat cake?

 

This beef is as dry as last summer's drought.
This beef is as dry as last summer's drought.
Two lonely pizzas.
Two lonely pizzas.
You're likely better off at Cici's.
You're likely better off at Cici's.
Load up your baked potato with oily chili and neon-orange cheese.
Load up your baked potato with oily chili and neon-orange cheese.

 

The sandwich topping section.
The sandwich topping section.
There's a lot of dessert to choose from.
There's a lot of dessert to choose from.
A make-your-own breakfast taco is actually one of the better options at the RFOC.
A make-your-own breakfast taco is actually one of the better options at the RFOC.
Don't forget onions and a pickle.
Don't forget onions and a pickle.
And yes, the forks still look like this.
And yes, the forks still look like this.

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