University is where you learn to eat.
True, not everyone studies at third level, and many of us learn to cook as teenagers. But it remains a formative period, one where things which were once basic suddenly become challenging without adult help. Like navigating a city by oneself, or putting on clean clothes and getting to lectures on time.
Or learning how to eat. College cafeterias function as a stodgy surrogate mother: everything about them–the food, how much you pay for it, the queuing, the deep moral conflict in choosing chips over a side salad–sets a template for how we eat later, in the real world.
I went to college in England, and have always wondered what the cafeterias at Trinity and UCD were like. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to gatecrash.
I should add an apology here for leaving out DCU, NCAD et al (the Luncheonette, in particular, looks impressive). Maybe some future review will continue the university deathmatch and we can compare menus on a graph with criteria like cost, sodium levels and surliness of staff (chips, I believe, would merit their own category...).
But for now, I begin at the Buttery on a Friday at lunchtime.
It's busy when I arrive, and the air is full of chips. The customers seem to be 50/50 students and staff, which is unexpected. Outside it's cold and windy, and I join a queue of customers still wearing their padded coats. The walls are a bilious light green, with 'EAT' spelled out in metal letters in case we forget what we're here for.
I'm too late for breakfast–their cheap fry-ups are the stuff of minor legend ("the meat is about 75% sodium", I am told, by someone meaning this as a compliment). The lunch options are chips, sausages, beans, mushy peas (a lagoon of neon green the same colour as the walls–I've never seen so much mushy pea in the same place before), battered plaice, soup, a salad bar, paella and those goats cheese tartlets that are always, always offered as the vegetarian option (though to their credit, they also have a vegetable stir fry).
Prices are from €2.50 to €5.95. Chips fill most customers' plates, a kind of edible common denominator, though I wuss out and buy soup and a salad box. I walk through occupied tables, getting that old familiar Mean Girls feeling, the urge to grab my tray and hide in the bathrooms, before finding somewhere to sit.
And it's perfectly fine. Cheap, unatmospheric, the kind of place you run into, shovel cheap, acceptable food into your mouth then run out of again to return to lectures. The Buttery has none of the romance or history my parents' generation attaches to it, owing, apparently, to a time when it served beer and was an actual social hub the way the Pav is today.
Next I hop on a bus to UCD. The driver swerves like a madman: I'm the only one left by the final stop, and I resist the urge to congratulate him on his sharp corners. I arrive in time for what must be a post-lecture rush to the bar, or to anywhere other than the cafeteria, because now it's completely empty.
There are thirteen different cafés at UCD, one in every major block, but the main restaurant is in the Gerard Manley Hopkins Building. I know this because it says 'Main Restaurant' on the wall at the entrance. It's called 'Randal's Rest', and despite attempts to find out more both online and off, I continue to have no idea who Randal is.
'Randal's Rest' has the air of a place on a highway where truckers eat. Cold, utilitarian, with glass walls and vast rows of tables made all the more vast because today they are empty. I wonder if this place ever fills up. It could easily double as an exam hall.
Why must every college cafeteria be so dystopian? Is there some food hall interiors expert who specialises in this brand of mind-numbing decor? Is it, as the rumour goes about UCD itself, designed to be riot-proof?
The food is uninspiring. As with Trinity, it's stodgy but inoffensive. Burgers with gravy. Vegetables with gravy. Gloopy custard and jelly in plastic pots. Comforting food designed for hangovers. I choose beef curry and vegetables instead of rice, and along with a free coffee it costs €7.50. I wonder if the students grudge the prices.
I take a place among the hundreds of empty benches, and eat a dish which is almost definitely 75% sodium, and 25% meat. Rain and wind maul the windows and I look down into my soupy plate. I pity Randal, if this place was meant as a memorial.
Later I ask friends on Facebook for their stories about college food. I've included a few below to round out my own experiences– chips and kleptomania feature as recurring themes:
"The Buttery's sausages, beans and chips for about €2 sustained my formative years."
"A confession: I used to buy fruit from the TCD student union shop for no other reason than to stare at the straight boy who worked there. I often bought bananas and made jokes. *I'm sorry*."
"Curry chips curry chips and more curry chips!"
"A big roll, any filling, and a bowl of soup for a fiver?! Win! That was a proper treat for me on a cold winter afternoon, and it was filling enough to be my main meal of the day. I'm vegan too and never had a problem with choice. And. And. And!! Free water! FTW!"
"The TCD arts block cafe caught my girlfriend "stealing" a plastic fork, apprehended her and made her pay 15 cents for it.."
"I've many recollections of study cravings in the library, needing an hour or two to doss off we'd head down to the student bar for a plate of undercooked chips served up by the grumpy chef. Even with the imminent stomach pains afterward we had mostly forgotten about it as we went back the next day, and another serving quickly reminded us. Students eh?"
"All the D4s hung out in the 'orts' cafe, I think I nicked a couple of chocolate bars from there to 'make up' for their pitiful & overpriced vegetarian options."
"Had some of the best bananas/apples/pears of my life from UCD student shop. Dunno who their connect is but they've got primo shit at knockdown prices."
"The arts cafe staff in UCD caught me nicking a goats cheese salad and staged a disappointed intervention with me where they told me I should've just told them I didn't have money and they'd have fed me... Class acts…"
"I got the impression that the UCD food was worse yet more expensive, possibly because UCD students are stranded miles from anywhere and the caterers have a monopoly. Was something like 5 or 6 euro for greasy sausages and chips with a side of congealed beans… Every time I ate in that canteen I came out feeling ripped off and depressed, and this was not aided by the women at the tills, who are cranky and humourless and frown at you. The architectural brutalism of UCD also highlights the industrialised quality of the dining experience... The only good bit about UCD catering is that it is very easy to steal coffee from their shop at lunch time because the place is so hideously overcrowded, and the weary crusts of the overpriced and plastic-wrapped sandwiches sold by the shop can be used to entice UCD's permanent mob of seagulls into entertaining and aggressive posturing."