By Amy Goetzman ’93
Macalester didn’t turn me into a vegetarian; I arrived that way. I quit eating meat during my preschool years. At the dinner table, I’d stow cubes of Salisbury steak in my underpants, then later file them away in a super-secret meat stash between the kitchen wall and the refrigerator.
At age 3, I wasn’t considering moral or ethical issues, although I did love animals. (And boy did they love me: In one of my baby photos, a cat is shown stealing bacon off my highchair tray.) My rejection of meat probably had more to do with quality. My parents were young and broke and weren’t serving choice cuts of anything.We got the gristly beef, TV dinners stocked with gray, pureed patties, and Party Pizzas topped with candy-colored chips of pepperoni. On special occasions, we’d go to Arby’s, until we started noticing the iridescent green edges on the roast beef. What, exactly, was the green stuff? I could not, would not, eat green meat, nor the fakey red meat or creepy gray meat, either.
Around this time, my mom also quit eating meat, so being a vegetarian was no big deal at home. At school, I was surrounded by Future Farmers of America, and no, they didn’t make me their homecoming queen. I was the only kid I knew who didn’t eat animals—until I went to college.
At Mac, hippies hung out with punks, former cheerleaders dated chess champions, Jews and Muslims and Christians and atheists all partied together (on Saturday, if not Friday, night). Heck, there were even mimes there. And vegans! No one cared what anybody ate, and there were so many vegetarians that the cafeteria—then located in Kagin—served veggie burgers. Twenty years ago that was revolutionary.
In those days, vegetarianism was regarded as bizarre, and the terms locally grown and organic weren’t yet part of the culinary conversation.
But Mac’s cafeteria was known to be good. Rumor had it that St. Thomas was still serving weenies off the roller grill and fruit entombed in Jell-O. But at Kagin, we had a salad bar, sandwiches made to order, and burgers of all kinds to choose among should the day’s hot entrées (meat and veggie) not appeal. This kind of whatever-you-want, all-you-can-eat bonanza helps make the U.S. the envy of the world, and I never got used to the freedom of it. Breakfast for dinner? Sure, cereal was available all day. Two different desserts? Yep, I did that too. But usually, I made pretty good choices. It was hard not to. Actual chefs and nutritionists made sure that fresh, healthy food was in front of us every day, and it made a lasting impression.
And most of us took it entirely for granted. Only when we reached the monotonous mac’n cheese days after college did we realize that the holy combination of bounteous choices plus no shopping/cooking/dishwashing would never come again. Oh Kagin, I never knew ye till ye were gone.
Recently, I visited Mac’s new and improved dining hall, Café Mac, and realized I’d been born too soon. Now chefs whip up a bounty of vegetarian, vegan, ethnic, gluten- free, and organic choices informed by global foodie culture. In my day, choosing among 10 different cereals was a thrill, especially for my roommate, whose mom had outlawed Froot Loops. Today’s students can have saag paneer and sweet potato fries, pesto pizza and gluten-free pastries. And if they want to go truly vegetarian they can live in the Veggie Co-op (although there it’s back to doing your own kitchen chores).
At Café Mac, entrées are carefully labeled, although today’s students—thoroughly schooled in local, organic, and sustainable issues—can trust that the folks in the kitchen have it all under control. This isn’t St. Thomas, after all. These days, I’m a member of a community-supported agriculture farm. Every time I attend a farm workday, at least one of my fellow field workers is connected to Macalester. A coincidence? I don’t think so.
If what we learn in college is more than the sum of our classes, if the lifelong lessons we take into the world hinge on the relationships, habits, and daily rituals that make our lives meaningful, then perhaps the cafeteria should be the first stop on the prospective student tour.
Food really is at the heart of all we do, and at Mac we learned to be cool with the dietary choices and restrictions of others, to try food from other cultures, to think about the sources of ingredients and the people involved in bringing them to us, and to choose foods that helped us perform well. Just forgive those of us who didn’t yet understand all the work that goes into preparing a hot meal. After our Mac—and mac’n cheese—days, we figured that out too.
AMY GOETZMAN ’93 is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
Illustration: Eric Hanson
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