Is Delicious Really in the Details?
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
By Malia Simon
I have found myself in many unforeseen circumstances in my time at Columbia: accidentally becoming really good at the Dewey Decimal System, going to 1020 wrapped in a quilt, witnessing a professor contract temporary cyanide poisoning from taking elderberry tincture instead of a flu shot, to name a few. One circumstance I never could have imagined finding myself in is defending Columbia Dining. But here I am, playing devil’s advocate harder than the Exeter boys in your CC section, about to argue that delicious really, truly is in the details.
Columbia Dining is something we love to hate, and I’ll readily admit to being no exception to this. I have been known to compare John Jay bagels to seasoned mattress pads, and Ferris alfredo to its close cousin in the white-substance department. But let’s be real: a lot of that is just talk. When we’re with our friends, it’s easy enough to take a day’s worth of stress and frustration and regret out on the food served here. I know just as well as any the collective catharsis derived from calling a grain bowl a “fugly disappointment,” among other expletives.
But when you’re alone in the dining hall with no one to observe you, you definitely enjoy that Ferris pepperoni pizza at least a little bit. Yeah, it’s terrible, but it’s also kind of good. Don’t tell me you haven’t secretly felt fond feelings toward the Action Station as you ascend the Lerner ramps hungry, cold, and tired. What’ll it be today? A stir-fry? A spicy-chicken-wrap-ish-type-thing? Either way, it’s cheesy and hot and, again, kind of good, in a weird and wonderful way. And those drink machines with 18 different kinds of cancer-causing hot-pink sparkling Minute Maid beverages? Don’t pretend you don’t hit that up on the regular.
Illustration by Rea Rustagi
The point is, Columbia Dining does alright as long as you know what to expect, and maybe that’s what they’ve been trying to tell us all along with their ubiquitous slogan. Delicious is not in the overall quality of the meat and dairy. It’s not in the soups or the salad bar offerings, and it’s certainly not in the general attention to salt and seasoning. But in the context of your busy college life, Columbia Dining is but a minute detail, and given how shitty that busy college life is, Columbia Dining is relatively delicious.
I can recall a night in the deep, dark winter of my freshman year on which I left my evening Spanish class hungry as hell and in the mood for some Ferris cuisine— not merely accepting defeat, but actually craving Ferris. I had learned by then that some food stations should not be touched with a ten-foot pole. But the glass case? A font of potential—and a consistently short line, thanks to its strategic lack of a self-serve option by which one could pick all the berries out of the berry salad). On that particular night, I tried the brie and mango sandwich for the first time, and, dear readers, I seriously enjoyed it. I even added it to my Ferris classics repertoire, which is no easy club in which to earn a spot.
I see you dining hall haters getting seconds—thirds!—at the pasta bar, loading John Jay parmesan into a Ziploc for a midnight snack. So give it up. It’s not getting any better. The brie and mango sandwich, on the other hand? Also not getting any better. But not any worse either! And that, dear reader, is a secret reality that you’d do well to embrace—the most delicious of details.
By Dominy Gallo
I have watched Ratatouille enough times to know quality food when I see it, and my well-trained palate senses very little deliciousness in Columbia Dining’s details. I eat in the dining halls as much as the next work-study kid who cringes at every $7 Venmo request to pay for party decorations I didn’t even notice. Hell, I’ll pass out at my desk to avoid ponying up for a cup of coffee. But sometimes, even on my near-minimum-wage, part-time salary, I’ll save up for a weekend escape to a more luxurious dining experience–Shake Shack, perhaps–when the details prove less delicious than disgusting.
It should be known that I am a famously pathetic cook, meaning I have absolutely no right to be saying any of this. Columbia Dining could rightly tell me to stick this where the sun doesn’t shine and feed myself, and I’d be hospitalized for malnourishment, poison, or both within a month. Friends and family alike will attest to the fact that any morsel of hand-eye coordination I manage to muster in my everyday life escapes me the moment I set foot in a kitchen. My weeks of studying fluid dynamics and gas laws fail me when it comes to remembering that a pot of water must be covered in order to boil before sunrise. I have exploded my share of microwave dinners, left ovens off when they were supposed to be on (and on when then they were definitely supposed to be off), set grease fires, mixed up solid and liquid measuring cups, smashed eggs, broken plates. I once put a fully cooked (by some miracle of God) meal under the running faucet with the dirty dishes. Whenever I enter a kitchen, things somehow start going wrong–even if I’m not the one doing the cooking. Basically, I’ve been cursed by the culinary gods.
Illustration by Sahra Denner
And even I, incompetent as I am, know you’re supposed to remove the hair from the mashed potatoes before you serve them. Two years ago, my boyfriend gave me mono and blamed it on a John Jay apple, and I wasn’t even suspicious. When writing poetry, I’ve conjured the pink peony glow of undercooked John Jay chicken and the flecks of Prussian blue in Ferris scrambled eggs. JJ’s is out of chocolate milk as often as Ferris serves country fried steak.
No culinary mishap compares, however, to the scenes I’ve observed in the dining halls. I’ve had chairs stolen out from under me as I tried to sit down, brought another over, and had that one stolen when I looked away. Freshman footballers have helped themselves to seats next to me, spilled lemonade all over me and my food, and left to find somewhere better to sit, abandoning me to their mess. I’ve heard some students lambaste the overworked staff behind the glass over the menu options, and seen others leave plates full of half-eaten food on the tables for someone else to deal with. What’s even less delicious than the dining hall details? Shitty students.
I’ve learned a lot from my Lit Hum readings because I complete them at the last minute during weekly camp-outs on the couches in JJ’s. Quotidian life in the bowels of campus has proven far more revelatory than Augustine’s charming distaste for women and their right to personal liberty. I have seen messes left on those tables suitable for whatever ring of Hell to which Dante condemned the rude-to-service-workers. I have respectfully averted my eyes from emotional breakdowns and witnessed greasy-fingered first dates, all while the black-aproned saints of the JJ’s kitchen mill around, swiping empty cardboard—are they plates? Bowls? Buckets?—and trying not to think about what that sticky stuff on the table really is. No wonder I found a staple in my sushi last week.