Eating your way to a college degree
Unhealthy college eating is an issue that troubles both parents and their hungry children. Tales of the “freshman 15,” gaining or losing 15 pounds due to unappetizing cafeteria slop, abound and mini-fridges are frantically stocked with alternatives. Unfortunately, beer and instant noodles are not much healthier than the meals piled onto plastic trays at the dining hall.
In his first year at school, my friend Josh was enjoying one such diet of cafeteria cuisine. Lifting a tofu-filled fork to his mouth and taking a bite, his nose detected a most unpleasant odor. “That’s odd,” he thought, “something smells a lot like garbage.” When Josh realized that the scent of garbage was emanating from the rotten tofu he had just placed in his mouth, he decided it might be time to start making his own food.
Since good food can be hard to find, rarely comes for free and dinner regrettably doesn’t make itself, college students are left to find crafty ways to fend for themselves. Although sating my stomach with delicious meals should be a priority, during the school year I, like many college students, often find myself too busy to prepare proper meals. During exam period last year I lived on peanut butter and apples, proving that even a good-food fiend like myself could quickly turn the myth of college eating into a reality.
Returning to Beijing this summer awarded me the luxury of having an ayi who prepared delicious meals, in addition to a myriad of cheap restaurants at my doorstep. Within a few hours of landing on Chinese soil I visited one of my favorite eateries, Serve the People, for a spicy beef dish that I’d been craving since moving away five years earlier. The next week, as I dug for succulent tofu amid a giant bowl of chili peppers at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, I was further reminded of all that was missing from my culinary life in Montreal.
After a summer spent in bustling Asian cities, I am preparing to return to McGill in Montreal, Canada, where poutine – a medley of French fries, cheese curds and gravy – is the snack of choice. An excess of poutine doesn’t make Montreal any less of a wonderful place – in fact, I wouldn’t want to go to college anywhere else – but in terms of dining, it can’t compare to Asia.
The only dirt-cheap bowl of noodles one can find in Montreal is CAD 2 chow mein on St. Laurent – a bustling, grimy bar street that is filled with revelers until the wee hours of the morning. Regrettably, the chow mein is an unappetizing concoction of plain noodles and melted peanut butter.
Restaurants in North America are, at least compared to the ones I have become accustomed to in Beijing, exorbitantly priced, and even grocery stores are costly. Luckily there are a few alternatives. McGill’s student-run initiative, Midnight Kitchen, offers pay-as-you-can vegan meals at lunchtime and, if you befriend the kind Quebecois bakers, they cheerfully give away fresh bread after bakeries close for the night. The other option, of course, is finding a kitchen-savvy housemate.
In my second year I was fortunate enough to live with Annie, a friend who alleviated stress during exams by baking superb desserts and preparing meals worthy of five-star restaurants. Much to my chagrin, however, I recently moved into a new apartment and, though Annie lives nearby, her presence will be missed, especially in my kitchen. My new place is also farther from Chinatown, thus farther removed from the scents and tastes I love best.
Now a sophomore at McGill, I’ve been cooking my own food for a few years, but still haven’t attained a Martha Stewart-like fervor for the kitchen. Nor can I shake the nagging voice reminding me that everything is cheaper and tastier in Beijing.
Former Beijing resident Caitlin Manicom now attends McGill University in Canada, where she will be a junior in the fall.