Thursday, April 14, 2011

The New Dining Hall Experience

For my restaurant review this week, I’m combining a review with a “food for thought.”  This entry came about when a comment on my “Food Porn” blog brought up how much he, too, has noticed the many ways food is taking over.  I was thinking about this over lunch on Wednesday when I realized that if you are looking for further evidence of the effect of foodism, you need not look further than my lunch. 

Yesterday, I had steamed Thai basil dumplings with sweet and spicy sauce and served with a sesame dressing salad.  I bought this from a place that also has four other kinds of dumplings and sauces, a Mongolian Grill, and a variety of handmade Sushi.  It is also a place where the tofu was provided fresh by a local farm.   
What fancy metropolitan place am I having lunch . . . a college campus in Harrisonburg, VA. 
Let this point sink in. . . I got an authentic Asian meal in a college dining hall.  Not a teriyaki termed concoction of dark brown and rice.  Not greasy Lo Mein.  Not a cornstarch thickened sweat and sour blob.  Dumplings.    

Display of other Asian dishes
offered by the dining hall. 

And no, these dumplings aren’t made, frozen, imported, and thawed.  These are made by four small Asian women who I can see manning the Mongolian grill, cooking the Pad Thai, sautéing fresh Bok Choy, and shaping each and every one of my dumplings.    Not only is it authentic looking in its preparation, these dumplings are good.  The wrapper is soft, the chicken is spicy and flavorful, and they are served warm and comforting. 
I’m not going to pretend like all the food at JMU is this impressive.  But, what I am going to say is that finding such food inclusion is something that is shaking up the formerly uncomplicated college dining hall.  Last year, I was at a school in Georgetown, Texas, in which you can get water to drink that is infused with either cucumbers or limes.  As a foodie, this intrigues me. 
I once read a really great articled called “From Spaghetti and Meatballs through Hawaiian Pizza to Sushi: the Changing Nature of Ethnicity in American Restaurants” by Liora Gvion and Naomi Trostler.  In the article, the women study menus from 1960’s through the 1990’s.  What they found is that you could trace growing acceptance of ethnic food by the changes in menus, and you could see when certain exotic foods and flavors became mainstream.  For instance, early menus show ethnic foods given American names or denatured of ethnicity with American style ingredients and preparation.  Over decades, menus eventually start to keep the original language/terminology of the dish and its exoticism becomes a selling point.  They also noticed that some menus that used to give an explanation of an ethnic food eventually dropped the explanation because that food had become so mainstream that is no longer needed an explanation.  The two authors even noticed changes in the 80s when herbs, like cilantro and basil, were added to descriptions as selling points. 
Gvion and Trostler’s article further supports my point that you can really see a change in how Americans (and the World for that matter), are seeking out new food.  People are no longer settling for straightforward cooking and upholding the classics, they want to see variation, options, choice, exoticism, and flavors.  I mean, if a dining hall can support local farms and offer homemade Asian dumplings, then that has got to say something about food culture.    
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  1. First, what a beautiful -- and beautifully written -- blog! I've enjoyed poking around.

    Second, even when I was at JMU, they were renowned for having great food (by dining hall standards) and lots of options. It's terrific so see that they still offer students good eats. It makes a difference!

    I look forward to reading more.

  2. Thank you so much for the compliment. You made my day!!


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