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Chicken cordon bleu and community at Notre Dame’s dining halls

| Monday, August 24, 2020

Liya Blitzer | The Observer

To whoever is planning the meals over at Notre Dame’s Campus Dining, I have a few questions. Do you think we crave chicken cordon bleu? Do you imagine that we sit wide awake at 3 a.m., mouths watering with anticipation, unable to get the taste (and texture) of steamed carrots out of our heads? Do you really believe that we can subsist on chicken and beef tacos alone, or that we look forward to fighting over containers of peanut butter like contestants in “The Hunger Games”? 

Do you think that when we scan our cards, pump that obligatory hand sanitizer into our palms and zig-zag up to the front of the line, expecting to have the choice of brisket and bacon mac and cheese or fresh pizza, we are excited and relieved to find that we are being offered boxes of chicken tenders and broccoli instead? Do you think that sauceless cavatappi is an adequate substitute for the gnocchi and butternut squash that are being advertised on the day’s dinner menu, or that no one will notice when you run out of pulled pork and start filling boxes with pork fritters instead? 

Do you think that we enjoy edging closer and closer to scurvy, rescued only by the periodic consumption of mini carrots and watery hummus, or that we prefer our bananas either mushy to the point of being nearly liquid or completely green?

I jest — sort of. In all seriousness, I’ll be the first to recognize that we are living under unprecedented circumstances and that feeding a student body of about 8,000 while making sure to avoid contamination and enforce social distancing rules is no mean feat. In a challenging situation such as this, some hiccups are to be expected — and accepted. 

And there have certainly been triumphs, too. Last Thursday’s Southwest salad, although a mere shadow of the feast we all know and love, still felt like a glimmer of “good old days” gone by. The chicken may have been soggy and the classic cilantro lime and chipotle ranch dressings nowhere to be found, but hey, the bar is low these days, and eating those fried tortilla strips and that corn salsa made me feel like it was March again.

The mac and cheese pulled pork combo was another quasi-success — if you arrived at the dining hall in time to avoid the pork fritters, that is. More broadly, North and South seem to be at their best in the salad/cold food department; the turkey and provolone croissant sandwiches are perfectly adequate, as are the fresh fruit and the salad offerings — when there are good dressing options.

The quality of the halls’ hot meals, though, varies. The Mexican option — ground beef or chicken of some sort, rice and refried beans — tastes about the same as it did when we were able to serve ourselves, and last week’s penne arrabiata, although spicy, did not lack flavor. Though this may be an unpopular opinion, I have even found the stuffed breadsticks to be edible. But fried rice with shrimp, cubes of dried pineapple, stray pieces of beef (?) and a texture dry and crunchy enough to seem almost uncooked? Not a victory by any stretch of the imagination. 

That, I would say, is where the dining halls have failed — not specifically in the fried rice department, per se, but in inconsistency and lack of variety. Eating at the dining hall used to mean picking and choosing. Some feta couscous here, red peppers and hummus there, two pieces of bread and a few slices of provolone tossed into the panini press; after the initial meal, a banana with Nutella or vanilla ice cream wedged between two chocolate chip cookies in a DIY ice cream sandwich.

Now? You have four choices, and they all come in boxes. No more mixing and matching. If you want the mashed potatoes from one box and the pork fritter from another, you have a tough decision to make. Even worse is what happens when that pork fritter and those mashed potatoes have all run out, and we’re served the unthinkable: leftovers. That Southwest salad from Thursday? Boxes of the stuff showed up Friday and Saturday, too. And the plain cavatappi noodles and equally plain pieces of ravioli never make it on the printed menus, but they still end up at the line once all the good stuff is gone.

So we have fewer choices now, and the limited choices we do have are in short supply. But every trip to the dining hall is still the highlight of my day. The ability to sit outside on the grass with friends — all of us six feet apart, of course — and safely share a meal with people outside of my household is something of a social life preserver, allowing all of us to engage in community without endangering ourselves or others.

The food itself may not be as tasty, but North and South Dining Hall have become more than just food dispensers; now more than ever, these places are hubs of social interaction. They are veritable lifelines for groups of friends who live in different dorms. The dining halls, despite their culinary shortcomings, have come to represent an antidote for potential isolation and a beacon of hope; I think I can excuse the soggy chicken.

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