May 8, 2011

Way back in the early eighties I settled into a noontime pattern of walking across the campus at Texas A&M with my colleagues Manuel Davenport and Dick Becka to eat at the cafeteria in the Memorial Student Center (MSC). I could wax eloquently on the mentoring, on the curiosities of the MSC and on the brightness of the Texas sun as we covered a couple of hundred yards past the Sullivan statue and the Rudder fountain. But this is a food blog, so I’m going to focus on lunch. Davenport and Becka must have eaten lunch together most days for at least 30 years. I joined them for about six or seven. It was meaningful enough to me to seek them out at Luby’s Cafeteria when I left A&M in 1997 for one last hurrah. The MSC cafeteria had gone the way of the trail drive by then, but Davenport and Becka were still at it. I have waxed eloquently on food and community in my book The Agrarian Vision, so here I’m going to stick to the actual food.

Today’s youth (by which I mean anyone under 40) may not have really experienced an old fashioned cafeteria lunch. Although I might have occasionally had the spaghetti or the roast beef, my standard fare was the veggie plate, which you could order with a three or four veggie option at the MSC. I would start with something filling: mashed potatoes or rice (with gravy—this is no vegetarian veggie plate), ranchero beans or mac and cheese (not a common pick). Whenever possible (which was usually in Texas) I would add some boiled greens: preferably collards or turnip greens, but spinach was acceptable. The next choice or two came from options such as green beans (cooked with bacon), fried okra, okra and tomatoes, peas and carrots, succotash or corn (off the cob or creamed). The veggie plate came with either cornbread or one of the MSC’s wonderful yeast roles. And I always chose real butter rather than margarine: I was not a total idiot, even then.

I’ll leave it to the nutritionists out there to comment on the food value of this veggie plate. Its money price was a good 25-30% lower than an entrée with two veggie sides and the same choice of bread. The iced tea was extra in either case. I think I was paying around three bucks for this lunch thirty years ago, but it’s difficult to find anything comparable when I go for lunch around the MSU campus today, and certainly not unless I’m willing to blow a tenner. We’re undergoing a renaissance in our campus dining, with more fresh salad bars, more tempeh and the occasional sauté of kale and garlic, but I if anyone knows where I could get an old fashioned veggie plate in East Lansing—and by this I mean one where the veggies have not simply been dumped out of a can—please sign on and add a comment below. The current food service model is a one price buffet, which (as food service managers are coming to recognize) encourages waste and takes away that extra price incentive that reinforced my dietary leanings in the distant past.

Maybe this is just me whining again, showing myself to be the old fogy that I am. But I think there is a food ethics point buried somewhere in here. Sure, one can eat veggie in East Lansing, and the options are expanding. Mostly they involve menus with lentils, humus, falafel or baba ganoush (items you would not have seen at the MSC) and they involve Mediterranean or Indian cuisines. There’s also a surfeit of sushi and Korean menus that are pretty healthy, I think. I’m glad that the under-40s like this stuff, and I love to eat it occasionally myself. But I’d plug the historical and cultural connection that rides along with the old fashioned veggie plate, and I’d assert that it’s not only deeply and profoundly connectable to the localvore mentality, it can be pretty healthy eating, too.

One more remembrance: Mary Mac’s in Atlanta. Long before I got into the habit of braving the Texas sun for a plate of veggies Diane and I would make a treat of eating at Mary Mac’s Tearoom, where you did not go through a cafeteria line, but you generally did order a veggie plate by writing your choices from an extensive menu list (always augmented with eight or ten daily specials from the chalk board) on one of those little slips of paper that say “Thank-you!” at the top and have a place to itemize and total the cost of your goods. The best choice at Mary Mac’s Tearoom was the pot likker. For those who don’t know, pot likker is basically collards, turnip greens or kale cooked with a little bacon. But it’s served up with a fair bit of the broth in a bowl. When you break up one of Mary Mac’s corn muffins into the broth, it’s heaven. And I’m willing to venture that it’s healthy enough to make into a habit, too.

Mary Mac’s was a tough habit just because it was so busy when Diane and I were going there in the seventies. At lunch or dinner, there was generally a wait of ten to twenty minutes, and sometimes more. And it required getting into the car, which meant that even though the veggie plate at Mary Mac’s was very reasonably priced, and even though Diane could indeed get that sweet tea that makes your teeth hurt, we would only head there maybe every other week or so. The place is still there, but last I visited (several years ago now) it was but a shadow of its former self. Not all that busy, and not as good as I remember, either.

So here’s a shout out for maintaining a bit of American food culture amidst the tofu and raita. Things do not last and the center does not hold. I can be as existential as anybody. But losing the veggie plate and all those cafeterias or “family-style” establishments where you could get one is a food tragedy. Maybe this is just a Michigan problem, but I doubt it. The Cracker Barrel and the Country Kitchen are only simulacra, and I can’t walk to either one for lunch with my buddies, in any case. It’s an ethics thing, I promise.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


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