Food You Can Eat: Eat Like a Freshman in the Early 1980s

My interest in food came not from my mother, as so many others have done, but rather from my university. You see, when I went there it was almost like boot camp, with bunk beds, some dorms un-air-conditioned (mine included), and a cafeteria that…well, you had to be there. I quickly glommed on to a guy, a disaster in retrospect, but starting off with him I never lived on campus or ate in that 1956-era Bulgarian canteen ever again. This was a Top 30 School, but it was the early 80s. Long story short, I sometimes have fellow alums over and serve this MUCH IMPROVED menu.


Pepperidge Farm Cheddar Goldfish crackers, I package per two guests

A huge wheel of brie, which, for some reason, was really cheap and we always ate?

Stoned Wheat crackers, they’re still around, to spread the brie on

Salted peanuts, preferably Planters

For the main course:

American Chop Suey*

Fresh green beans**

The Alternative to be available throughout (which I often chose, became the offerings were so gross):

1 bowl of good quality peanut butter

Some fresh celery stalks and carrots, sliced so that they can have the PB added and make a meal, because the caf offerings are so gross. In the university cafeteria the peanut butter was obviously government surplus and the celery and carrots were like something harvested from the Soviet Union.


Chocolate pudding topped with shaved coconut (?!)***

Pepperidge Farm Mint Milanos

  • 1. To make the American Chop Suey (there really is no other, there are variants of Chop Suey in different parts of the world but it’s not called “American Chop Suey…), make a version of Hamburger Helper.

Also to make the American Chop Suey, it depends on how many alumni you have over.

In a huge pot, no skillet that I know of could handle a crowd, brown 1/4 lb. room-temperature hamburger per alumnus/alumna. Drain the pot of the grease but leave the beef in there. This shouldn’t take long, mix it up until it browns.

Add tomato paste, minced garlic and diced onion and a little water and boil. This doesn’t sound like it would work but it does. Add elbow macaroni and drop in green peppers, diced small, their juices will help keep everything liquid enough. When this is all done move to the chafing dish and spoon it out. While it’s still piping hot sprinkle with grated cheddar cheese, because why not?

** For the green beans, get out a small skillet, add oil and sauté some minced garlic. Dump in the green beans, stir them around a little bit while you you keep an eye on how the “American Chop Suey” is going, and when you think they’re done, pour on a little lemon juice to coat. Move that skillet aside so everything combines.

*** For the chocolate pudding, and I’ve done a more elaborate version of this, but I’m feeding a dozen at least here, make a ton of boxed pudding mix. Another saucepan. When the chocolate pudding is almost done pour in dark rum and stir it around but save this step toward the end. If you pour it in too early it’ll interact badly with the other ingredients. Put it in the fridge in a big bowl. Afterward, take it out, and sprinkle with shaved coconut, which you should be able to find.

“But Mattie, how am I to serve all of this to replicate the experience of being a college freshman in the early 1980s?”

Simple. Drag out your chafing dish and spoon out the Chop Suey and the green beans from there. Preferably it has at least two tubs. We have two chafing dishes, and each has three tubs, so two tubs Chop Suey and one tub green beans. Try to act a little surly.

At the end of the line (it helps if you have a kitchen island, like we do) put out the bowl of rum-infused chocolate pudding (my university didn’t add rum) and provide a big serving spoon. They can slop the pudding on their own plates. Put out the Mint Milanos in the bags they came in on the tables and let everyone dig in.

I miss the pre-Covid era so much. While I was writing this I actually had to ask Life’s Helpmeet if I ever did this and he said, “Of course you did. Several times. Remember that one time, maybe the first time, that you were a little concerned that a couple of your cronies had become vegetarian?” “Oh, that was years ago.” “Yes, but you told me that your cafeteria served okra and I taught YOU how to make it?” “That was amazing. I can’t believe I forgot that. And I, or we, offered okra. Those poor people. At least they had some snacks and green beans and Mint Milanos.”

Now I’m remembering an occasion where I made this exact menu and one of my guests said, “This is uncanny. I feel like I could look out your window and see the quad.”



  1. Sorry for that strange auto-formatted indented aside that begins with 1. The thought was not fully formed, and the writer might have indulged in a little too much rum-infused instant chocolate pudding mix.

    • My private university (in the early 80s) also dorm rooms that looked like prison cells and no air conditioning, except this was Florida. Communal bathrooms down the hall, no private showers — there was a shower room, basically just as you’d see in a prison movie. My room was very popular because my father managed to round up an old window AC unit and I stuck it in my window. After freshman year, I moved home and commuted. 
      Fast forward to two months ago, and we are heading over to tour the campus because they accepted my daughter’s application. First stop was the dorm rooms, which looked exactly the same, 40 years later. I will note they added air conditioning at some point in the intervening four decades. I will also note they charge $69,000 a year in tuition, massively more than I paid even adjusting for inflation. All students were required to live in these dorms, and you couldn’t move to nicer ones until you were an upperclassman. I have no idea what they are spending the money on (I suspect a football team they launched a few years ago). 
      At the state school she’s attending, she had a full scholarship, a private bedroom, shares a kitchen with one other student, and has maid service.
      After “touring” the room, we hung back to the rear of the tour group, and when they rounded a corner ahead of us, we stopped, doubled back, and headed to the car. Nobody called us or followed up, so I wonder how often that happens. 

      • And if your daughter, if she stays in the area, probably has a lot of good job prospects upon graduation. My husband went to a large state school but it’s like half the state did and the recruiters’ eyes must have lit up seeing that alma mater on the resume. He was accepted into a management training program before he even graduated. I went to a Top-30 school and that went nowhere because I left the area and it was like I had an Associate’s Degree from Trump University. I got my first corporate job through a sibling (kind of, it wasn’t nepotism, alas), and this was during a period of relatively low unemployment. 

        • Oh, she does. My private university, when I attended, was well-regarded regionally but only in music, accounting and law. Anything else, and you were better off at a cheaper state school. I only went there because it was in my hometown and I was a dumb kid who didn’t spend enough time figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.
          The school is much the same now, except I think it’s mostly just the law program that’s well-regarded and the accounting and music programs have declined. My daughter is majoring in computer science and she’s much better off at a well-funded state school that has money to invest in technology and appropriate faculty. 

  2. Brie! Well la di da!

    My college roommate always put both ketchup and mustard on her fries/tater tots, so if I want to feel like I’m in college I do that. 

  3. …& there I was laboring under the illusion that chop suey required egg…& came with rice…& didn’t involve mince…so this has certainly been educational

    …if it helps at all I’m pretty sure I can vouch for the food at those expensive british schools you hear tell about (pre-university age) maybe being worse

    …at one of the ones I attended they tried posting the menu in advance each week but stopped when it turned out so many people didn’t bother turning up for meals if they knew what they were…or at least were meant to be…you could really only tell.if the slices of meat were meant to be lamb/pork/beef by reading the board…they were suspiciously identical & uniformly grey by the time they saw a plate

    …did get me to learn a surprising number of things that could be cooked using a single hotplate, though…some of which involved dubious ideas like stacking a frying pan on top of a saucepan with stuff cooking in each…& for a miracle it was the people using the toaster that set off the fire alarm…huh…haven’t thought about that in more years than I care to remember?

    • My American husband, as part of his ascent on the global multinational corporate ladder, was stationed in London for a year. At first he was put up in this incredibly swank apartment near the London office. He loved the whole experience and was asked to stay on, and this was OK, but he’d have to live like a Londoner and all the perks would be taken away. He was thrown onto the London housing market.

      It was the 1990s and London was red-hot. The only “perk” he retained was unlimited travel back to HQ in NYC, where I conveniently lived, and he was allowed to retain his frequent flyer miles, so we became trans-continental, with him assigning me airline points.

      A long prologue to: He paid through the nose for a barely furnished teensy room, a studio I guess, with a fridge the size of a carry-on suitcase and a hot-plate. It had a bathroom the size of a coffin but the plumbing was wanky so there was a shower stall down the hallway. It was partly his fault: he didn’t know London very well so he wanted to stay in this expensive part of town, and as a young-ish Black American he didn’t have a lot of options.

      I only bring this up because I had never attempted to cook on a hot-plate before. It can be done! The other thing I remember is that Tony Blair had just been elected PM. His TV only got 4 channels and one showed an hour-long program/infomercial about “New Britain” highlighting exciting new industries popping up all over. “New Britain? I think people lived like this in the late 1940s. I’m surprised the food isn’t rationed and the bombing debris have been cleared away. Here, I heated up some canned leek soup and this double Gloucester is excellent.”

      For all that we had the time of our lives. He made some London friends and I had some Home Counties friends so it was all worth it. I’m not sure we’d do it again 25 years later but regrets, we have none.

      • …best I can figure there’s a strong chance that the same place would be asking a lot more in rent these days…& without necessarily having improved either the plumbing or the kitchen (or lack thereof) issues…there’s a weird pocket of london real estate that’s basically targeted at the kind of people who work absurd hours for serious amounts of money & are sometimes referred to as cash-rich-time-poor…they don’t expect those people to cook…or even really keep food in the house…just be at the office, in a restaurant/bar (with clients so it can be on expenses) or asleep…also no laundry because that’s all done by the dry cleaners

        …the result is fiendishly expensive flats as close as they can get to the square mile that appear to have been designed as though no one will actually “live” in them…kind of like a hotel room without the hotel part?

        …pretty much all the friends I know who live(d) in london found themselves forced to move further & further from the centre (& in many cases right out of the city) the moment they stopped being happy to live like impoverished students…& by all accounts the market has got if anything crazier since

        …really the only thing I think I might quibble about in your comment is that technically that tv ought to have picked up five channels if tony blair was the labour leader…BBC1/BBC2/ITV/Channel 4 & Channel 5…so I’m oddly curious which one you were missing?

        • There were a couple of channels where all you got was that out-of-range “snow” so I have no idea what those were supposed to be. The TV was a small, wall-mounted unit at the foot of the bed, and there was probably a satellite dish on the roof, but we didn’t spend a lot of time watching TV. I just remember that Blair infomercial. Something like, “We’re here on the factory floor of Widdecolmeness Tool and Die in Llannffydr where Britain’s finest are using exciting new micro-electronics to produce materials that are used in nearly 4% of the developing world’s [whatever.]” “Do Britons doubt that when they go to work they’re actually doing something productive?” “This former fat-rendering facility just outside the small city of Albamarbleton has been transformed into a hi-tech call center. Marigold Crawley-Pelham, Director of Sales and PR, tells us more.” 

          I searched in vain for YouTube evidence of this. And I post-comment remembered that the slogan was “Cool Britannia” which apparently caught on because there are TONS of videos about this topic, but not the show that I saw. I suspect it might have been yanked because between each of these promotional pieces flew a Union Jack flapping beneath a clear blue sky, and I can just imagine the reaction from some members of a 2021 British audience, especially Labour supporters.

          • …cool britannia was definitely a slogan they flogged to death…but I feel like that had more to do with a moment around the same time when the likes of blur/oasis/pulp were topping the charts & people talked about “britpop”

            …the new britain thing (iirc) was a bit different & came as part of a package deal…it was “a new labour for a new britain”…to oversimplify the thing broadly speaking tony blair was a politician who believed that sincerity was the same thing as integrity & his sincere belief was that what had prevented the labour party from attaining power was its unwillingness to play politics the same way the tory party did

            …so he borrowed heavily from their playbook…got very friendly with business & the media…effectively usurped the centre ground by becoming hard to distinguish from the tory party but talking a big game about looking out for “real people”…& “new labour” won a massive majority…at which point he convinced himself that his mandate was so sweeping that whatever he thought best was literally the same thing as the public interest…despite all of which many people still claim the only way for labour to get elected is to go back to not-so-new-labour’s ways…it’s a lot of why corbyn was constantly undermined by his own party & made out to be trying to “purge” the very people who were themselves working to kill off any chance of the party making a go of a more left-wing approach…though he didn’t help himself in a lot of ways…not the least of which being sticking with a guy who espoused the sort of economic policies that predated the closing of the mines/collapse of the unions/general strike & the whole heyday of thatcherism…but that’s another story

            …when he got elected I was widely told by a lot of friends that my claim to dislike blair on the grounds that he was a grinning idiot who might as well have been a member of the party he supposedly opposed (which went back to before he was in power & didn’t change at any point) was out of order & that everything was going to get better because he’d been elected…he even used, unironically, a song with the hook line “things can only get better” in promotional material & they all seemed to buy into it…which was weird to me because a lot of these were smart people

            …funnily enough a lot of them seemed to forget about their take on my view of the man in almost exact proportion to the amount of stuff that went on which might explain why they all came around to that way of thinking…although I will give him that the good friday agreement happened on his watch…that was a big deal but I think the damage he did likely outweighs it considerably…even before you consider the through line from him to the david cameron & boris johnsons of this world…which I’d argue was a more or less direct consequence of his whole new labour/new britain schtick

            …wow…& now I feel like I ought to apologize…this is meant to be a food thread…sorry?

  4. This way better than what I was able to cook which was mostly Kraft Dinner… ugh.
    I can’t even think about that shit without wincing.
    I like actual real mac and cheese, just not the stuff in the box.
    I’d also like to add, I feel the same way about shitty/cheap pizza (which there is plenty of in the GTA.)  The expensive good stuff for this gut only!

Leave a Reply