This is the second of two posts on institutional food. You can read the first post here.
So it turns out you all have some serious thoughts on institutional food! I cannot say that I am surprised – especially given everything that I said in the last post. Most everyone has encountered institutional cooking at some point, especially in the Jewish world. Yet when I asked on Facebook threads for a few anecdotes about institutional food, I was completely blown away by the response.
What I have put together here are quotes from some of the responses. Many people wanted to stay anonymous, so no names are there, although some quotes were made on comment threads on Facebook. Here are the stories – see if they parallel your own!
“The main exciting parts of being a mashgiach were getting to crack eggs/wash veggies.”
“Sukkot was a good mashgiach gig, because of the free Sukkot meal that came with it”
“I actually went into institutional cooking to try and escape the ticket machine nightmares of restaurant work … and yes it’s very mentally and physically demanding and overwhelming staffed by underpaid marginalized people. I found institutional cooking to be a bit harder though because of the need to handle everyone’s dietary restrictions and still producing good food (especially when nothing is made to order and you need to find a way to have it in holding trays without it drying out) and the funny thing is my last job was a sous-chef position in high end senior living … about 30% of our 200 residents were Jewish and I ended up taking cooking classes to try to learn to prepare under kashrut and found it overwhelming learning a strict system (even after the perfectionism of French haute cuisine) that I didn’t have much prior acculturation toward, considering my only exposure was to Jewish deli cuisine (which found its way into mainstream American cuisine anyway.) So I ended up burning out…”
“…also forgot to mention the common issue of substance abuse in the industry as well due to stress and long hours, plus being a working class job type a lot of people do enter into it with legal troubles which can be a positive means for them, plus with the demands and limited staffing despite legally there being a need to not be in the kitchen when sick, this is seldom the case with the adage being if you’re not going into a shift, you better be in jail, in the hospital or dead.”
“When I arrived [at the kibbutz] they quickly put me in the mechinat shtifa, the dishwashing room. I was nauseous the entire time I worked there. Something about the combination of the smell of the hot steel of the machine, the soap and water, and the chicken we had almost every day made me sick to my stomach. Eventually, they had me serving food. This was tricky because I was just starting to learn Hebrew. I remember, an old woman, one of the founders of the kibbutz, got frustrated with me because I didn’t understand maspik [enough] meant she wanted me to stop serving her, that she had enough food. As I kept spooning onto her plate, she shouted dai! I didn’t know that that meant “ENOUGH STOP!” either, but she said it so fiercely, I thought she was saying the english “DIE” and threatening me, so I stopped.
After a while, I found my niche cleaning the eating area every day, and fell into a gentle rhythm. I’ve always been anxious and there’s a certain calm I’ve found in the drudgery of daily “unskilled” physical work that really soothes me, although I also find the work depressingly monotonous. I’m also not very good at it. I was constantly being told to do things better, faster, more efficiently, by kibbutznik bosses who would rotate out every week, until I knew the work better than my supervisors did. Still, I’ll always remember fondly the light streaming in through the huge, eastern facing windows of the hall, as I shoved a row of tables out of the way, blissfully zoning out as the kibbutznik who was in charge of me that week barked orders.”
“Basically [as a mashgicha] I found out that bugs are actually actual real existing things, 80% of rasberries have literal crawling transluscent but visible tiny wormythings (unless you blend them and then they’re not bugs anymore because biryah or something), and also how to crack 4 eggs at once.”
Jonathan’s note: cracking four eggs at once is a miraculous skill.
“Jews have lots of food needs and sensitivities. If you work with the same staff for 15 years even if it’s just for a week a year they get good at the kosher thing.”
“I was the mashgiach for the National Havurah Committee Summer Institute for ~6 years. It’s held at a college campus (then, Franklin Pierce in New Hampshire), so we take over a commercial kitchen for a week. It’s all veggie, except fish, and ~300 hippie Jews have a wide variety of things they can’t eat, so half the job was keeping track of who needed special what rather than strict kashrut.”
“I dreaded the week a year I was in charge of a dining mess for about 500 soldiers in two sittings. The meat was chicken (cut into eighths) and the easiest way to cook it in volume seemed to be in a sea of oil with paprika in giant dented pots you could fall into. Potato wedges were similarly drowned and baked on giant sheets.”
Sometimes It is Good
“The private high school I went to had a super fancy cafeteria with good food cooked mostly fresh that day, like what Grace described. One of the nice things we could do was buy breakfast in the morning (lunch was free), hot or cold. Hot breakfast was made to order. When Pesach came around each year, we got an extra option aside from the usual pancakes/egg and cheese/omelette: Matzoh Brei. Chef Paul would make this delicious concoction of matzoh, cinnamon, milk, egg, and sugar that was quite popular. We also had matzoh available at lunch. Even though we had enough Jews attending the school for matzoh brei to be a thing, that kitchen was definitely not kosher. I know there were two Jewish brothers who brought food from home every day instead; I do not know if there was anyone else.”
“Tufts had great food- the cafeterias always had an ingredients list and nutrition label with every food offering, along with a plate that showed you what one serving was. They had fresh baked bread everyday, and I still dream of the butternut squash bisque! The salad bar was usually well-stocked, and the pizza was made from scratch. They had a great kosher for Passover station too.”
“We had choices; they used local food vendors and displayed where it came from. The workers were probably well paid and happy and cared [for], and a part of the community. We had a salad bar, a custom sandwich bar, hot foods bar with multiple options, [and a] tea and coffee bar.”
“My high school was fancy-schmancy and private, and we had a crazy good cafeteria that I didn’t appreciate until I graduated. Everything there was delicious except the pizza, forsome reason (it was that sort of pizza that’s so covered in grease that it can only be eaten if wiped off first). They served kale salad, clam chowder, pretty good chili, at least one each of vegetarian and non-vegetarian main dishes each day, and the most flawless, soft-on-the-inside-crispy-on-the-outside chocolate chip cookies, made in-house. But even with all that, grilled cheese and tomato soup day was the one everyone waited for. A holiday that happened approximately every month. The tomato soup was so good creamy and tangy, and the cheese was fake American cheese, but that was the whole point. I loved grilled cheese day so much!!”
“I went to a Jewish day school in Pikesville, Maryland. There were meat days and dairy days for lunch. Meat days meant hamburgers and fries, dairy days meant pizza and fries. Junior year I was part of a group of people who advocated to get healthier options and we “won” a salad of romaine lettuce, cucumber and tomato. I was vegetarian so didn’t eat the burgers but I really loved that pizza!”
“Jewish cafeteria food in the south for me was split between very boring regular cafeteria staples and kosher versions of southern classics. At my day school in Alabama, we had split meat/dairy days for lunch, but the highlights were when/if Miss Connie, the African American woman who was the head chef (of two or three) made fried chicken. I don’t know how she made kosher fried chicken as good or better than your usual Southern buttermilk fried chicken, but she did.”
Jonathan note: The traditional pareve substitute for buttermilk usually involves a mix of soy milk and lemon. Older cooks would simply add more egg, or even use beer.
Sometimes It Is Gross
“When I was in therapeutic boarding school/reform school, the food was pretty terrible. Somebody claimed to have done the math, and estimated that we were all fed on $6 a day: $1 for breakfast, $2 for lunch, and $3 for dinner. The food was pretty bad, and I remember complaining about it a lot. I think worse than the food quality was really just the repetition of eating the same 6 or 7 meals every day for a year. I gained some waiting after leaving the program, mostly because I was so excited to eat lots of different things, and went a little overboard the first few months out. I don’t remember all of the meals, but a few stand out: Friday night pizza dinner, corned beef with a greenish sheen, weirdly crispy grilled cheese…”
“The milk also left an impression. It came in these massive udderlike bags that had a thin rubber hose attached. We had to hoist the bags into a dispensing machine and feed the hose through this little hole and trim it, so milk would come out when you pulled the machine lever.”
“One other thing that really stuck out: when Orange is the New Black premiered, I was struck by two things. One, how much relative freedom the imprisoned women in the show had compared to my experiences in youth institutional settings. Two, the TV prison cafeteria had the same brown plastic mugs that we had at school!”
“The cafeteria at the school I taught at was awful. Most of our kids were on free and reduced lunch and I feel like that was used as an excuse to have worse food. The kids commonly ate pizza which was mostly undercooked, and chicken sandwiches made out of the compressed parts of chicken. The cafeteria workers were really nice, but the food was awful.”
Jonathan (Me, Your Author)
A number of years ago, I did a summer program at UC Berkeley. I distinctly remember that, on the second day, one of the things at the cafeteria was covered in a gloopy tomato sauce that had the consistency and texture of liquid soap, and was so oversalted so as to taste akin to eating an actual salt-shaker. I could not eat anything red for an entire month.
“I was at US Army basic training during Passover 2016. A local Chabad rabbi ran a Seder on the first night, and gave us all boxes of those microwaveable kosher for Passover airplane meals. I don’t think I ate a single one of them — we didn’t have access to microwaves and they were just beef stew — no carbs, etc. During Passover I got medically discharged for asthma and anemia. One of the NCOs at the med center asked me if I needed lunch, and I pulled out my kosher for Passover meal. He wrinkled his nose and brought me some “real” food (an MRE). I ended up just eating the regular food for the rest of Passover.”
“Cafeteria food growing up reminds me of potatoes cooked and served with too much oil.”
Navigating with Restrictions
“…the coveted “African peanut” soup, which was delicious for me but reaction-inducing for a friend who could not have legumes. On the advice of her house mother, this friend once faked anaphylactic shock to try to convince the school cook how serious her allergy was- previously, the cook hadn’t believed her when she insisted that putting out peanut butter cookies on a communal table could keep her from breathing.”
“College was really interesting because my food allergies got really bad for a while after I had mono. Having a hard time eating in the dining halls was actually one of the reasons I moved out of housing. They tried really hard to be accommodating and avoid cross-contamination, but the options were limited. The South cafeteria opened my second year, and I did a walk through with the staff and someone from housing, which was really helpful. I had my own designated pan for pasta that was safe from cross-contamination, and a place to get my own milk. They even took me down to the food storage facilities so I could see how things were packaged/stored and so I could read comprehensive ingredient lists. It was actually way more accommodating than I expected.”
“To use the flex points, however, I actually just starting buying meals and drinks for other people, even when I’d just met them. I think on one occasion I treated about 5 people to the campus Starbucks, just to get rid of the points. But I recognized how much the school was charging for these meals, and they absolutely weren’t worth the expense. The only problem was that meal plans were required unless you were in an apartment. Before the start of the next semester, my mom called the school and told them their poor labeling made me sick because I was lactose intolerant (not a lie), but the real kicker was that she sealed it with “and eggs aggravated her eczema.” It worked, and I think my food expenses dropped to only $100-$200 a month for groceries.”
Jonathan (Me, Your author)
“At Chicago, I ate a lot at the vegetarian station when I was living in the dorms, which had some decent things (fried zucchini! things with black beans!) and again, some things that required doctoring with hot sauce. The kosher station was reliable. I did not trust the other cooked food stations that much because I had so many contamination incidents – ham in random things, chicken in a scoop of ice cream, other bizarre moments. I also got food poisoning a few times from the other places, so I played it very very conservative in the cafeteria, especially in my second year. One of my worst food poisoning incidents came from some stuffed peppers and I still cannot eat them.”
“Jewish sleepaway camp Shabbat dinners were completely inedible for me, as were meals with red meat or cream sauces, but my counselors flipped when I asked if I could just have bread instead of PBJ because I had a huge aversion to PB at the time, which was SO MUCH FUN. Same at BBQs.”
“The funniest part of the day when I did study abroad [in Russia] was to watch fellow American students try to avoid sour cream in their soup. Woe to anyone who was next in line after them though, because if you asked for soup without smetana there was likely already a dollop in the current bowl. The current bowl would be set aside, a new bowl poured, and then the next person would get the already dolloped bowl.”
“I remember visiting Cornell Hillel during my time at UMD and was so impressed with the variety their dining hall offered both during the week and during shabbat. They offered dishes like lamb and beautiful Mediterranean salatim. That same week my friend and I feasted on the lamb and salatim one of the people there apologized that the food was “not so great that week”. I’m pretty sure we burst into gales of laughter at the comment.”
Jonathan note: this happened to me at Penn, which had significantly better food than my alma mater of UChicago.
“Also Yale had (has?) waffle irons with a “Y” that prints in the middle of the waffle and it’s all I want in life because it’s so extra.”
“When I did the Naval Academy summer seminar after my junior year of high school, the food was actually quite good, though the cadets assured us that it was not always this good (one would assume they were trying to make a good impression on prospective students…). There are all kinds of rules around how you eat at the Naval Academy, especially in your plebe year––an upperclassman can call on you at any time to state the menu for the entire day, you have to square your corners when eating (hard to explain what this means––it has to do with your fork coming up off your plate and making a sharp corner at mouth level, then the same path on the way back down). Oh, and you don’t leave the table until everyone is done, and at that point, you bang on the table three times and stand up; ideally you have knocked over the empty cups. And what I remember most clearly is the two cadets who were SO EXCITED about having “buff chicks” for lunch. I was extremely confused until we arrived and lunch was buffalo chicken sandwiches. (“You guys don’t know how lucky you are! Buff chicks!”)”
“In elementary school our milk was literally frozen? We would all get it and open the carton and try to chip away with it with plastic sporks so we could eat some of it.”
Jonathan: at my workplace this sometimes happens and I’ve gotten adept at crushing enough out to add milk to my coffee. The hot coffee melts it.
“Let’s talk about how ridiculous it is that we had a soft serve ice cream machine in our high school cafeteria for a while… I loved it, to be fair.”
“ But the best memories I have of cafeteria food are the Friday night brownies we would always try to steal extras of at Camp Ramah in New England, and how we would coordinate in advance of the summer to make sure we would have enough shkedei marak* to dress up the Friday night chicken soup.”
Jonathan’s note: shkedei marak are little Israeli soup croutons that you pour into soup to add some crunchy-carby flavor. They are standard fare in Israeli cafeterias and are oddly addictive.
Thank you to all these readers for contributing.