Confessions of a College Cafeteria
That's how often I've been asked if I am a vegetarian. "No, I eat chicken," I reply. "I eat beef, I consume fish. I just love vegetables!"
I understand their reasoning - after all, I am "that girl" who loads her plate with a mountain of greens.
Maybe it's because I've been health-conscious ever since I had the tenacity to say "no" to cake before dinner. (At the age of five, my grandma offered me a slice at a birthday party, and I was the one shaking my finger at her.) I'm innately attracted to fresh greens and crunchy vegetables. I eat my fair share of treats, but it is the health food I strive for to maintain my healthy diet.
Thus, it was no surprise that Thursday's post-run meal at Wege cafeteria was a struggle. I was looking forward to a healthy, feel-good meal of grilled salmon and Wege's usual "vegetable medley" as I walked toward the cafeteria. Still sporting my running clothes after a refreshing spring jog; my contentment turned to unease when I walked into the cafeteria.
It was "Hoops Happening" night.
If that in itself doesn't hint as to what this might entail, don't feel dumb by any means. I was in the same state of bewilderment as I approached the counter to get a "swipe" for dinner. I peeked in through the large glass windows: popcorn. Basketball hoops lined with two-liter pop bottles. Prizes.
Then I smelled the cotton candy.
An ominous feeling swept over me when I was greeted with laughter as I approached the cross country table. That's when it hit me.
The boys' plates were filled with mountains of the forbidden: Pretzels suffocating under a thick layer of salt crystals; brats slipping out of soft, mushy hotdog buns; greasy fries and onion rings leaving dark stains on napkins; multiple hamburger patties crammed between two buns; corndogs stacked in mini pyrmaids, and chips slathered with a thick orange river of what they called "cheese." I thought it couldn't get any worse, until the guys uttered in unison these fateful words: "Rachael, there are no veggies!"
I stared at them, my backpack slung over one shoulder. "No..." I dropped my bag in a seat and dashed into the kitchen.
The smell hit me like a Mack truck. The cafeteria had become an animal tonight, spitting out steaming hot dogs fresh from the griddle, sizzling sausages swimming in grease, and fries falling from the trays into their bins to be collected by hungry college students. To make matters worse, the line into the kitchen was the longest it had ever been. Hoping the guys were just pulling my leg, I checked to see if there were any cooked vegetable options available. That only led me to a battlefield of heart-attack food beckoning the hungry and stressed college students into the lair.
I cautiously peered at the mountains of carnival food before me. No freshly-tossed steamed broccoli and cauliflower, no thinly-sliced carrots to brighten the tubs of greens.
Everyone celebrated this feast of fat, loading their plates with every morsel of junk food they could find.
"This is the best day in Wege ever," Alex said, biting into his fried chicken as I sat back at the table with an empty plate. My teammates could only nod in agreement, their mouths full of food. The cross country guys were in a meat frenzy. Never in their life had they been surrounded by such a carnival of protein drizzled in grease. They held up their prizes, their platters of doom. They were bellowing in victory, beating their chests, celebrating in this junk-food fix.
Thankfully, there was the salad bar.
I swear I heard angels singing as I rushed to my sanctuary. I piled a plate sky-high with mixed greens as if I would never see these blessed vegetables again. I scooped up a handful of thinly-sliced red peppers, sprinkled on hard-boiled eggs for protein, and added plump, red baby tomatoes that glinted in the light. I had been saved.
Sighing with relief, I made my way back to the table and sat down with the most colorful arrangement of food, bright amid the dull browns, yellows, and occasional red catsup. The guys stared at my plate in disbelief. "No corndogs for you, Rachael?"
The guys laughed again.
I laughed five minutes later when not only the guys from our table, but other Wege-frenzied feeders trudged to the salad bar, hoping to redeem themselves from a night of pure junk food bliss.