Sunday, March 20, 2011


Some of you may remember this as a riff on a famous Cheech and Chong routine. Some of you who ate Commons at MIT for any length of time probably regard this as the truth. Commons was not something to be savored, like fine French cooking or vintage wine, but something to be endured. And the same was probably true of any college campus in those days, and true even today. Commons was probably the one thing that could make Domino's Pizza seem like a blessing.

Commons was an activity that MIT largely contracted out. ARAServ must have been the low bidder because they were responsible for everything - including Flank Steak (we always called it Flake Stank), Raunch (er, Ranch) Style Stew and the one Indian dish that I'm sure must shame every Indian who has ever eaten it - Mulligatawney Stew (I am convinced "Mulligatawney" means "leftovers" in whatever language it was coined). Commons was famous for chopped sirloin burgers that looked like hockey pucks, oatmeal that would glue the roof of your mouth to your tongue, and vegetables that always included a surprise seasoning in them (the spiced rice appeared to have been seasoned with floor sweepings, while the flaky green stuff that flavored the peas appeared to be grass clippings). Breakfasts were okay if you stuck to the packaged cereals and the skim milk (which some wag changed the spelling of by changing the "i" to a "u"), but the eggs...
Not only was Commons just plain awful, it had a great effect on those students who ate it. Undergrads fed a steady diet of Commons starting at the beginning of September had usually gained 10 pounds or so by Christmas.

That was about as long as it took most students to develop defensive eating habits. When I arrived on the campus, I had fretted because the most comprehensive meal plan covered only 19 meals a week, leaving breakfast on Saturday and Sunday mornings off the menu. In the end, I opted for 15 meals a week, on the theory that I had enough money to get a cheap pizza in Cambridge on the weekends. At the end of the year, I opted to buy a book of meal tickets instead, and when I found I wasn't using very many of my tickets, I went off Commons for good. To facilitate the transition, I bought a hot plate, a can opener and a mini-fridge. I ate like a king...and so did the roaches. On the weekends I would leaven my home-made fare with burgers from Pritchett Lounge (their milkshakes were heaven, but their Frispos must have been the only fries that were not actually fried, but rather extruded from a Frispo machine) and pizzas from the truck that visited our dorm late at night. And there was ice cream from Steve's, which at the time was the best in the area. By the time I left MIT, my weight had ballooned - all the way up to 130 pounds. And I had developed a skill that would take me through my single years. Microwave ovens would be invented a scant two years later, forever changing the game of cooking in the dorm room.

My mini-fridge, by the way, was bought for $25, American. When I graduated, I sold the same fridge for the same $25, so I considered that a decent return on investment.

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