Gastronomically speaking, college students have been classed as savages who would eat anything that didn't actually run away from them. And it has them. And it has been assumed that the food they most adored is that great and greasy American institution -- junk food.
To some extent, the picture is true. Despite concern about nutrition, the world's food supply and additives in food, students still choose to eat cheeseburgers, French fries and submarine sandwiches.
"I love French fries," said Laura Holt, a student at the University of New Hampshire. "I go on binges where I eat nothing else for a couple of weeks. I eat a plate of fries every day for lunch, with a Diet Pepsi."
Ingeborg Lock, director of dining services at the University of New Hampshire, said hamburgers and French fries are the favorite lunch at that school. "We sell an enormous amount of them. They eat them like crazy."
UNH Food Stores brought 79,953 beef chucks last year. Most of them were ground up into burger to satisfy the 4,500 students who eat in the dining halls.
Lock thinks students tend to be conservative in their food tastes, choosing those they are used to eating, and French fries and hamburgers have always been as much campus fixtures as keg parties.
But times may be changing. According to food services directors, many students are eating other foods as well.
"Eating habits among students have definitely changed since I was an undergraduate," said Frank Weissbecker, who oversees the preparation of four and a half million meals a year as director of food services at Harvard. "Kids today are interested in a lot of different types of foods, especially ethnic foods."
Weissbecker said Italian food is especially popular at Harvard, and that the university offers special ethnic nights, featuring Polynesian, and Chinese food. Ethnic food nights are also popular at UNH and Brown.
The menus students like are, however, influenced by many considerations besides simple tastes.
"Students today tend to be interested in nutrition, and concerned with such subjects as cholesterol, raw sugar, and world food supply," said Weissbecker.
Harvard serves both vegetarian and natural foods in its 24 dining halls and the school's by-laws forbid the sale of more than one red meat item per meal.
That rule was passed several years ago, after students complained that, in view of the world supply and the amount of grain needed to produce beef, Harvard was serving too much red meat.
Most of the universities have de-emphasized meat, partly to please vegetarians. Brown and Harvard provide vegetarian dishes every night in all of their halls, and other universities offer at least one meatless dish nightly in at least one hall, but relatively few students take advantage of them. A poll at UNH this year showed only 128 vegetarians among 3,400 students with university meal plans. Half of those were true vegetarians; the rest ate poultry and fish, but did shy away from red meat.
Harvard feeds fewer than 100 vegetarians, Weissbecker estimated, and, he said, "we lose a lot of these on nights we serve steak or roast beef." Food services directors at Brown and Boston University estimated similarly low proportions of vegetarians among their students.
Dining halls at most universities provide elaborate salad bars and organic food tables. The tables generally offer such items as peanut butter, granola, eggs, yogurt, and wheat germ, as well as salad greens and dressing.
They are popular even maong meat eaters. At certain meals students will eat exclusively from the natural foods tables. Many eat only yogurt; others stick to salads.
Those students have something in common with the junk food fans. Both groups are looking for an escape from the regular food offered in the dining halls.
"It's not that the food is so bad, but it's all the same," said Michael Iacopino, of UNH. "Four weeks into the semester, you have eaten everything they have to serve. You get the feeling the people cooking it are as bored by it as you are...."
The monotony drives some to extremes. Jeff Michaelson, a sophomore at Brown, said that he once ate nothing but olives and ice cream for three months.
And Kate Kelly, a senior at VCU, said, "By sophomore year I gave up eating in the dining halls. That year I lived on peanuts and Coca-Cola."
She said that when she wanted variety in her diet she cooked up a batch of brownies in a combination hot-plate -- popcorn popper in her room.
Students tired of dining hall food and dorm room brownies face a dilemma. They can continue with a university meal plan and forget about enjoying food, or they can move out of dormitories and away from the dining halls. Most move out.
Some move into fraternities and sororities. There the food ranges from truly horrible to surprisingly good. It is to often fattening: fraternity and sorority cooks favor carbohydrates. Lunch at a fraternity might typically include grilled cheese sandwiches, French fries and brownies. Dinner might feature lasagna, mashed potatoes and chocolate cake.
Cooking jobs pay little and and attract a mixed lot. The ranks can include retired Army mess hall cooks, otherwise unemployable drifters, amiable boozers, surly boozers and sentimental boozers.
One cook, still remembered at a New England university, presided over the kitchen of a fraternity with the reputation as the most determinedly animalistic Animal House on campus. The cook fit right in.
He was a latter day flower child. He lived in a tent in a forest near campus. Since his tent did not boast a shower, he, naturally, never showered. Even the brothers admitted he was the dirtiest man they had ever seen.
He knew as much about cooking as Julia Child does about calf roping, but he had two virtues: he served generous portions, and he served meals on time.
Lunch at the fraternity was a high point in the days of many members. It began promptly at 12:30, and usually ended by 12:35. It was, as Thomas Hobbes once said about life in general, short, nasty and brutish.
Those who reject both dormitory and animal life learn to forage for themselves. They go to live in apartments or houses, away from the boredom and protection of university-regulated life.
For many, the move is a difficult one. The meals in dining halls may be boring, but at least they are regular and they are paid for in the beginning of the semester, when money is relatively plentiful.
Students who strike out for themselves learn that, without a university meal plan, food can become a luxury.