On any given weekday, George Washington University senior Jeff Jacobs might start off his morning with Cap'n Crunch, break for "lunch with the chef" (Chef Boy-Ar-Dee), and return from classes to his dorm room to dine a la Hamburger Helper (if he feels like cooking) or Oodles of Noodles (if he doesn't).
"It's very easy, it's convenient, and it fits my schedule," says Jacobs matter-of-factly. Like hundreds of collegians around the Washington area, he forgoes the services of a campus cafeteria and plans his own meals.
Five floors down from Jacobs, in Munson dormitory, lives classmate Tom Mannion, whose flair for fancy dinners and meals made from scratch has given him somewhat of a reputation among his peers. Just last week, for instance, he prepared a roast turkey dinner, his third this year, for five friends. Not only did he serve all the essential trimmings -- mashed potatoes and gravy, fresh carrots and broccoli, cranberry sauce and the like -- but he crisscrossed the city to search out a fresh (not frozen) bird.
If Jacobs' meals are the stuff of parental anguish and Mannion's style borders on the extravagant (he even makes his macaroni and cheese from scratch), they represent an attitude toward cooking that is shared by a number of academics who prefer their own fare to that of an institution's. Cooking in the dorms, agree campus cooks, is less costly and more efficient than eating in a cafeteria. And it's a lot more creative, they say.
Indeed, creativity is an important element where limited resources -- a student's budget and a less than complete kitchen -- are concerned. Though Mannion's position as resident hall director affords him the luxury of his own kitchen, the vast majority of students have to make do with toaster ovens, portable burners and a stove or oven shared with an entire floor of students.
But survive they do, and often times well (except during finals, of course, but more on that later).
"You can make everything in a hot pot," says Laurie Forkas, a senior at Catholic University, of the small electric appliance. Rice. Chicken. Fondue. Though she says her eating habits changed for the better following a nutrition course she took two years ago, she admits to being "not that good of a cook. I wish I could take home economics."
Diane Hockstein, on the other hand, is a self-professed "Suzy Homemaker" who solves her crunch for time with a variety of homemade boiling-bag meals, which she prepares in advance, seals in plastic bags and freezes. The sesame/honey mustard chicken or apple casserole she makes in large quantities on the weekend can be tossed into a pot of boiling water for a quick meal weeks later. "It lasts a long time," says the GWU student of her improvised, portion-control dishes, "and there's no cleanup" after the initial cooking.
If hamburger and chicken dishes turn up with regularity on the plates of most students, their taste for seafood and fish provides a break from the routine. At Howard University, Natalie Holder and John Wright make frequent sojourns to the fish markets located along Washington's Maine Avenue, as does GWU's Mannion, who is said to make an outstanding seafood boil -- to which bratwurst and knockwurst are added for flavor.
Budget constraints are foremost on the minds of student cooks, who offer myriad suggestions on eating well on the cheap. Hockstein says she's "coupon conscious" and shops around for sales. "Right now squash is on sale, so I buy a lot and freeze it," she says. And recently, she and her friends discovered a rather distant suburban warehouse where the prices are so low "it's worth the drive." Like Hockstein, Mannion tries to shop outside the District, where prices tend to be higher, and purchases food in bulk whenever possible. And leftovers, say dorm cooks, constitute more than a few of their meals: What was baked chicken on Monday is in a salad on Tuesday is in the wok after that. Pasta dishes, point out many students, are both filling and economical.
If economy is a concern, so is efficiency. Students take the time to marinate meats and make lasagna, but more often than not, meals are served on paper plates, the most prudent solution to the problem of dirty dishes.
Not everyone is cooking for one. Mannion, who keeps one of his two refrigerators well stocked with soft drinks, says he's "always entertaining." Holder often makes spaghetti sauce in batches and invites friends in for dinner. "Otherwise," she laughs, "I'll have spaghetti to eat for weeks on end."
Dorm cooks with participating roommates say they enjoy the advantages of shared costs, cleanup duties -- and culinary disasters. GWU's Shawn Mangum says of his experience with an ex-roommate, "I cooked, he cleaned. This guy could burn water."
But at Catholic University, the trio of Lucien Chauvin, Peter Iorio and Ron Bizzoso finds the arrangement suits them just fine. They cook in quantities on weekends ("We'll make two or three chickens," says Chauvin, "like Frank Perdue suggests") and take turns making dinner throughout the week. Though their responsibilities are flexible, they keep a golden rule: Clean up after eating. Immediately. "Otherwise we have unwanted guests that eat for free," explains Chauvin, not specifying whether those "guests" are of the two- or many-legged sort.
As concerned as they are with keeping costs down, student cooks can be a savvy bunch, too, purchasing desserts from upscale bakeries, selecting produce from farmers' markets, buying designer-label foodstuffs for fancy dinners with friends. These students not only appreciate the wholesomeness of a spaghetti sauce or a cake made from scratch, but they show a keen sense of sophistication when it comes to cooking methods and kitchen equipment.
Gone are the days when students arrived on campus with little more than a coffee mug and popcorn popper to outfit their makeshift kitchens -- many of today's dorm cooks are armed with such "essentials" as microwaves ("my best investment," says Mannion), food processors, coffee grinders, crock pots and burger cookers. Blenders are about as commonplace as notebooks. Woks and hibachis are de rigueur. And though resident halls forbid the use of toaster ovens in dorm rooms, "a lot of us have them," admits a student.
At George Washington University, students are overheard discussing how best to clean seafood; at Howard, a dorm cook takes issue with the microwave ("it cooks too quickly; meats especially lose their tenderness"). And if student interest in matters culinary is still in doubt, one can look at Georgetown University's Christmas gift to last year's senior class -- 1,500 copies of a guide to cooking in the dorm, "Chow for Now," written by fellow student Karen Kozachok.
The reasons why dorm dwellers choose to cook for themselves are as varied as what they choose to eat. A common sentiment is one expressed by Chauvin, who wryly deems cafeteria food "adequate, but not to my taste." Moreover, "a lot of students, people who have never really cooked before, are," explains Howard's John Wright, because "a meal plan is too structured, timewise. Students who are up late might want a late dinner."
Savings is another factor. Area university board plans can cost anywhere from $1,380 to $1,830 for a 19-meal-a-week menu; left to his own devices, a budget-minded student doesn't have much of a problem keeping food costs below the $37 to $50 a week those figures suggest. Indeed, Forkas estimates she spends $15 to $20 on food, and Chauvin says he and his roommates average $12 per week per person.
Still, cafeteria meals aren't as bad as they're made out to be, concede most students. Hockstein even ventures that "it's not because of what's prepared in a cafeteria , but what's there to tempt you."
Just how many students are cooking on campus is difficult to ascertain. Howard University, with a total enrollment of 12,000 students, 3,750 of whom reside on campus, has a mere 950 participants in its meal program. Georgetown, on the other hand, with the same enrollment, (and 3,500 campus dwellers) has more than 3,500 students eating on some kind of meal plan. Interestingly, of the Georgetown students with kitchens in their campus units, 50 percent are on a meal plan, and of that number, half are on full board (19 meals a week).
Experienced veterans of dorm cooking recall with amusement their initial attempts to cook for themselves. Mangum remembers eating a lot of biscuits and honey during his first year: "My roommate and I gained about 20 pounds." Others remember semesters of frozen TV dinners, cans of tuna and those occasional, but oh-so-wonderful parcels from home, fondly referred to as "Care packages."
Which is not to say that every meal is taken in the dorm room, of course. Holder treats herself to dinner in a restaurant every payday. Roommates Chauvin, Iorio and Bizzoso have off-campus friends who invite them to meals frequently, and Forkas often grabs a quick bite in the campus coffee shop where she works. And every student questioned has his or her favorite carryout or cheap eatery, perhaps even a restaurant with happy hours, "when you can get free hors d'oeuvres," notes one experienced bar-hopper.
There are exceptions to a student's claims to good eating, of course. Late night is one. (Even ambitious cook Mannion admits to eating macaroni out of the box at midnight.) Every student has his tale of a disgusting "friend" or "roommate" (never himself, of course) who burned the midnight oil on the energy provided by a can of frosting or "sliced, fried hot dogs with onions and cheese." And during exams, three square meals are about as likely a phenomenon as eight hours of sleep. "7-Eleven does a lot of business during finals," laughs Jacobs. DIANE HOCKSTEIN'S BROWN RICE (8 servings)
1/2 cup brown rice
1/2 cup wheat berries (available in health food stores)
2 cups boiling water
1/2 cup raisins
Add rice and wheat berries to rapidly boiling water, cover, and simmer until water is absorbed. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Mix in raisins.
To store for use, divide rice into 8 portions and spoon into heat-resistant freezer bags. Freeze. To reheat, drop bag into a pot of boiling water for 20 minutes. TOM MANNION'S MACARONI AND CHEESE (4 servings)
1/2 pound diced pasteurized process cheese
1 1/2 cups scalded milk
1/4 cup melted butter
1 1/2 tablespoons parsley
2 tablespoons chopped onion
3 eggs, well beaten
Salt and pepper
Paprika to taste
2 to 3 cups cooked elbow macaroni
Melt cheese in top of a double boiler, or over low heat in a saucepan. Slowly add milk to cheese, followed by butter, parsley, onion, eggs and seasonings. Fold in macaroni. Stir to mix well and put mixture in a greased 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes. NATALIE HOLDER'S BROCCOLI (4 servings)
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup diced onion
1 cup washed and sliced fresh mushrooms
3 1/2 cups fresh broccoli, washed and cut into flowerets
2 tablespoons teriyaki sauce
Grated cheddar cheese for sprinkling (optional)
Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and mushrooms and saute' 2 to 3 minutes, or until onion is softened slightly. Add broccoli and cook until the broccoli just starts to change color. Add teriyaki sauce to taste. Continue to simmer for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring. Cheese can be sprinkled on top of vegetables just before serving, if desired. CORNFLAKE CHICKEN A LA LUCIEN, PETER AND RON
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup cornflake crumbs
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
1 broiler chicken, cut into 8 pieces
4 tablespoons melted butter
Pour buttermilk into a bowl. Combine cornflake crumbs, flour, salt and poultry seasoning. Dip chicken pieces first into buttermilk, then into coating mixture. Arrange chicken pieces in a well-buttered shallow baking pan. Drizzle butter over chicken. Bake in a 425-degree oven for 35 to 45 minutes (smaller pieces may take less time to cook). DIANE HOCKSTEIN'S SESAME-HONEY MUSTARD CHICKEN (4 servings)
4 whole chicken breasts
Butter for baking dish
1/4 cup honey
3 tablespoons coarse-grain prepared mustard
Pepper to taste
Generous 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
Place chicken breasts in a well-greased baking dish. Combine honey, mustard, and pepper in a bowl; spoon mixture over chicken, coating all sides well. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Bake for 1 hour in a 350-degree oven. To prevent the seeds from burning, cover baking dish with foil. In the last 15 minutes of cooking time, remove foil to brown top of breasts.
To store: Allow chicken to cool. Place breasts with remaining juices in individual plastic seal bags and seal. To reheat, drop bag into boiling water for 20 minutes. TOM MANNION'S SEAFOOD BOIL
4 to 6 steamer clams per person
1 medium new or russet potato per person
6 shrimp per person
1 small whitefish fillet
Salt and pepper
Lemon pepper to taste
Thyme to taste
Marjoram to taste
In a large pot, pour enough water to measure 1/2-inch. Heat to simmer. Place clams in pot, followed by potatoes and shrimp.
Wrap sausages and fish in lunch bags cut down to half their height. Place sausage on top of shrimp and place fish on sausage. Season with salt, pepper, lemon pepper, thyme and marjoram. Steam covered over medium heat about 45 minutes, or until potatoes are tender. (If desired, place Alaskan king crab legs or a lobster tail on top of the boil, suggests Mannion.)
Drain broth through a cheesecloth and serve on the side. DIANE HOCKSTEIN'S APPLE CASSEROLE (6 servings)
4 large granny smith apples
4 nectarines or peaches
Butter for casserole
3/4 cup raisins
Cinnamon for sprinkling
3 to 4 tablespoons brown sugar
12-ounce can black cherry soda
Chop apples and nectarines or peaches into bite-size chunks. (Do not remove skin.) Place in a large greased casserole pan. Mix in raisins. Sprinkle fruit with cinnamon and brown sugar as desired. Pour soda over mixture. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour, or until apples are soft. To prevent burning, cover pan lighly with foil.
To store for use, divide cooked mixture (including juices) into 6 portions and spoon into plastic seal bags. Freeze. To use, drop bag into boiling water for 20 minutes. May be served either hot or at room temperature.