After nearly two decades of pushing vegetables and denouncing candy, worrying over nitrates, fats and red dyes, we send our children -- and their tuition checks -- off to college, to whatever gastronomic fate they may choose. We tried to instill a connection between food and health, and they extracted a connection between food and love. Now off they go to develop a connection between food and learning.

What are they learning?

I checked it out recently at three campuses across the country -- not at the college dining halls but at the cafes where students go for a break from them, those hangouts that become myths of our youth.

In Santa Cruz, Calif., memories of the '80s at U.C.S.C. will carry the tone of the '60s. The Saturn Cafe, opened in 1979 by Don Lane in order to create a job for himself (a common theme; see Mother's Cafe below), has the marks of a flower children's garden. It not only outlaws chemical additives, meats and cigarette smoking on the premises, but it even forswears aluminum cookware, lest a trace enter your system.

No rigid ascetics here, though. The main reason for going to the Saturn Cafe is a dessert called Chocolate Madness: a scoop of chocolate burnt almond ice cream, two rich fudgy things called Gramma's Cookies, fudge sauce, chocolate mousse, whipped cream and chocolate chips, all in one bowl. You can also order mud pie, zucchini bread with ice cream (in case you can't break Mother's green vegetable habit) or a little paper cup of unbaked cookie dough which, co-owner Melissa Sunberg volunteered, is a special favorite of clientele under the influence of drugs (surely somebody else's children).

Saturn Cafe allows a rare public view of that shy creature, the studying student (proof that the species is not extinct). "If you are studying, please share tables," requests a sign. And Saturn Cafe's music, identified to me as a "Rocky Horror Picture Show" sound, is what every teen-ager's parent will recognize as studying music. Sure enough, I spotted one student with a file box at her side and papers strewn around, another with a globe on the table, and a third accompanied by a full laundry bag, which also proves something else about students that has puzzled parents.

Not all were fueling themselves with chocolate. Saturn Cafe specializes in lentil soup. "We can teach anybody to make lentil soup," said Sunberg, explaining that the Saturn Cafe depends on pretty inexperienced help. It also serves vegetarian chili and a chili-lentil soup combination: $ 1.60 for a bowl large enough and thick enough to keep you content most of the day, plus bread and butter. The sandwiches and salads lean heavily on tuna and tofu, with avocado garnishes. And for the traditionalist there is peanut butter and jelly. On three-seed whole-wheat bread.

Mother should eat so well.

""Get close to toast," say the T-shirts at Mother's Cafe in Boulder, Colo. It is hard to rhyme potatoes.

Yet with a mere 11 tables and a counter, open only from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Mother's Cafe serves 20 to 30 pounds of potatoes a day, 50 a day on weekends. When the University of Colorado is in full swing, the potato count goes up to 300 pounds a week. All day long some kid or other in a T-shirt and cap, with a towel wrapped around his waist as an apron, is grating unpeeled potatoes right onto the grill for the most efficient hash-brown making I've ever seen.

Dave Roscover, owner and head hash-brown maker, needed a job in 1971. "So I bought one," he said, meaning he bought the Magnolia Thunder Pussy, which was next to the Doozy Duds laundromat, and turned it into Mother's Cafe. A familiar story. Age 23, having never owned a business before, he also needed his mother to co-sign the loan, so the new name of the cafe was a natural. It was only this year, though, that he added his Mom's Apple Pie to the menu; it puts even those hash browns to shame.

What the fans eat at Mother's Cafe along with the hash browns is Mexican food: primarily breakfast burritos (flour tortilla stuffed with hash browns, refried beans, chilies and scrambled eggs -- enough to wake you up again after an all-nighter). And the menu is full of comfort foods: cinnamon toast, roast beef hash, burgers, grilled cheese and a couple of local inventions called antelope toast (french toast made with pancake batter) and biscuits with sausage gravy (the cholesterol-lover's dream of thick gravy studded with sausage pieces, poured over biscuits). This is he-man food, with a lone concession to health-food in tofu rancheros, but encouraging such heroic tales as the one about the guy who used to come in regularly for hash browns with maple syrup.

"Georgetown University is probably the pioneer Yuppie training ground. So it is fitting that its nearest off-campus hangout, The Tombs, serves baked brie, potato skins and a $ 3.95 version of what the world has come to identify as Chicken McNuggets. No tofu, no biscuits. Eggs benedict instead of huevos rancheros, a New York strip steak as well as burgers. The waiters here wear blue oxford shirts and khakis rather than T-shirts and jeans; in fact, even the diners' T-shirts have collars. And the booths feel like real leather.

I did see somebody studying at the Tombs, but since she was sitting with her open notebook at the bar and was wearing an attention-getting red shirt, it was only a matter of time until a mustachioed lothario moved in on her to help her pass the course.

The Tombs adds up to a Georgetown-style classic -- right out of the '80s, with calamari salad for those who grow tired of pizza. This collegiate bastion suggests on the menu, "When you are drinking alcoholic beverages we encourage you to drink moderately and drive carefully." Doesn't sound like any college talk I remember.

It is a continent and a couple of decades away from the Saturn Cafe, whose menu reads, "DRAFT BEER not people."


"The creamy white dip I got with my potato skins at a little Maryland tavern called Bosco's didn't taste like the usual sour cream; it tasted more like cottage cheese. I was right, the waitress revealed proudly. The chef had mixed sour cream with cottage cheese and called it his Gourmet Combo. Little did she know it was the same thing I turned up my nose at as a child when my mother tried to pawn it off on me as lunch.

"Say it isn't so, that Wolfgang Puck of Los Angeles' celebrity-drenched Spago restaurant is planning to manufacture "frozen gourmet pizzas" next year.

ANTELOPE TOAST (4 servings)

3/4 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 tablespoons sugar

2 eggs

1 cup milk

2 tablespoons oil

8 slices bread

Maple syrup for serving

Sift flour, salt, baking powder and sugar together. In another bowl, mix eggs, milk and oil. Mix dry and wet ingredients until just combined. If batter is thicker than heavy cream, thin it with more milk. Dip slices of bread in batter and fry on a hot griddle until golden brown on both sides. Serve immediately with maple syrup.

(c) 1986, Washington Post Writers Group;