She's taking the institution out of `institution food'
FEW universities boast squid on their dining hall menus. Fewer still can brag that students will actually eat it. Such exotic fare is only one way Hannelore Dawson tries to ``get the instituition out of institution food'' at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H., where she is nutrition services manager.
Other methods she uses to intrigue diners include having microwave ovens available for do-it-yourself cooking; using morning ``poker games,'' where students take a chance on what delicacy they'll get for breakfast, to encourage better breakfast eating; and inviting nationally known gourmet teachers to cook and lecture on campus.
Mrs. Dawson also started the publication of a weekly newsletter titled ``Scoop'' to give students a preview of good things to come in the dining halls. It's one of several strategies to erase the ``bad food'' reputation that plagues most large dining-room operations.
``Feeding large groups in an institution is always a problem because we start with a negative image,'' Dawson explains. ``But the problem is often not the food's quality, but the quantity and the service.''
In serving a clientele of more than 5,000 students who live on campus in residence halls, plus a growing number of off-campus students, faculty, and staff, Dawson says she relies on the basics with a little creativity on the side. The creativity turns up at special dinners with uncommon foods such as squid.
``We had tested the squid with our student food committee and they didn't like it,'' Dawson says. ``They said students would never eat it. Well, the squid was gone in half an hour.
``Students are getting more sophisticated and adventurous,'' she says. ``They'll usually try anything new.''
Choices have expanded since their parents' college days, when meals like meat loaf and mashed potatoes were standard, Dawson points out. Now, a typical lunch might include French onion soup, shaved roast beef sandwiches, or stuffed green peppers. For dinner, the choice is sirloin tips with peppers, Chinese spare ribs, or meatless moussaka.
``I've always felt that food can be prepared perfectly, no matter how large the quantity,'' Dawson says. ``Even if they come to dinner with 2,000 others, students here know the meal has been prepared with them in mind.''
Garnishes are fresh, homemade bread is available, and servers place, rather than toss, food on plates and trays.
Dawson's latest promotion is the ``Great Cooks on Campus'' series, with French gourmet Madeleine Kamman as the first guest. The second will be Franco and Margaret Romagnoli, chefs of ``The Romagnoli's Table,'' a PBS television series and owners of a Boston restaurant with the same name.
Dawson points out that gourmet dining does not necessarily mean fancy food. ``There are a lot of cooks who are doing strange things with their food. They're playing with it,'' she says.``I don't like food that looks like it's been handled by 10 people.
``I like food that looks like food, although when entertaining at home I like to cook something fancy.''
Fast, simply prepared foods are usual week night fare at the Dawson household. Dawson says her children's tastes are not unlike those of typical university diners.
``My daughter will try anything,'' she says. ``My son is more into simple food - like hamburgers and French fries.''
Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.