The Way They Ate

Over the years, food around the Forty Acres went from Mom-style homemade to industrial-style factory-made. What happened—and how did we get to the steak, sushi, and all-around tastier meals on campus today?

Apple brown betty, Yorkshire pudding, and lemon velvet ice cream; scalloped this and creamed that. There was a place (Andrews Dormitory) and time (the ’30s and ’40s) not so far away when eating on campus meant fine dining on china.

Sure, a few less classic dishes served back then have since faded away, like pickle salad, spaghetti loaf, stewed prunes, and Jell-O cheese pie. And then there was a recipe called “Rice and Peanut Butter.” The details of how egg, bread crumbs, parsley, “white sauce,” and “cheese sauce” were molded together with rice and peanut butter in a loaf pan are best left to the ages.

But everything, even sauces and dressings like classic poppyseed, was homemade when the University first got into the business of feeding students in December 1890.

The recipes used a century ago, when UT first served lunch to students and faculty in the ground floor of old Brackenridge Hall, still exist: dozens of cards typed by typewriter or written in script and tucked into a vault in the Briscoe Center for American History. The cards were saved by Edith Mae Mullins Livingston, who grew up in Andrews while her father led the women’s dorm food service. A few of his recipes are scaled to serve 300 or more, but most call for a few cups or tablespoons of ingredients at a time.

The homemade-in-small-batches philosophy of food service carried over to the finest of the University’s culinary offerings, the University Tea House. For 30 years there, the ladies of UT’s Home Economics program (now the School of Human Ecology) put what they learned in their management courses into practice.

White-jacketed students did the serving, and faculty members and other Austin elites came to dine in the spruced-up stone pioneer house along Waller Creek. Restored and opened in 1939, the Tea House was the crowning touch of the home ec program, one of just five programs in the country that trained students in restaurant or kitchen management.

The Tea House’s head, a dynamic young instructor named Helen Corbitt, was soon whisked away to lead restaurants at places like the Driskill Hotel. Later, she led Neiman-Marcus’ Zodiac Room — where the Dallas socialites dined — and became the Martha Stewart of her day.

At UT and beyond, no matter how many she was serving, Corbitt refused to let her food taste anything less than homemade. “Even though you must cook for large numbers, cooking should be done in small quantities,” she would say.

But the glory days of homestyle meals at Andrews Dormitory and the University Tea House would give way to an era of complaints, food fights, and distinctly less palatable campus dining. Food on the Forty Acres was about to bottom out.

 

Eating Large, Tasting Small

The Tea House closed in 1969 and was quickly razed to allow the widening of San Jacinto Boulevard. At the same time, the largest residential hall ever conceived was built at UT. Jester Center housed 3,006 students. And serving 9,000 meals a day required kitchens that took up most of two floors and one of the world’s largest dining areas.

As University enrollment continued to skyrocket, cooking in small batches was deemed impractical. By 1976, only the athletics dining room still served homestyle meals. The manager bragged that everything in his hall was made from scratch, right down to the pies, resulting in “meals like Mama used to make.”

But the athletics dining room was reserved for athletes (and exclusively men’s ones, at that). Non-athletes were left to take culinary refuge in nearby restaurants, from the melty-melts of the original Texadelphia to, later, the desserts of Captain Quackenbush’s Intergalactic Dessert Company and Espresso Café (otherwise known as Quack’s).

Back in Jester, dinner prospects grew even less appetizing. The cafeteria was temporarily shut down in 1978 after an inspection found cockroaches and weevils, as well as rotten food in the tremendous refrigerators. The year before, 125 students who had eaten at the cafeteria in a four-day span had turned up at the University Health Center complaining of nausea, vomiting, cramping, and diarrhea.

More regular inspections of the cafeteria were demanded. But through the ’80s, the food quality limped along. Sub sandwiches, potato wedges, tuna casserole, and meat loaf with brown gravy were among the menu standards.

Texas Exes historian Jim Nicar’s first day as a Jester resident in 1983 hinted at grimmer dining days to come, he says. Coming down to breakfast, he saw a huge tub of grapefruit. They were sliced but impossible to spoon out. “They were cut the wrong way—they were all cut wrong the wrong way,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is not gonna be good. This is not a good sign.’”

Groups of students like Nicar’s friends took to eating dinner as soon as the cafeteria opened for it, at 4:45 p.m. Waiting for a more typical dinner hour, like 6, would leave them with cold grub that had been cooked long before. Food fights waged with brick-hard dinner rolls and other unloved menu items were not uncommon. A particularly memorable one in Nicar’s day was officially named the “John Belushi Memorial Food Fight,” promoted with posters and epic in the amount of food thrown. The Jester Center food had become something students would rather hurl than eat.

 

Turning Things Around

In 1995, UT’s Division of Housing and Food Service got a new director. Floyd Hoelting lived and ate in the residence halls for his first two years, and he wasn’t pleased with what was served. Gnats buzzed around the raisin bread. The cafeteria was out of skim milk every day for a month. Above all, the assembly-line approach struck him as an “archaeological find.”

Other large universities had begun to offer wide variety, from grilling stations to health-food offerings. Less so at UT. “It was a factory mentality,” Hoelting says. “We dreamed of and planned for more options.”

To get a turnaround started, Hoelting first recruited a food service director away from food-forward Oregon State University. Five years later, in 2001, he brought in another new director, Scott Meyer. Meyer had experience in large-scale operations where the food had to taste good—he was fresh from launching a dining center that would become the Olympic Village for Salt Lake City’s Winter Games.

At UT, Meyer found that better food required more than just money. It took gradual, behind-the-scenes changes to produce tastier dishes served hot. Piece by piece, Meyer changed the equipment and procedures that would produce fresh-made meals. Now, 10 years later, 80 percent of the “back of the house” equipment has been updated and every dining area revamped, he says.

One of the biggest equipment shifts has been toward “batch cooking.” No longer do line cooks hide in the back, making vats of stir-fry that sit for hours before being served. Now they stand at stations where diners can see and smell veggies and meat that the cooks are oiling, heating, and stirring together just for them. In these days of Food Network and celebrated chefs, students especially like seeing the action.

And the action they see is professional. When Meyer arrived, the division had cooks who followed recipes and managers who tried to instruct the cooks, but no chefs. Now it employs 10, all of whom have culinary training. Many managers have retail food serve experience.

A once full-service bakery that had dwindled to three bakers was pressed back into use. UT recruited a head baker who had experience at Austin’s much-loved Sweetish Hill. Under his direction, all UT’s pies, cakes, muffins, and sweetbreads are made fresh again. “To have something baked that day that wasn’t frozen or on a truck for 2,000 miles—there’s no comparison,” Meyer says.

Staff was changed up, too. Meyer hired sushi chefs a few years ago, and although the sales volume wasn’t high enough to keep full-time sushi makers on board, Food Service still sells up to 400 rolls per day. Meyer also re-trained cooks to do more food prep. Now they make their own sandwiches and potato salad, which for years came pre-made. This spring, they returned to rolling their own enchiladas, too.

Eager to please, Meyer keeps a booklet of good press campus dining receives. A high-end foodie magazine, Edible Austin, has particularly praised Meyer’s use of local ingredients through a relationship with the Austin Sustainable Food Center. In keeping with the “locavore” trend, he now does a Local Harvest Dinner in which everything—from fruits and veggies to flour, meat, and cheese—comes from within a 150-mile radius. The division now has two on-campus gardens harvested from daily.

“We’re always moving forward,” he says. “When something is trendier, hotter, healthier, better, we’ll change it just like that.”

Campus restaurants are still on the scene, from classics like Kerbey Lane and Trudy’s to newer and more exotic offerings like Madam Mam’s Thai Noodle House. But the competition is very much approved by UT Food Service, which in 2000 created Bevo Bucks, an accounting system that allows students to use $300 of their food plan at dozens of nearby eateries.

The idea is that students should be able to go a couple months without having to repeat the same meal. The Bevo Bucks program isn’t a moneymaker—figuring in the administrative costs and expensive software required, Food Service breaks even on it—but its value outstrips the effort it takes. The complaints Meyer couldn’t escape 15 years ago about lack of variety or healthy options are less frequent now.

A society’s tastes reveal the cultures and values embedded within it. And The University of Texas—where the Korean Student Association excitedly tweeted an excited message telling its members to come to a dining hall for a Korean barbecue recently—has come a long way from the traditional fare of, say, Andrews Hall.

Yet there is also a circling back toward the food ideals of yesteryear. Not long ago, Nicar and others came across a Thanksgiving menu from old Brackenridge Hall, the long since demolished men’s dorm that was affectionately known as B. Hall. The feast for Thanksgiving Day 1892 featured plum pudding, lobster salad, and Gulf oysters along with stuffed turkey roast. This year, Meyer is planning a “throwback Thanksgiving” dinner in the dining halls based on that menu.

Some tastes have become more exotic, but just as a century or more ago, people want their meals tasty and homemade. The full circle seems natural to the leader of a food service operation that employs 400 full-timers and students and serves 1.8 million meals per year. “Years ago, everything was local, fresh-cooked, and from scratch,” Scott Meyer says. “Everything comes back around.”

Read how upscale fine dining became on the UT campus when the University Tea House was hopping in “The House That Helen Built.”

 

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