Diary of a Fresher: 'You know not to ask what "vegetable surprise!" contains...'

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The Independent Online

My college counts as fully-catered, though we have at our disposal one kitchenette between eight. Not a kitchen, a kitchenette: claustrophobically small, ovenless and with a lot of stainless steel. It's fine, but I've never really had much use for it, apart from for one experimental microwave meal. This worked fine (no explosions), although after discovering the remains of the repast a number of days later, I decided I would do well to stick to foods that stayed more inert when left on a plate for a little while.

Not wishing to live entirely on cereal and multivitamins (I've seen it done and the results are spotty), I eat most of my meals in hall. There's even a reasonable amount of choice – salad bar, soup vat, three or four main course options, a dazzling array of potato products, maybe a vegetable dish or two. You soon learn what to avoid – green beans and anything that you suspect to be the day before yesterday's vegetarian option which no one liked the first time, now reheated and disguised with a layer of melted cheese. You know that at some point they're bound to muddle up the quorn sausages with the real ones. And you especially know not to ask what "Vegetable Surprise!" contains. Contrary as it may be to the principles of academia, I fear that, in this instance, ignorance is bliss.

Admittedly, I have always been puzzled as to why the potato/vegetable ratio is always so skewed towards the former, but I'm definitely not complaining. It's very nice to have the option of chips every day, in marked contrast to my final, Jamie-Oliver-blighted years of school. Why the vege-mince always comes in spurts, sometimes lasting several days, is also a mystery. But as far as I'm concerned, the generous provision of free and unmonitored condiments, up to and including balsamic vinegar, absolves all sin. To be a student is to be able to put as much Tabasco on your macaroni cheese as you bloody well like. In fact, I'm so into the whole cafeteria service thing that I've even become one of the elite few who sometimes eats breakfast in hall. Even though the food is great, the place is always deserted. I guess the timing is just not very good for most people – arts students don't get up until long after 9am when breakfast has finished, and scientists, with early morning lectures, resentful of their artsy counterparts, tend not to get up until the last minute out of principle. This leaves the only breakfasters as the rowers, the runners, the guys who do circuit training every morning, and me. I guess that makes me an "individual".

The other, crucial, aspect of college catering is "formal hall". It is every bit as grand and pretentious as it sounds, with a host of complicated rules, official and otherwise. While its exact form and frequency varies, it comes down to an opportunity to get drunk on cheap wine while wearing an academic gown, all the while eating a candlelit £8-a-head, three-course meal of variable quality. Last term, I made the mistake of booking my formal ticket before I checked the menu, only to discover that I'd be faced with a dish ominously entitled "aubergine tower". To this day, I still cannot think of anything worse to do to an aubergine than to put it in a tower. It's times like that that, more than ever, make me thankful for the limitless supply of potatoes.