Fires, fights and exploding sausages: Dorm kitchen disasters and how to avoid them

If attempting a cooked breakfast for the first time without a worldly housemate or a YouTube tutorial at hand, students should be prepared for their meal to be accompanied by a fire evacuation

George Bass
Friday 01 October 2021 19:03 BST
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Many freshmen fail at the sausage
Many freshmen fail at the sausage (Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

As a campus security guard in the UK, I watch students arrive in droves every September, each lugging crates of cereal, protein powder and other essential foodstuffs that a parent has diligently packed for them.

Once these have been consumed or shared among their new circle - typically before the end of the first week - students then fall back on cafes, diners and pubs for nutrition and socializing.

Dining out allowed undergraduates to discover their new city. Until the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Under the earlier lockdowns, freshmen were encouraged to take regular lateral flow tests and self-isolate if they displayed symptoms. Those who couldn’t afford nightly takeout were forced to master the kitchen in their dorms. Now, with restrictions almost entirely lifted in the UK, dorm cooking has become an issue of high interest to campus security.

In my 14 years on the job, I’ve been summoned to every kind of student emergency - including media undergraduates deciding to shoot their murder scene in a McDonald’s car park (and attracting the ire of the police) and barbecues that turn into a garden fire. I’ve witnessed a variety of culinary disasters.

Boys filling each other’s evening meals with complimentary pens as part of a campaign of mutual antagonism. A girl knocked out by a kitchen cabinet she’d overloaded with canned beans. Questionable brownie recipes.

I’ve collected my top campus nutrition fails and produced a higher education feeding guide based on the most common pitfalls when the intellectual elite share a kitchen.

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In England, a traditional cooked breakfast consists of sausages, grilled tomato, mushrooms, bacon, beans, fried egg, fried bread, black pudding, toast, tea, hash browns and brown sauce.

Many freshmen fail at the sausage. They either use a frying pan that no one in the dorm has cleaned since moving in (igniting the coal that’s congealed in its edges) or attempt to foil-roast sausages in the oven - and forget to prick the skins. The explosive consequences of this approach to cooking may be why we refer to sausages as “bangers” in the UK

If attempting a cooked breakfast for the first time without a worldly housemate or a YouTube tutorial at hand, students should be prepared for their meal to be accompanied by a fire evacuation. Which in turn is followed by breathless security staff, who will spend the remainder of their shifts smelling of burned toast.

For this reason, and as part of a cholesterol-controlled diet, guards recommend an alternate British favorite to the fried breakfast: flapjacks. They’re a great energy source for anyone attending early lessons - provided that they’re the oat bar interpretation, and not pancakes, which again present a fire hazard.

- - -

Despite its status as the most important meal of the day, a large number of students seem to skip breakfast. When combined with the aftereffects of alcohol and a night out (or a night in, if choosing to save money), this can result in low blood sugar the next morning, and first aid calls during which security discovers students collapsed at 11 a.m.

While we’re happy to carry the Snickers we now count as part of our medical response kit, we’d prefer any students facing morning seminars to not skip their porridge (or oatmeal, as it’s known on your side of the pond). But if students have overslept and time is tight, how about a brunch fix that’s the brain fuel of the gods: a hunk of bread topped with peanut butter and raisins, like a whole-grain version of ants on a log?

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Lunchtime on campus can often mean carbicide: pre-packed sandwiches, multipacks of potato chips or “landfill” pasta, so called because it contains whatever students can grab from the cupboard. This means more freshmen in dorms are reaching for their saucepans.

Security have had to deal with would-be chefs who forget to add water, or who turn their kitchens into a sauna because they’re dashing back and forth between the stove and “Call of Duty: Warzone.” Stab wounds caused by slicing-while-texting have also been logged.

To any students seeking a less painful, less temperature-raising midday meal, try a ploughman’s lunch: bread, cheese, spring onion. It’s a cold meal staple that kept farm laborers fueled in medieval England and a souvenir from the pubs that students were unable to eat in during lockdown. However, please use alcohol-free beer in place of traditional ale to compliment the food. Security does not enjoy entering bouncer mode before nightfall.

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Dinner time on campus can run for hours. Guards have addressed issues from midafternoon electrical disturbances caused by an attempt to wash the cooker hob with a bucket of water, to 11 p.m. knocks on the counter to report a stolen chopstick.

Tempers fray faster now that some freshmen are self-isolating in properties with shared kitchens. If it falls to any one resident to feed their neighbors, soup is an easy bet, but preferably not microwaved until it leaks over the counter and into a floor socket where it destroys a fellow resident’s laptop charger. First-time cooks must pay attention to that wattage rating.

The World Health Organization recommends prioritizing fruits and vegetables while quarantining; this is fine, but simple salads can turn ugly when a disagreement about an unwashed mixing bowl evolves into a political spat.

Why not attempt a simple Peruvian beans with rice recipe? Known as Tacu Tacu, it serves up to four, can be prepared in less time than a faculty seminar, and has carried many a student through their time at college.

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If there’s one food nearly every student group or society enjoys, it’s bar snacks. Particularly complimentary ones.

When pubs closed in the UK, campus security were on the lookout for illegal booze dealers trying to hawk their wares outside student dorms. And we don’t mean just peanuts and pretzels.

To those freshmen who’ve obtained their “Jekyll juice” legally, please don’t attempt to prepare any accompanying garlic bread yourself by turning the oven up to incinerate. This can lead to an unfortunate (and pungent) cloud of smoke.

We’re not suggesting that alcohol drives people into poor lifestyle choices, but if the drinker is anything like the girl we found who had been brained by a falling air conditioner unit in a city bar - and who’d promised not to sue the bar owner in exchange for free drinks all night - it’s worth keeping a sober chaperone.

- - -

The UK’s equivalent of DoorDash is Deliveroo, and the pandemic saw a 163% spike in their vegan orders alone. As riders are not allowed past the gate on campus, security is sometimes asked to carry orders to a dorm where someone is self-isolating.

This presents a challenge: Is takeout subject to the requisite decontamination period? Will a bacon pizza still look appetizing after three days in quarantine?

To avoid any uncertainty, we recommend all students stock up on comfort food in advance. Veggie chips, or anything that comes in airtight bags to prevent contamination or spoiling, are your friend. And remember: If it’s 3 a.m., you’re alone, your stomach’s cramping from hunger, and the cupboards are either locked or empty, you can always phone security.

We’re here to help. And in the UK at least, we hold the keys to the campus freezers.

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