The Berkeley ’09er across from me sullenly pokes at her charred chicken, scooting it beneath piles of rice, cottage cheese and half-macerated beets like a smoker indifferently toeing a smoldering butt beneath a layer of beach sand. It is not unusual for interactions with dining-hall fare to take on this tinge of food-related depression or, worse, apathy.

Were we to awaken from our self-protective stupor long enough to realize that we have eaten the same five ingredients for the past two days, we might endeavor to shape something scintillating out of the monotony, but do we have time? And do we have the skill? You, nuke-master supreme, are well acquainted with l’art culinaire of Ramen. You can whip out a mean “quesadilla Señor Foreman” (yes, that’s a tortilla folded in half with cheese in the middle, grilled by your amigo, George), so what makes you think you’re incapable of a simple vinaigrette, an inspired sandwich, or even a spunky satay sauce?

With a few simple rules and some old-fashioned chutzpah, you can elevate uninspiring dining-hall fare, transforming a thrice-daily chore into a creative outlet and gustatory adventure. This is a reminder that food should be nourishing to the soul as well as the body.

Rule No. 1: Confidence in Condiments

Sriracha, the Thai hot sauce made from sun-ripened chili peppers, garlic and vinegar, is edible ecstasy. The first time I tried Sriracha, I wondered at the millions of palettes that live and die by its satanic and somehow savory spice. Is the American public too content, too anesthetized, too enraptured by endless incarnations of tomato ketchup to desire something so powerfully piquant? Is the breadth of our palates determined by the interpretive capacities of corn syrup? It is not unusual to hear preteens pontificating on the bouquet of a Cheesy Dorito like it’s a fine Bordeaux — yet letting the va-va-voom of our food be dictated by our country’s surplus production of corn is simply unacceptable.

They lay at your fingertips — at the end of the salad bar, clustered bottles of A1, Tabasco, sherry vinegar, soy sauce — secrets to shaping flaccid legumes, flabby starches and various reincarnations of yesterday’s chicken into peppy, provocative meals. Try it now: Animate your salad with one of these easy dressings. (Beware! Taste with your pinky before you douse your plate. To not do so is a waste of food tantamount to flinging the contents of your tray all over the dining-hall floor, and this time you can’t blame it on the guy who popped you in the gut with his over-stuffed L.L.Bean.)

Zesty Mustard Vinaigrette:

2 tbs olive oil

1 tbs red wine vinegar

1 tbs rice vinegar

2 tsp grainy mustard

Salt and pepper

Sweet Asian Barbecue


1 tbs olive oil

1 tbs rice vinegar

3 tsp soy sauce

2 tsp orange juice

1 tsp barbecue sauce

Salt and pepper

Rule No. 2: Breaking the Mold

An assembly line of sleepy students shuffles along the sandwich bar, piling homogeneous ingredients between slightly stale slices of bread. Turkey. Cheese. Lettuce. Tomato. Mustard. Rinse, repeat. It’s a mindless procession that is more frustrating than fulfilling. If your only emotional reaction to a meal is violent fury towards the person in front of you in the dining-hall line (could you take any longer to pile frickin’ onions on your frickin’ tuna fish?) or if you approach the silver bins of deli meats with the deadpan gaze usually reserved for hungover trips to the laundry, something is wrong.

Making your lunch shouldn’t be a chore. It shouldn’t be another reason to knot yourself into a volatile stress ball. Breaking out of the lunch line is an unexpected way to reinvigorate your lust for life. Not only will your food taste better, but you will enjoy barefooted-hippie-freedom and the self-esteem boosting adulation of your clone-sandwich consuming friends.

Southwestern Grilled Cheese:

3 slices cheese (Pepper Jack, if available)

2 tomato slices

Red onion slices

Tabasco Butter (combine 1 tsp Tabasco with 1 tbs butter)

1 tsp barbecue sauce

2 slices white bread

Warning: this is not your Mama’s grilled cheese. We all have fond memories of Kraft melting over butter-golden bread, warm tomato soup sliding along salty crust. But don’t let nostalgia stop you from exploring new dimensions of gooey goodness. Spread one side of each slice of bread with Tabasco butter (this will be the outside). Assemble sandwich, spreading barbecue sauce thinly. To the George Foreman! Don’t forget to check progress.

The Gobbler:

4 slices cold-cut turkey

Thin slices of beets

Thin slices of red apple (preferably MacIntosh)

1 slice lettuce (replace with sprouts if available)

1 tbs garlic hummus

Honey mustard (combine 1 tbs grainy mustard with 1 tbs honey)

Tart up your turkey with a twist — sweet beets and crisp apple bring new dimension à la dinde. Assemble and grill. Remember, toasting makes tasty, and Weight Watchers bread tastes like cardboard (and is just as unhealthy). Go for the real stuff.

Rule No. 3: Allez, cuisine!

You habitually bake cakes for your roommates’ birthdays, so why go all deer-in-headlights when confronted by a room full of raw ingredients? It might take some searching, but the dining hall holds all of the potential of a fully-stocked kitchen. Be not afraid to experiment — creativity is the key to satiating both physical and existential hunger. Much of what you make in the dining hall will be dictated by what’s available, making each meal a hunt for inspiration. I like to think of it as a kind of perpetual game of Iron Chef (“Today’s secret ingredient is … day-old meatloaf! Allez, cuisine!”). The next time monotony plagues your taste buds, try whipping up enough of this zesty zinger to awaken your apathetic amigos:

Wake up! Satay Sauce:

2 1/2 tbs smooth peanut butter

2 tsp olive oil (or 1 tsp each sesame and olive oil)

3 tsp red-wine vinegar

1 tsp rice-wine vinegar

4 tsp soy sauce

2 tsp ketchup

1 1⁄2 tsp honey

3 tsp Tabasco

4 tsp orange juice

1/4 tsp pepper

Pinch of salt

Combine ingredients in bowl. Microwave for 20 seconds or until lightly bubbling. Mix, season and serve as a delectable dip for chicken, a unique sandwich-topper, or mix with pasta and lightly microwaved green and red peppers, mushrooms, bean sprouts, celery and onions for Asian-style peanut noodles.