I’ve noticed that off-campus students fall into two main categories. One is largely dependent on external sources of nourishment (Est Est Est, York Street Noodle House, Mamoun’s, a meal plan), and the other stubbornly set on a DIY-subsistence. The denizens of 378 Crown St. belong strictly to the latter, drawn together by a strange affinity for cooking and extra-collegiate autonomy.
What about the exciting off-campus circuit of never-ending dinner parties? A certain J. makes miracles of dinners, ensuring the survival of this myth within the house. 378 has seen good eats on many a good day: gluten-free kumquat cake enriched with powdered almonds, an elaborate sushi dinner, pan-griddled salmon. (I am told that another budding gourmand deep-fries green tomatoes in between classes — ever the postmodern lunch).
On most ordinary occasions, however, they maintain a healthy staple diet of beans. Lima beans, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, black beans — they have it all. Beans and rice, beans and spinach, beans and quinoa. Lima beans in soup, white beans with pasta, black beans on pizza. And on Sundays, eggs and beans for brunch. Off-campus living is about making do, frugality and sustenance — your post-college fears creeping up early on you, all at once.
Kitchen check: a pound of green lentils, a pound of rice, a pound of dried black beans and a can of white beans. In the fridge: a handful of spinach, minced garlic in a jar. Leaving little to the imagination, beans, rice and more beans are put in a pot. In go the carbs, out comes a vat of warm, starchy goodness. Lesson for Monday: live with what you have.
A.’s shipment of dark-chocolate-flavored whey protein powder arrives. It sits in a colossal jar almost the height and weight of a small animal. A. points out that this jar (more like an urn, really) contains a hundred servings — enough to last them till 2011, though they know it’ll be gone in two months.
On Tuesday, A., J. and Y. learn to make up for Monday’s deficiencies. Protein shakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No one drinks milk in the house anymore, only chocolate milk.
The house sees a supply of groceries from Shaw’s, brought home in A.’s trusty Samsonite pull-along. (The house bemoans the closure of the farmers’ market in the deep of winter).
A. makes a pizza with dough from scratch and tops it with tomatoes, black beans and basil. Swept up in post-shopping fervor, he then whizzes up three iterations of homemade hummus: mint, lemon-basil and Sriracha. The differences are subtle.
Creatures of habit, they can’t seem to get over their love of the legume.
A whole organic chicken, fresh from Nica’s! This house hasn’t seen this much amino acid since the delivery of the protein powder. They cram a paste of lemon zest and butter under the chicken’s skin, to crisp it up while cooking, and roast the bird atop a mound of potatoes. While they’re at it, they sprinkle over all the dried herbs that can be found on their spice rack. This is what off-campus dreams are made of — tender, yielding chunks of juicy chicken, an acerbic hint of lemon with every mouthful. They secretly swear never to set foot in a dining hall again, though they know their wills might not withstand reality.
The excitement of textured protein wearing down, A. dredges up more beans and boils them with rice. The wonders of the culinary imagination! Y. breaks the pact of self-sustenance and succumbs to Chinese take-out.
Meanwhile, it is suspected that J. has consumed a two-pound bag of frozen blueberries all by himself. There are blue fingerprints on the doorknobs and J’s lips are, unwittingly, stained a deep purple.
Independence — or is it hunger? — makes people behave in unfathomable ways.
The off-campus cook spends an inordinate amount of time on food Web sites (Tastespotting and 101 Cookbooks are real inspirations), churning over delicious thoughts and flavors, starch-and-protein combinations and supermarket discounts. Every time you see one of these disenchanted souls staring glassily out of those Booktrader windows, her preoccupation isn’t really meter in “Paradise Lost” or whatever Xeroxed packet lies open and waiting.
Man is often naggingly concerned with his most basic and material needs. A., J. and Y. confront the stuff of their existence on a daily basis.
Saturday is cabbage soup from the Smitten Kitchen site. Y. has perfected the art of dumping a vast quantity of bone-in meat into boiling water, thereafter reducing it to a simmering, hearty, savory broth. A tried-and-true principle. Nothing else, when added to the concoction, will detract from its form of Soup-ness.
Family night — jump for joy — the sheer variety of food in the D-hall! The whole four courses! (If you count soup and salad as one each, that is). All nutritional groups found on a single plate! — A., J. and Y. realize that this isn’t easy to come by.
There is no place like residential-college home.