College cafeterias can be a challenge, almost a sporting event, hunting for something to eat in a sea of gross. It might even take several trips through the steam table line just to find something not worthy of being spit out. At the first college I attended I literally made the freshman mistake of eating the green beans, the thought of them still make me gag. Think boiled crayons. Retch. While I recall the food at Bennington wasn’t bad, er, let me rephrase that, it was a hell of a lot less worse the cafeteria that produced the aforementioned green beans. The reality is college was a culinary brain eraser; I can’t really remember anything I ate there over the course of two years save for a couple.
The first was Friday. Friday was great. It is is probably why I remember the college food at Bennington as ‘OK’. Friday made up for the sins of the previous week. Lunch on Fridays was always burger, french fry, macaroni and cheese, chocolate chip cookie day. I thought it odd to put all the good foods on one menu, why not spread them out over the week? And why sneak the good foods in on Friday when everyone was headed to New York or Boston anyhow? Either way I would front load or back load, but load nonetheless to make up for existing on salad and soup the other 6 days. Now I also remember Fridays because oddly, Bennington had one of the better veggie burgers I have ever encountered, only Houston’s makes a better one. They were so good I usually had two.
The other meal I remember was the cafeteria’s Greek menu, which popped up at least twice a month. It featured the usual stereotypes: moussaka, spanakopita, pastitsio, etc. Now I never ate any of this, I learned my lesson after one serving of the spanakopita. And I suspect these oozy casseroles would have been erased from my memory as well except somehow in college I managed to amass a coterie of Greeks. My best friend and my boyfriend were Greek, their parents directly from, yes, Greece. This display did not inspire either of them to national pride. Andrew would laugh and offer some mocking commentary and Myrto would seethe with anger. While Andrew was willing to accept that the school could and most certainly would butcher these dishes, Myrto could not.
Now, if college had decided to attempt my national dish of steamed crabs, corn and cucumber salad, I’d be horrified too. In fact I become equally righteously indignant when restaurants outside of the state of Maryland (falsely) advertise ‘Maryland crab cakes’. But it happens. And it happened that the college cafeteria was hell bent to personally offend Myrto with their Greek repertoire.
In addition to the slanderous dinner menu, lentil soup was constantly in one of the two double boilers. After a trip around the steam table where the ‘regular’ lunch or dinner proved inedible, Myrto would begrudgingly head to the lentil soup pot. Being Greek, the lentil soup was: Not. O. K. She’d deliver it to our table. Put it down in front of her. Sigh. Stir it. Begin to cuss at it. Under her breath. In Greek. And truly crafty cussing; creative stuff. Stuff that should make any Greek trucker feel inferior. Still irritated, she’d get up from the table and return with 7-10 lemon wedges from the iced tea station and proceed to squeeze them into her soup, cursing in Greek; perhaps grabbing anything else she could to doctor it. Then she would call on God, Grandma and the island of Paros (where her family is from) to deliver her from this bowl of soup. With disgust in her eye she’d begin to eat it, cursing the whole way through. This show happened several times a week. This was quite simply lunch or dinner. To give you a better idea of the irony, go grab a J.Crew catalog, reach in there and rip out a page, any page: that’s what Myrto looks like. She’ll help any old lady across the street with a genuine smile but, Dear God, do not give her an inferior bowl of soup that mocks her heritage.
So I submit this. I’m fairly certain I do it well because many (seriously, a lot) people request this dish from me, and it’s ridiculously cheap, easy, filling and tasty. I’ll let Myrto look it over and give me her thoughts, hopefully not in Greek and under her breath.
Lentil Soup - Serves 4 - Adapted from Memories of a Lost Egypt
1.5 cups lentils
4 cups vegetable stock
1 medium - large yellow onion, peeled and cut in half across the equator
1 bay leaf
3 teaspoons cumin
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 stick of cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
3 cups spinach loosely chopped
1 cup water
Take the cloves and stab them in the flesh of the onion. Place the onion with cloves, lentils, vegetable stock, bay leaf, cumin, cinnamon and salt in a large pot. Bring to a boil, let simmer for 10 minutes, then remove the cinnamon stick. Continue to simmer for 25 more minutes. The lentils want to be firm but not hard. Add more water if needed. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve with lemon wedges and a dollop of Greek yogurt.