Oberlin: The Food Sucks (and there’s not enough of it)

When the New York Times article describes the beef in snarky tones, you know that a college gripe has reached a point where absurdity can no longer be ignored.

It is the latest skirmish in a year marked by protests and other actions by college students to challenge the cultural and racial status quo on campuses across America.

The students at the college in Oberlin, Ohio, are accusing the campus dining department and Bon Appétit Management Company, the main dining vendor, of a litany of offenses that range from cultural appropriation to cultural insensitivity.

Oh my, the bành mí uses coleslaw instead of pickled veggies, the General Tso’s chicken is boiled instead of fried, the sushi isn’t fresh and they aren’t serving black students fried chicken.

Instead of a crispy baguette with grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs, the sandwich used ciabatta bread, pulled pork and coleslaw. “It was ridiculous,” Nguyen said. “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?”

The tears are just welling up at this state of affairs in the eyes of former college cafeteria consumers whose experience was limited to brown, red and white mystery meat. Ciabatta bread?  The pain.

Now that we’ve all laughed at the absurdity of these snowflakes’ cries, Conor Friedersdorf tries his best to give it some context.

The core student grievance, as reported by Clover Lihn Tran at The Oberlin Review: Bon Appétit, the food service vendor, “has a history of blurring the line between culinary diversity and cultural appropriation by modifying the recipes without respect for certain Asian countries’ cuisines. This uninformed representation of cultural dishes has been noted by a multitude of students, many of who have expressed concern over the gross manipulation of traditional recipes.”

Or when viewed in non-PC terms, the food sucks.

But there’s a flip side to my empathy. Many people relate to the complaint, “Gosh, this food is awful––can’t you dining hall people make it better.” Yet Oberlin culture––I feel certain that the international students did not import these modes of expression––re-framed a banal, sympathetic complaint in a way that alienated millions.

It’s not exactly news that college students hate the food served in their cafeterias. What makes it news, and as Conor reminds us, Oberlin College remains an outlier of progressive pathology, is that the complaint is characterized in terms of “cultural appropriation and insensitivity.”  That was a step too far.

But there are no longer complaints or gripes or suggestions. Only outrage. “Hey, putting ketchup on the linguini isn’t really Italian night,” becomes, “You are oppressing me with your white privilege.” Why? Because it works.

In an effort to rationalize the seemingly ridiculous mindset of the students whining about the Chinese food being unauthentic (they would have hated Chow Mein, the primary exposure to Chinese cuisine in my youth), Conor explains the conflict as one of poor communication skills and insensitivity by the students to how their complaints would be received by people who don’t share their severe view of cultural appropriation.

The dining hall is serving cheap imitations of East Asian dishes because all college campuses serve cheap imitations of all dishes––they’re trying to feed students as cheaply as possible, and authentic bánh mis, never mind sushi, would cost much more.

He adds to the mix that the targets of their complaints are workers doing their best at $12 an hour, adding a level of rank hypocrisy to their social justice cries. And then there’s the grown-up view that it’s just, well, food in America.

“Mixing and matching and intermingling and borrowing and stealing and creating new traditions out of whole cloth is what America does, and in my view, it is the encapsulation of what is best about this country … to crap on the one thing that makes America one of the few successful multicultural countries in the world on the basis of half-understood theories is beyond infuriating.The best spin I could put on this is that these people are basically using the language of appropriation to push for better food service, but I am afraid they are serious.”

Much as it would be easy to heap more ridicule on these students, I’m inspired by Conor’s open-minded benevolence to seek a more benign understanding of this absurdity.  It’s not clear to me that pulled pork and coleslaw on ciabatta bread is a bad thing, though it was wrong to call it bành mí when it wasn’t.  Then again, I had no clue what bành mí was when I was in school. Rather than concern ourselves with Vietnamese cuisine back then, we were more focused on which of our chums would come home in a body bag riddled with Cong bullets. Times change.

Should these students be understood as having an understandable desire for higher-quality food—who can blame them for urging the powers that be to feed them better?—and opportunistically co-opting the language of social justice to get their way? Or are they framing their complaints in terms of cultural appropriation and “problematic” affronts to enlightened behavior because they really believe that’s what is going on?

There may be a different, perhaps more nuanced, explanation, that doesn’t impugn the whiners for using the language of social justice as a tool of manipulation of college administrators whose greatest fear is being called bad names by overly sensitive students, or even fragile teacups seeking new opportunities to find outrages under the hot cafeteria lights.

The language of disappointment has changed, such that the characterization of every gripe by students indoctrinated into the sphere of social justice is the only way they know to express the gravity of their complaints. As Sonny Brunch explains, everything is problematic. It’s just the lens of college students, the words that come readily to explain why they suffer such pain.

“When you’re defending the cultural authenticity of GENERAL TSO’S CHICKEN, you’re a living Portlandia sketch,” Fredrik deBoer, an academic, wrote on Twitter, in a reference to the IFC show that satirizes Oregon hipsters.

So the food sucks.  Got it. No doubt they could do better, though it would cost your parents a lot more if the cafeteria is compelled to bring in an Iron Chef to meet your first world palate.  Frankly, college costs enough already, and you’ll survive.  Study hard, get a good job, and go to fine restaurants where they serve food that meets your standards.  No doubt the income you earn off your gender studies degree will be suitable to that end.

The resolution to the disrespect toward the cuisine of other cultures that brings so much pain to students can be easily fixed.  Cafeterias should leave off the enticing names given their meals, return to the days of mystery meat, and let the students decide whether they’re hungry enough to eat the slop. They can then focus their outrage on something that truly matters: Halloween costumes.

12 comments on “Oberlin: The Food Sucks (and there’s not enough of it)

  1. CJD

    In response, I think they should have an “authentic” black American night in the cafeteria, and serve fried chicken, watermelon, grits, collard greens, hot wings, and 40’s of Olde E to wash it all down. When the cries about racism start, just tell them their concerns were taken to heart, and that they will only be serving accurate representations of cultural dishes from now on. To make sure only one culture isn’t singled out alone, I would make sure an serve kung pao “beef”, and by beef, I mean poodle.

  2. Corporate Tool

    Gee, I wonder if they’d have objected to the buckshot we sometimes found in beef during hunting season? Probably not – it proved that the college embraced local food sourcing.

  3. mb

    You’re too charitable. The more outlandish the complaint, the greater the victory will be when the other side caves. Probably not all of these kids know this, but enough of them do for every conversation to immediately turn to the alleged evils of Western civilization. Oberlin isn’t an outlier. It’s a sign of things to come unless the adults reassert themselves.

  4. JAV

    So that two day long case of food poisoning I had Sophomore year had nothing to do with taking the day-old fried shrimp at the dining hall, but with some form of oppression due to my Caribbean roots? I feel that reparations are due.

  5. LTMG

    I’ve eaten cafeteria food at universities and in factories in China in the seven years I lived there. That level of authentic Chinese cuisine would appall Asian diners at Oberlin. Well, maybe the Oberlin cafeterias should serve that kind of cuisine. There’s a chance the snowflakes would stop bitching about what’s available at the steam tables, but I’m not hopeful.

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