Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

University Challenge

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

University Challenge

Article excerpt

Bee Wilson on the lows and highs of Oxbridge cuisine

Students arriving for their first days in an Oxbridge college this week may not feel particularly cheered by the prospect of the food. Your bags are unpacked, your A4 folders are purchased, your bank account is opened. Provisions in your room amount to a single jar of dishwater coffee, a free bar of chocolate you got at the Freshers' Fair and some Lemsip your mum gave you for emergencies. You are starving. You ask the way to the cafeteria, only to be shown into a dark, dank, woody room called "Hall".

There you are offered, depending on your luck: twice-fried potato waffles with minced-meat topping; moussaka-like creations swimming in layers of orange grease; vegetarian "cutlets" shaped like kidneys and smelling like goat; pasties of hard, knotted pastry; beef stew that tastes like it's been cooked in a mixture of vinegar and Dettox (and perhaps it has); Russian salad with more mayonnaise than vegetables; battered fish with more skin and batter than fish; mixed grill with more "mixed" than "grill"; a choice of waterlogged carrots, peas or cabbage, with sponge, sponge or sponge to follow. It hangs in your stomach like an albatross. You are tired and you want to go home.

Actually, I'm rather fond of this kind of food: I like the taste of gravy made with too much white pepper and sausages that have been cooked since yesterday morning, served with Smash from an ice-cream scoop. But this is a peculiarity of mine; I can't pretend it's any good. Really it's no different from the fodder served at red-brick campus refectories, though perhaps a little unhealthier. Yet Oxbridge colleges in the past were the sites of gastronomic innovation and excitement and, up to a point, they still are. The snag is that, for the most part, High Table is where it happens (except at those egalitarian institutions where dons and students eat together). …

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