Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Friday, October 1, 2004
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 2
Fall 2004

What's Cookin’?
Dickinson’s dining services serves it up, soup to nuts
By Barbara Snyder Stambaugh
It’s high noon and the dining hall is chock-full of students. Silverware clatters across stacked trays. Dishes and glasses clink and ring. There’s the hum of discussion, debate, dialogue and discourse, whispered at this table or proclaimed at that one. It’s mostly in English, but it’s easy to hear five or six or 10 languages all at once. And rising above the murmuring buzz, there’s laughter, exclamations and occasional shouts.

This might be a dining hall at any American college or university, except that in this dining hall, something smells really good.

Is that shrimp and cilantro soup?

One Whole Lotta Lunch

The tasty fact is that the food served at Dickinson is consistently ranked among the top 10 in the nation by The Princeton Review.

“It’s a nice honor,” says Keith Martin, Dickinson’s director of dining services, but he graciously shrugs it off. “Rankings are subjective. We don’t go by that.”

Instead, Martin hits the floor. When the dining hall is full—he’s right there, too. That’s how he knows the food is good.

“The students will tell you what they think,” he says. “It’s usually not complaints. We get requests. Or new ideas.”

Take the Napkin Board, for example. It’s a place where students can write their comments, often on napkins, and pin them to a message board in the dining room. All sorts of culinary intelligence can be gathered from the board, with suggestions ranging from soup to nuts.

One time, the Napkin Board yielded a tip about napkins.

“A student suggested that we put them in baskets right on the tables. We did, and it ended up saving a case of napkins a day,” Martin says.

Another time, the Napkin Board yielded a piece of chicken.

“It wasn’t cooked quite right,” Martin says.

“They stuck that baby right on the board,” says Dickinson’s executive chef, Jack O’Donnell.

They both grin. After all, Dickinson encourages the open and creative exchange of ideas and observations. That includes chicken.

Eat at Jack’s

Good food doesn’t come easily, especially for such large numbers of people. O’Donnell prepared for the job at the famed Culinary Institute of America, and he’s been sating the appetites of Dickinsonians for 18 years.

If he has a specialty, it’s making the experience of eating at college feel special—while feeding a throng. He even takes requests.

“We take good care of people with special diets,” O’Donnell says. “If a parent comes to me, worried about their child’s needs, I say, ‘Give me your recipes.’ I make a lot of dishes that parents and students have asked for. It’s fun to cook and fun to experiment with new things.”

Choices are key. The days of linear cafeteria service and mystery meat loaf are long gone on the higher-education landscape. Martin remembers that when he first came to Dickinson in the mid-1980s, there was a rotating menu that included a dinner of top round and blueberry pancakes.

Today, Dickinson’s dining hall, Union Station, Underground and Quarry combine to offer a dizzying variety. Students might choose eggs made to order, stir fry from a wok station, homemade soups, vegan lasagna or a wrap. There are Atkins-friendly, low-fat and low-sugar items, salad bars, exotic fruits, Grab ’n’ Go bag lunches and a plethora of coffees and teas. This fall the Underground Café has gone organic with a new line of muffins, juices, sodas, microwavable dinners and Thai noodles.

“Our customers grew up with food courts,” Martin says. “We have to stay ahead of the curve. This is a competitive environment.”

But the favorite meal of the year for a very proud and hardworking staff and for 1,600 hungry, diverse and discerning students might be the annual holiday dinner, when the regular menu is augmented with steamed shrimp, sliced filet, caviar, lox, bagels, latkes, African togetherness salad, razor-thin sand tarts and much more.

A persistent and pesky rumor flying around campus for years has been that the holiday dinner is paid for by the Washington Redskins.

“Nope,” Martin says. “Not true. Never has been true.”

Turns out, a little less glamorously, the meal plan pays for it.

An Epicurean Epilogue

Some famous folk have partaken of Dickinson’s delectable eats—people like Desmond Tutu, Antonio Banderas and Walter Scheibe.

Who? Scheibe is the chef at the White House—and a dedicated Redskins fan. He called Dickinson a few years back, when the football team was in summer training camp at the college, and requested a tour of campus facilities.

“He watched the ’Skins practice and had dinner with the team. His kids were beside themselves,” Martin says.

In return Scheibe gave Martin, O’Donnell and Vice President of Operations Nick Stamos a very special tour of the White House, including the kitchen areas of the East Wing.

“The security was amazing. It was pretty heady stuff,” Martin says.

But it’s the day-in, day-out responsibilities that keep Martin, O’Donnell and a very busy staff on their toes. Students, like everyone else, associate food with the comforts of home. Their experiences in the dining hall and the other eating venues on campus help to shape the complete experience of every Dickinsonian on campus.

“This isn’t just food,” Martin says.

It’s life. •

 


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