When I lived in Snyder Hall (it was in a collection of dorms known, quite fittingly, as the Six Pack) during my freshman year at University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, checking mail was the highlight of my day. Getting a slip that said you had a package, well, that made my week. When the box held a couple servings of Mom's special turkey tetrazzini, well that just about made my year.
I didn't think the dorm food was half bad (as my waistline could attest), but that was a few decades ago -- before I developed my food critic's palate. Still, I was surprised that my alma mater didn't land on The Daily Meal's list of the 75 Best Colleges for Food in America for 2014.
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Only two Big 10 schools made the list -- Northwestern in Evanston at No. 5; and Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., at No. 32. Not far behind at No. 37 is University of Chicago; Wheaton College in Wheaton made the cut at No. 62 -- the only other Illinois institutions on the list.
So what did it take to make the list? The folks at The Daily Meal started with a list of about 2,000 colleges. After three months of research, they narrowed that list down to about 320. Then they more closely examined those on the basis of nutrition and sustainability; accessibility and service (open late); a range of dietary preferences; nutrition education and food-centric events; food options on and near campus and the "X" Factor, as Daily Meal writer Sidney Harrison put it, "the little extras that made our jaws drop and set colleges ahead of the pack."
"It seems that students across the country are becoming more mature in their tastes and demanding in what they expect of their college dining experience. Students want their food to taste great, to be fun, and to be sustainable, and colleges are responding," Harrison said.
Dining hall DIY: For those students who aren't at one of those 75 schools, they can still eat well thanks to Priya Krishna's new book "Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks" (Storey, $10.95).
In the book, the Dartmouth College graduate shows students how to create recipes with common dining hall ingredients. Because college students are not likely to be toting measuring spoons in their book bags, there are no amounts listed and the recipes aren't so rigid that amounts are needed.
Take, for example, her breakfast Eggs Carbonara: Crumble a few strips of bacon into pieces over a plate of over-easy eggs. Drizzle olive oil on top. Finish with a sprinkling of parmesan and a healthy dusting of pepper, freshly ground if possible. Easy, peasy.
Scalloped Tomatoes are a vegetarian stuffing-esque meal that combines a slice of crusty bread torn into pieces and drizzled with olive oil with tomatoes (sliced or cherry), a bit of tomato sauce, parmesan, oregano and red pepper flakes. It hits the microwave for 2 minutes and voila!
Krishna also includes inventive salads and sandwiches plus desserts and drinks. The book contains colorful, flow chart-like graphics that any kitchen novice could understand. Pack this book in your son's or daughter's duffel, or include it in a care package. And hope it's not the only book your college student reads this semester.
Meaty mail: I remember some dorm mates looking at me oddly as I heated up a plate of my mom's tetrazzini in the communal microwave.
How strange, they thought, food like that arriving in the mail.
Of course these days you can get just about any food you want -- bacon burgers, Italian beef, deep-dish pizza -- delivered to whomever you want, wherever you want.
Chicago's acclaimed Meatloaf Bakery recently jumped into the fray and will ship packages of eight, 6-ounce meatloaf cupcakes (some varieties topped with mashers, other with stuffing) to college students around the country. Pair a mini meatloaf with one of Krishna's salads (I'm thinking her Lemony Kale Salad) and you've got a grade A dinner.
• Contact Food Editor Deborah Pankey at email@example.com or (847) 427-4524. Be her friend at Facebook.com/DebPankey or follow her on Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram @PankeysPlate.