World’s best food is at UMass Amherst

Lunch at UMass dining hall

My lunch at UMass Amherst, with the Subbaswamy family squash curry at bottom

In his remarks at the 2015 Parents’ Weekend at UMass Amherst, Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy delivered some unsettling news: the school’s dining program had been ranked second by Princeton Review, behind Bowdoin College. But he tempered the blow by pointing out that Bowdoin serves 2,000 students per day compared to 20,000 at UMass. And he put his money where his mouth is by offering up his family recipe for chayote squash curry in coconut milk as part of the “Taste of Home” menu on offer at the dining halls.

This is the world’s best food not in the sense of “best meal I ever ate” but as as rated for consistency, and ticking off all the categories on an imaginary scorecard. Sustainable, check. Organic, check. Locally sourced, of course—look at the pictures of the farmers as you come into the dining hall. The recipes are in general not imaginative but are faithful renditions of a vast array of American and international dishes, designed for institutional preparation by a battery of cooks including many students, with the quality of the ingredients shining through. Well-known chefs are often in resident cooking special meals—a Mexican cookbook author is coming this week. The depth and breadth of the offerings is astonishing—if you’re ever in need of meal inspiration, check out the daily menus posted on the UMass Dining page.

In addition, the servers practice portion control. If you want a second slider, you’ll have to ask for it. As a result, there are very few food leftovers visible on the dishes headed down the conveyer belt into the wash up area. So students are getting a painless indoctrination in what good eating is like and hopefully this will follow them into life after college. (Though it should be noted that the busiest stations were stir fry and burgers.)

Parents Weekend menu

Parents’ Weekend menu entering dining hall at UMass Amherst

I tried a pro strategy of visiting multiple dining halls with my bemused student and asking for a small portion of the featured “Taste of Home” items which are from recipes developed by members of the university community and included in a book provided free to all incoming families. The Subbaswamy family curry was in fact the best dish of the day: aggressively spicy and giving away nothing in unctuousness to its vegan origins. Also liked a Taiwan style fried chicken (including 5 spice and lots of salt) and the savory red cabbage/apple combo accompanying a sauerbraten. But really, nothing I would not eat again or would not eat more of if I were able.

There’s one more reason this has to be rated as the world’s best food, which is that it’s free. Or I should say “free” in the sense of invisibly folded into the other expenses you are paying. If the student has a dining plan, the accompanying family members eat at no charge. This is a genius marketing strategy to make sure parents visit often. And if you are a local, like the hosts at our bed and breakfast, you can eat all you want by paying a more than reasonable $13.

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