This is a much expanded version of a piece I wrote for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on college dining. …
Student life at the University of Georgia has changed quite a bit since I started my freshman year in Athens 50 years ago this month, but one thing hasn’t changed: College students always are hungry.
And, for most college students, who start out living on campus in dormitories, meal plans for the dining halls are how they satisfy that hunger.
By the time my kids attended UGA, students had a lot more (and better) dining options than in my day, when there were just two dining halls and a student center hangout.
Nowadays, UGA students can visit five different dining halls (featuring multiple stations offering varied cuisines), plus more than two dozen retail dining locations, ranging from the fast-food outlets at the Tate Student Center to grab-and-go markets and snack bars located throughout campus. The award-winning UGA Food Services even has its own taqueria truck!
Of course, thanks to the pandemic, the rules have changed a bit this fall, with takeout or Grubhub pickup replacing the usual walk-in-and-eat routine. Limited dine-in is available at some halls, but requires a reservation.
Both my son, Bill, and my daughter, Olivia, used meal plans during their first two years at UGA, when they lived in dorms, and Olivia even had a commuter meal plan the second half of her senior year, when she lived off campus.
She always talked glowingly of Snelling Dining Commons, so, shortly before she graduated four years ago, I joined her there one day for lunch. Even though Snelling was around in my day, I’d never eaten there, in part because I never had a class near its South Campus location, but mainly because, as an Athens native, I was allowed to live at home, so I didn’t experience dorm life.
My meal plan was whatever my mother served at home, or what I picked up in downtown Athens, or hanging out between classes at the Bulldog Room in Memorial Hall (then the student center).
My only dining hall experience was during orientation the summer before freshman year, when we were fed at the old Bolton Hall. To me, the food resembled unappealing school lunchroom fare.
I could understand why students’ nickname for it was Revoltin’ Bolton. It was infamous for an unidentifiable “mystery meat” that was supposed to be Salisbury steak with gravy. Randi Kaye Rehm also remembers one of the servers there referring to another dish as “roast beast.” And, Lynda Harden Powell remembers her first summer at UGA in 1971: “I ate at Bolton Hall, my one and only time. It was my first morning at UGA and they literally poured my eggs onto my plate. That definitely was my worst eating experience.”
Students of my day gave a higher rating to Snelling. The fried chicken was a favorite, and Greer Madden, who was a student worker at the dining hall in 1972-73, recalls “really liking their barbecue chicken!”
Rick Franzman spent most of his time on North Campus, and so wasn’t aware of Snelling until a friend dragged him there one day. “The first visit was truly Christmas morning,” he said. “Like the old Morrison’s and Piccadilly cafeterias, the three-rung rail to slide your tray along passed by dozens of selections of meats, sweets, veggies, manna and more, with each step along the way providing more temptation. I was soon making the trek from the north multiple times a week, making sure to be in a state of full belly growl upon arrival.”
Marcia Killingsworth, who attended UGA in the mid-1970s, liked the variety of dishes at Snelling, “and the quality was always first-rate. I remember one girl on my hall ate there several times a week for the mac and cheese alone.”
Steve Oney also preferred Snelling, but said he had his “best times” at Bolton when he started in the fall of 1972. His girlfriend lived in the nearby Brumby dorm and he’d meet her for breakfast there every morning. “Not only did we get to flirt over scrambled eggs, but after she left for class, I’d spend the next two hours drinking coffee and studying. I aced every course that quarter, and I owe it to Bolton, and to her.”
A couple of decades later, in the late 1990s, Daniel Vasquez lived in Creswell Hall and ate mostly at the adjoining Bolton. As a freshman, he recalled, “I saw a beautiful guy working at the burrito stand and told my buddies ,”Wow. … that’s going to be my husband.” A week later, I unashamedly hit on him by giving him a flower I made out of electrical tape. We’ve been together ever since and officially got married in 2014.”
Joel Provano has a fond memory of Bolton that doesn’t have to do with the food or romance. When a big winter snow came, Provano recalled, “nobody had a sled, so we went over to Bolton and ‘borrowed’ some food trays, which were just big enough to sit on, and went sledding on the grass hill at Sanford Stadium. Great fun. I hope we returned the ‘sleds,’ but I wouldn’t swear to it.”
Jimmy Johnson, meanwhile, remembers Bolton staffers handing out trays for sledding — in exchange for meal tickets. By my daughter’s time, Dining Services had wised up and “whenever winter weather threatened, they’d take away the trays.”
In 1980, Joe Morgan lived in Russell Hall and generally ate at nearby Bolton. One night, he recalled, “they had a special ‘build your own sundae’ night. It was crowded, and all of the sudden the power went out! Somebody yelled ‘food fight!!’ and ice cream flew everywhere.”
You also could get in mild trouble at the dining halls. Mike Webb tried “foodlifting,” when a friend from another university visited. “We went through the line together, and I just put whatever dishes Ron, my friend, wanted on my tray, in addition to mine.” But, he said, “the food police were watching and collared us.” His punishment? He had to pay for his friend’s meal.
And Nick Montalvo remembers riding the conveyor belt for dirty dishes “on my belly” back to Bolton’s kitchen. “They told me not to do it again.”
Of course, students also ate other places, with meat-and-three restaurants downtown always a lure, while those students who joined fraternities and sororities usually had breakfast and dinner at the house.
Minla Shields also remembers “going to Hare Krishna meetings for the free food. I did that a lot.”
And, some dorm residents just cooked in their rooms. My future wife Leslie, who was a year behind me at UGA, remembers groups of students getting together to cook in their dorm. “All you needed was a hot plate, a pot and a can opener.” A favorite was dubbed “dorm paella,” which, she said, was “a mix of whatever people had.”
Then, there were the athletes, who had their own dining hall in the athletic dorm, McWhorter Hall, which wasn’t open to the general student population. “We ate like kings!” said Ed Allen, who played football for the Bulldogs in the late ’60s. “Steak on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Pork chops, baked and fried chicken, lots of good veggies and salad. … It was seven days a week, first-class.”
My brother Jonathan wasn’t a jock, but he got invited to dine at McWhorter once as the guest of someone who worked at the athletic association. “I felt like a midget in there, because everyone was so much bigger than me,” he recalled.
My main dining experience at UGA was the Bulldog Room, where I’d hang out when I had an hour or two to kill between classes. In addition to grabbing a bite, you’d see students studying, playing endless games of spades and bridge, and listening to the jukebox, which, during my freshman year, always seemed to be playing John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” or Ike and Tina Turner doing “Proud Mary.” (To this day, whenever I hear those songs, I think of the Bulldog Room. For my wife, it’s Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” and Rod Stewart’s “Maggie Mae.”)
The Bulldog Room had fairly limited American grill-type fare, but Leslie has fond memories of the sauce on the burgers, which was “like a less sophisticated version of the sauce on a Big Mac.” And, our friend Susan Wells, with whom we worked on the student paper, recalls having an “almost lethal fondness for those greasy grilled cheeses and fries. … I gained my freshman 15 during senior year eating those.”
Today’s Bulldog Cafe at the Tate Center (featuring Chick-fil-A and Panda Express) has more options, and lots more room, but lacks the ambience of the old Bulldog Room, which, in my day, saw probably the most diverse gathering of students on campus. It was where you were more likely to see the university’s Black students, and Michael Simpson was attracted to it when he started in 1969, because it was “where the ‘long hairs’ hung out. International students, gays, minorities would hang there, also.”
Also, Jimmy Johnson remembers the Bulldog Room as “a center of the campus political and social scene. … This is where folks explained politics, feminism, and religion.”
Margie Roe remembers that, as wide-eyed freshmen, she and a friend named Susan vowed “we were going to make a friend a day. So, Susan and I were having lunch at the Bulldog Room … and, over by condiments, she said hi to a nice looking fella. One thing led to another; they have now been married 52 years, two kids, three grandchildren.”
Particularly for students from rural or small-town Georgia, the campus dining facilities also provided something of a culinary education. Jonathan Harris recalls a picnic event the food services division staged at UGA’s Legion Field. “It was the first time I ever had swordfish.”
And, Cathy Bowen remembers thinking, “what was this strange concoction of noodles and tomato sauce and cheese they were offering? I’d heard of lasagna, but this was before it became a staple of elementary school lunches, so I had never eaten any. Of course, I learned later that there are actually better lasagnas than the amorphous blob dolloped out at Snelling Hall, but none that have ever given me more pleasure.”
Still, back in the ’70s, UGA’s dining hall fare generally was not all that healthy. “I remember it being a lot of comfort foods and high carbs,” Malinda Teasley Erwin said. And, Gayle Peeples recalls they served “mostly starch. None of this artisanal/organic/grown-on-campus fare they have now!”
Indeed, the dining hall food my kids encountered between 2003 and 2016 was much more varied. You you could eat healthy foods, indulge in the likes of a Philly cheesesteak (one of the most popular items at Snelling), or split the difference, as when my daughter would be at the East Campus Village dining hall and a typical meal might be a grilled cheese and curly fries (“they were the best!”) with a fruit smoothie and steamed broccoli.
My kids agree that the food generally was delicious, and a good value. You paid a flat fee for the semester, my son recalled, and got all you could eat, which led some students to hang out there from, say, breakfast through lunch.
Darren William, who was at UGA in the mid-’90s, took advantage of the all-you-can-eat aspect. “Unlimited dining was great deal for my then on-fire metabolism. … Back in the days when you could eat an entire pizza, drink three sodas, finish up with a few scoops of ice cream, still be hungry two hours later, and be skinny as a rail.”
Still, while the meal plan was unlimited, “the only thing they didn’t allow was for you to take food out,” my son said. “You could walk out with a piece of fruit, but some folks would bring in the Tupperware and try to smuggle food out in their backpacks. They had people watching for that, and it made them very unhappy.”
Overall, my son said, “it was a pretty good meal plan. They put good effort into the food.”
Sravanthi Meka, who went to UGA in the late 1990s and liked the food a lot more than at Georgia Tech, where she later worked for five years, said the difference is that UGA’s dining service is self-operated, while Tech used a vendor. That meant “a lot of temp staff that are employees of the vendor, whereas self-op are university employees, so you tend to have … more connection to the students and campus itself.”
Generally, the dining hall staff at UGA is a mix of full-timers and student workers. Steve Houston worked at Oglethorpe House (“O-House”), one of the UGA dining halls, in the mid-’90s and was in awe of the breakfast cook, “who could have 20 eggs, 20 strips of bacon, and 20 sausage links on the grill at one time, cook them perfectly, and never bat an eyelash. She kicked butt, and she was fast!”
The dining halls also were one of the few places where regular students got to interact with the campus celebrities, aka football players, my son said, since that was before the NCAA decided to allow athletic programs to offer “training tables” again.
You saw a lot of football players in Snelling, my daughter said. “You always could tell an athlete because they were bigger, and dressed head-to-toe in Nike gear.”
During the summer of 2013, she dined at Snelling every day and frequently saw the athletes, plus trainers keeping track of what they ate. One day, she was sitting at a table by herself eating fried chicken (“I really couldn’t say no to Snelling’s fried chicken”) when future NFL star Todd Gurley walked up with a couple of teammates and asked if they could join her. “They all had fried chicken on their plates, too,” and that’s mostly what they chatted about. My daughter was amused that a trainer came over, bringing them some veggies to improve the nutritional value of their meal.
The football players, she said, were all nice. “I tried to get behind them during busy periods, because they just plowed through.”
During Olivia’s time at UGA, she ate at all the dining halls, including the Niche, out at the health sciences campus (formerly the U.S. Navy Supply Corps School), which offered personal pan pizzas, gelato and fresh, farm-to-table food. “The burgers were a little more gourmet, with grass-fed beef,” my daughter said.
She also ate at both the old and new Boltons. The old Bolton, now torn down, was “the freshman experience,” she said, since it was attached to one of the dorms where many first-year students lived, and “you could go there with people from your dorm.”
The new Bolton, which opened in 2014, has multiple floors, one of which serves breakfast all day. “It takes a while to explore, because there are so many options,” Olivia said, including a milkshake station that looks like an old soda fountain. (All the halls have ice cream whenever you want it.)
O-House had a wok station, but Olivia was partial to the Southern station, which offered fried chicken tenders, mashed potatoes, green beans, biscuits and mac and cheese. “It was one of my favorite meals.”
Still, her overall favorite dining spot was Snelling, where a worker named Frank recognized regulars and called out to them in a booming voice, and the cashier up front, Miss Sandra, doled out hugs.
In addition to multiple stations offering different dining options, the main line had hot entrees that rotated. “They did a really good pork shoulder,” Olivia said.
Snelling also made sandwiches to order, she said, but the grill line for hot sandwiches tended to be slow, because of all the students who wanted the Philly cheesesteak. So, she found a hack: “I’d go to the vegetarian station and get a grilled cheese there.”
Olivia also loved the theme dinners, like a Hawaiian luau, a carnival (where you could get caricatures done and they had a balloon artist) or Taste of Home night, when recipes entered by students’ parents were in competition, with the favorites added to the regular rotation. For Valentine’s, “a couple could reserve a table that was nicely decorated.”
And then there was “Snellebrating,” the term of endearment for the early hours after midnight when Snelling, the only 24-hour dining hall, put out breakfast foods and, during exams, even beignets. “The late-night crowd was always interesting,” Olivia said. “You’d get spontaneous karaoke, and the workers would dance to the music, like at Johnny Rockets.”
While all the halls had a rotating menu of fresh-baked cookies, Olivia said, “chocolate chip cookie day at Snelling was the best day. The chocolate chip cookies at Snelling were so good! They weren’t as good at the other halls. For some reason, Snelling chocolate chip cookies hit differently.”
Which brings me to my Snelling visit with my daughter in the spring of 2016.
It was a special day. I wound up also getting a hug from Miss Sandra, who took the time to tell me what a sweetheart my daughter is, and, after lunch, we strolled to the nearby UGA Creamery for an ice cream treat.
I had regaled my daughter with fond memories of how, when I was a youngster, Athens moms throwing birthday parties for their kids usually went to the UGA Dairy for ice cream made from milk that came from the university’s own herd. I also recall going on school field trips to the UGA Dairy. So, I was surprised to find that we were served Mayfield at the Creamery, not the treat of my childhood!
(It turns out, the dairy that used to be on the UGA campus was closed years ago due to budget cuts. The animal and dairy science program still has a farm in Athens that is used for teaching, but UGA no longer has dairy processing facilities; all the milk from the farm is sold to a dairy processing co-op.)
No matter, even if it wasn’t ice cream made on campus, it still was a fine way to spend an afternoon with my daughter.
Sitting there, at a picnic table under the trees in front of the Creamery, watching students walk by on a glorious spring day, I think I fell in love with the Athens campus just a little bit more … as if that were even possible!
— Bill King