In Madison, WI, where I went to college, there were a lot of food choices but not very many interesting ones. Actually, that’s not really fair at all. Some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had came from a dumpy spot in an old diner on the corner of W Gorham and N Henry streets, near campus. They had this red duck curry, the likes of which I have never had again, the skin crispy and fatty, the duck meat rich and tender, the curry fiery with peppers and silky with coconut milk and filled with exotic vegetables like bamboo shoots and sprouts. I only just realized how much I miss that dish. My best friend, Katie, took me there the first time, and we went frequently together. And I think there was an Afghanistani spot on State Street that I went to exactly once. I have no baseline for the food of Afghanistan, but I think it was ok.
In the fall and the spring, Library Mall, at the foot of Bascom Hill, was lined with food trucks. There was great falafel from one, an un-replicable, tender Portobello-and-cheese burger from another, and best of all, African food from another. I have no idea where in Africa this wonderful cuisine hailed from, because we all simply called it “Africa Truck” and one Styrofoam box lunch from there, filled with rice and spicy potatoes and beans and sour cream meant I didn’t have to eat for at least another twenty four hours. It was always nice to eat from the trucks, because it meant the weather was good, and we would sit in large flocks on the grass, warm sun on our backs, ebbing and flowing as some of us reluctantly took off to go to class and others shrugged and stayed. That’s how it went in college.
But mostly, in Madison, there were things like burritos as big as your head, literally. And which tasted about as good. There were lots of decent places to get creative sandwiches, which definitely got old fast, and even more options to get bad ones, gloppy with mayo and too much cheese- always cheese in Madison!- though lord knows I was always ready to try a turkey wedge from somewhere. There was some mediocre pizza, which was always fine with me, as I do subscribe to the idea that even bad pizza is usually pretty good. There was even a not bad sushi place, on the second floor of a shopping center where all of us coastal kids flocked.
But most of all there was the Memorial Union. And the Union had pretty good food. Like Madison itself, it was nothing fancy, but it was better than it had to be.
The Union was at the center of our daytime social life. Especially after our Freshman year, when we moved out of the dorms and lived on our own, we all had meal plans at the Union, which were kept track of on our Student ID’s. In the summer you could sit outside, on the Terrace, which was directly on Lake Mendota. There was a grill that ran all day (well, all day that I was awake) that had amazing burgers and of course brats, amazing because they cooked in the sizzle and spit of a thousand burgers and brats before them. They tasted of all the brats and burgers ever, a caramel of history coating their surfaces and giving them crunch and character. There was beer brewed nearby, of a very satisfying and high caliber, because this was Wisconsin, and also because this was Wisconsin, there was Miller. I spent the entire summer of 1997 sitting out on the Terrace in a red white and blue bikini and jean shorts eating those brats and burgers, occasionally swigging from the Vodka laced lemonade my friend Johan would invariably show up with, and smoking cigarette after cigarette. At night there were bands, real bands, like Wilco and Guided by Voices. Once in a while, we’d have to run for cover from the intense thunderstorms that chugged across the lake. The metal chairs left red welts across our legs. We’d shiver damply and then dry back off when the sun reappeared, the starburst colored tables glistening after their cleaning. Does life get any better than that? Possibly not.
During the part of the school year when it was impossible to eat outside, which were the nine months it wasn’t summer, we ate inside in the dark precincts of the Rathskellar, at heavy chairs at large tables aptly surrounded by paintings of young Germanic men getting wasted and trying to kill each other with wine bottle cannons on the walls. The girls in my crowd were mostly from the West and East Coasts, and the boys were a mix, some from New York, but mostly from Wisconsin and other points Middle West. We were as exotic to each other as penguins must be to parrots. And that was appealing. I guess slight, dark featured girls with interesting noses who talked a mile a minute were a new sort of challenge, just as sweet but distant boys with slow smiles and good taste in music were new to us. Those boys weren’t neurotic or worried, or rather, they were, but they hid it, and behaved strangely and unpredictably as a result. You could talk to them, but you couldn’t just talk to them the way I could with my NY guy friends. They were always so aware that you were not a guy. We were fascinated and fascinating with ourselves and with each other, which is delicious sort of feedback loop.
Anyway, one of the habits I picked up from eating with those boys was ranch dressing as a multipurpose condiment to be used where ever and whenever you wanted. I believe I only ever had ranch dressing once before I got to Madison. It was certainly not a regular part of our diet. At home, we ate loads of salads, but the dressing was always tangy and clear and Seven Seas Viva Italian. If it was creamy, it was Seven Seas Creamy Italian.
The boys ate Ranch dressing on everything. I’m not sure they ever even ate salads, actually, but who cared, when you could put Ranch on burgers, or Turkey sandwiches, or even and best, on French Fries. And the dressing at the Union was particularly delicious. I think it was made there, because it wasn’t slimy, like dressing from a vat or a bottle. There may also have been fresh herbs in it, I think there were… but the boys were on to something, and it was worthy
It’s hard and also not hard to say why Ranch is the thing that stuck. It’s bland and creamy, but not purely so like mayonnaise, nor funky like mayo can be either. It has a pleasing, umami tanginess. It was, in its gentle way, addictive. Katie liked to tease me about liking creamy things- and it’s true! In college I got to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and since I didn’t grow up eating stuff based on buttermilk or mayo or cheese sauce or sour cream, those flavors were new to me and delicious!
And let me say a word about Katie here. She was a hugely formative person in my life. She managed to give off an air of not giving a fuck, while also giving off the opposite air of totally giving a fuck. This created a wonderful amount of drama! Nothing was every boring or run of the mill. Every walk down the street was an opportunity for meeting someone new, trying something different, and basically leaping before we looked. We may have viewed ourselves tragically but we were pure comedy all the time. Sometimes we fell on our faces (there was that one time with the cute guy and the cigarette lighter on Bascom Hill, and the other time with the bartender that I liked… the mind reels…) but I think if you are not mortified occasionally, you probably aren’t doing it right. Katie was flirtatious to the nth degree, she had no “off” button and nearly every thought was spoken. She was fun! And we had so much fun together. She was the one who introduced me to Thai food. She was dating the TA of her Thai History class (one I had signed up for and dropped in favor of something possibly even more esoteric…It might have been Ancient Indian History. God, Madison was the best!)
We didn’t cook often, or even, hardly ever. Ambition for us was chicken cutlets in pan, with a shake of balsamic vinegar. Senior year, we made good sandwiches with fresh bread and local cheese from the epic Saturday farmer’s market the surrounded, and still does, the Capital.
As a fairly accomplished home cook now, I grin to remember that the dish I was probably best known for throughout my college career was “French Onion Dip.” This was simply a packet of Lipton’s Onion Soup dumped into a container of sour cream. Goes great with Potato chips! Especially Baked Lays, which were new then, and healthy, so we thought. The dip was almost as good as Ranch dressing. Later I modified this basic recipe to something a tad more sophisticated. I present it below to you with no commentary:
1 packet of Knorr French Onion Soup
1 Container Sour Cream
1 tablespoon Worcester Sauce.
Mix together in a large bowl and chill for about 30 minutes or longer. Serve with potato chips (baked Lays!) or cut up veggies.
Between that, and the copious cigarettes, I’m sure my breath was delightful. Especially since the non-alcoholic beverage of choice was Diet Coke. This was a habit picked up by spending two and a half years (with a break to go abroad) of living with Katie, who was surgically attached to a can of the stuff from basically the moment she woke up until she went to sleep at night. Since I thought that Katie was the coolest, I soon picked up this habit as well, although I never truly grew to like the fake flavor of the stuff. And sometimes we’d get confused and ash in the can that we were drinking from, or worse, sip from the can we’d just ashed in. We’d sit and watch Friends and figure out our plans for the night and the phone would ring endlessly and we could screen our calls for the first time ever because caller ID was new and we had it. We’d open another Diet Coke.
We were beautiful and young and disgusting. I still love Ranch dressing, and make it from scratch about once a year, when I have a craving, and there are fresh buttermilk and herbs at the farmer’s market. I have no regrets.
Michelle’s Grown-Up Ranch Dressing
¼ Cup Buttermilk
1-2 tablespoons Hellman’s Mayonnaise
1-2 tablespoons full fat plain yogurt (not Greek)
Two large handfuls mixed fresh green herbs (Parsley, Cilantro, Basil, Dill,whatever is handy!)
Throw into a mini-chopper (the best appliance) and whir until blended. Use with French Fries or on Salad. Add salt and pepper to taste.