Oh, to be young, hungry and broke. • And in college. • Seems the former pushes the latter into the kitchen for ingenious culinary experiments. Today's college students can bring more cooking implements with them than their parents or grandparents could, yet they are still limited. Don't want the dorms going up in flames, you know. • Some schools require undergraduates to buy a meal plan, but many students opt for the lowest number of meals possible so they can have more choice about what to eat. • Books like Cooking Outside the Pizza Box and 101 Things to Do with Ramen Noodles aim to make life easier. The University of Tampa's Minaret newspaper even has a Cooking in the Dorm column. But many students prefer to go work without recipes, combining the basic skills they learned at home with their own resourcefulness. • We checked in at three colleges to find out what students are cooking and why. In this economy, their ingenuity offers lessons for us all.
Guys' night in
The occupants of University of Tampa ResCom apartment 317 call themselves the Bromance. Roommates Shaun Huffman, Chris Baietto, Josh Kopp and Ryan Boyce consider themselves a family and, as such, they eat family-style on Thursday evenings.
The tradition started at the beginning of the school year when Huffman, 19, an advertising and public relations major, proposed a getting-to-know-you supper of boxed macaroni and cheese. The guys have since graduated to more sophisticated pasta dinners. Friends aware of the ritual conveniently drop by on Thursdays.
They all have their reasons for cooking in the kitchen of their campus apartment — meal plan too small, cafeteria food too greasy — so they shop at Publix and Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market on a budget of "whatever the bill comes out to be," says Baietto, 19, a physical therapy major. As he talks, he sautes chicken that's been marinating in packets of Italian dressing Huffman swiped from the cafeteria.
Against a backdrop of posters advertising Guinness and HBO's Entourage, everyone pitches in to make chicken Alfredo (a.k.a. Pasta de Cheapo), minus economics major Boyce, who's cramming for a test in his room. The aroma wafts next door to Scott Silvestro's apartment.
"I came by every now and then," says Silvestro, 20, who enters through the shared balcony in time to fix himself a plate. "I'm like Kramer (from Seinfeld). I just pop in."
The guys usually eat on the couch, but since reporter and photographer are visiting, they've set the table with dollar store china. Dinner is served.
"It came out better than I thought. It looks good," says Baietto, surveying the spread. "Even the bread looks good, 'cause it's on that plate."
Nikkia Parchment, the only female in the group, watches the scene with amusement.
"They try," says Parchment, 20. "For boys, they're really good."
After dinner, the men usually watch TV or play video games. They don't have a schedule for who washes the dishes, but eventually someone always caves.
As for dessert, they don't make it because "we're more healthy," Baietto says.
"We can't afford dessert," he says. "That's the real reason."
Marilyn Payne has two criteria for what she eats: It must be meatless and cheap.
Payne is a vegetarian and an environmental studies major at Sarasota's New College of Florida. She whips up meat-free, eco-friendly meals in a kitchen she shares with three suitemates.
"Salad gets old after awhile," says Payne, 20.
The Atlanta native grew up eating healthfully. The summer before starting college, she consulted a food coach to fine-tune her meal planning.
Payne balances her ideal — to eat mostly organic, local ingredients from Whole Foods — with her reality — a $50-a-week grocery budget, courtesy of her parents — by wasting almost nothing. She makes juice by pureeing fruits and vegetables, straining the liquid through a nylon stocking and using the leftover pulp as a base for veggie burgers. Brown bananas make fine smoothies, and leftover pasta gets added to soup.
The key to cooking in college, and, incidentally, for the rest of your life, Payne says, is planning.
"You don't always know when things are going to come up. Sometimes I come home and I'm starving," says Payne, who stashes prepared meals in her freezer.
Even at eco-friendly New College, eating smart is a challenge. Payne's roommates aren't particularly healthy eaters, and her boyfriend calls himself a "meatatarian." To resist temptation, Payne snacks on cacoa bars or homemade frozen yogurt. Occasionally she'll give in to a slice of pizza. She is a college student, after all.
Service of sustenance
For University of South Florida sophomore Elizabeth Rampersad, food is more than nourishment. Sure, the 19-year-old cooks for herself in a fully equipped dorm kitchen on USF's Tampa campus. She makes chicken pelau, a dish from her parents' native Trinidad, where Rampersad spent her adolescence. She jazzes up Ramen noodles with chili paste, soy sauce, sesame oil and sesame seeds. She makes one-pot meals combining veggies from the cafeteria salad bar with meat from Sweetbay and herbs she grows in her room.
But even more than cooking for herself, the biology major sees food as her ministry.
"The Lord gave me a love of this, so I do it because I love it. I love to cook for people. I love to serve people," said Rampersad, who leads a campus Bible study.
For instance, one night Rampersad doctored a box of yellow cake mix with apple pie filling, spices and raisins. Friends gathered on her bedroom floor to share the treat, which Rampersad served with tea she had received as a Christmas gift.
But no good deed goes unpunished. Rampersad has had pans stolen from the communal kitchen and now keeps all her cookware in her room.
A resident adviser in charge of 44 women, Rampersad also sees food as pragmatic.
"Whenever I have floor meetings, those girls don't come out unless there's an incentive," said Rampersad, who recently baked chocolate chip cookies for her residents to decorate during a meeting. "My incentive is free food."
Dalia Colón can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 225-3112.