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St Margaret's residents, complete with crowns, at a special patriotic dinner to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953. Photograph courtesy of Dorothy Page.

St Margaret’s residents, complete with crowns, at a special patriotic dinner to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. Photograph courtesy of Dorothy Page.

This week the University Link hosted a quintessentially 21st-century event: a cooking contest, complete with mystery box, compulsory ingredients, celebrity judges and audience. This was not just any old cooking contest, but Otago’s fourth annual Residential College Chef of the Year event. Wade Kennard and Owen Newbould of Abbey College took top honours with their two plates: scallops with fondant potato, pea mash and red pepper sauce, and scallop ceviche; and rabbit braised in cola (the compulsory ingredient), served with Peking duck pancakes, salad and chilli caramel sauce. The Studholme College team came second and Cumberland third. Bragging rights went to Cumberland in 2010 and 2012, and to Toroa in 2011. The contest, organised by Otago’s College Catering Manager Gary McNeill, is designed to demonstrate the skills of these “unsung heroes” of student life, responsible for producing 2.5 million meals a year.

Everyday fare in residential colleges is, of course, not usually quite this lavish, but it has progressed a long way from earlier years. Producing good food for three meals a day for a large group on a tight budget is never easy, and until recent decades it could be very difficult to find an experienced and trained cook willing to take on the task. Studholme was opened in 1915 to provide a residence for home science students, and also to provide a venue for those students to gain practical training in institutional management. Whether or not this made its food superior to other colleges I don’t know!

College chefs have varied enormously in skill, and some regular dishes became notorious. In 1950 residents of St Margaret’s campaigned for the abolition of jam roll, composed of “flour & water & apricot jam”. The Sunday roasts under one particular St Mags cook were known as “cardboard and string”. In 1928 Knox residents voted that “the unsavoury indigestible unpalatable compound of dough immersed in fat plus bacon be excluded, banned and barred forever from the breakfast menu. Likewise the equally indescribable Yellow Peril.”

These days there is a wide variety of dishes on offer, but monotony was a real feature of the “plentiful but plain” food of the past. To a large degree this reflected New Zealand’s wider food culture, and many students came from homes which also served up the same basic dishes of “meat and 3 veg” at every dinner. Dinner at Knox in the early to mid-twentieth century usually included meat and vegetables, with a boiled pudding to follow. The only choice was between beef and mutton, and between rice and potatoes. During the 1940s rationing reduced food choices even more. From 1944 to 1948 meat was rationed, but by value rather than volume, meaning colleges relied heavily on cheaper cuts of meat, particularly sausages, to feed the hungry hordes.

Sometimes students were more conservative about food than their cooks. Many Knox residents were suspicious of innovations like muesli and yoghurt, introduced to their menu by new catering manager Sue Stockwell in the 1980s; they dismissed salads as “rabbit food”. Other residents appreciated the greater choices. By the 1990s they could select between one vegetarian and two meat options at every dinner, with a five-week recurring menu. Some of the colleges also added halal options to cater for the needs of Islamic students.

Some of the food choices at the older colleges may have been unpopular, but at least the food was freshly cooked. The new institutions of the 1980s and 1990s – Helensburgh, Cumberland, Hayward and Dalmore (the re-opened Aquinas) – had their meals cooked at the University Union via the cook-chill system. After Cumberland installed a full production kitchen and expanded and renovated its dining room for 2001, it was able to report “a more satisfied resident”.

Various colleges have developed traditions of special dinners – annual dinners, valedictory dinners, founders’ dinners, and the like. At a time when most students lived in their college for several years, St Margaret’s held a special joint 21st birthday dinner. And then there are the special dinners for one-off occasions, such as the coronation of 1953. Quite why Knox felt it necessary to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 2005 I am uncertain, though it did provide a good excuse for a party! These are occasions when the college catering staff have a chance to shine, and today they show a little more flair than they did in the mid-20th century, when the most likely choices for a special dinner were a roast with trifle or pavlova to follow. Still, the cooks of the past did not completely lack imagination – at the St Mags coronation dinner all the food had a patriotic theme, including the red, white and blue coconut ice!

Do you have any stories to share of memorable college cooks or memorable college meals?