Anyone for curried lamb (80c) or sausages and chips (55c)? Or perhaps you’d prefer to splash out and spend $1.50 on a steak? If money is short this week you could go for a filled roll at 18c, or a pie in a bag at 22c. If your tastes are a little more exotic you might prefer chicken chow mein at 80c or Hungarian goulash at 90c. Those were the most adventurous options on a fascinating document I discovered recently – the University Union price list for 1976.
The Union, jointly managed by the university and the students’ association, prides itself on supplying a range of cheap food options for students. When the current Union Building first opened in 1960 it had just one food supply, the cafeteria, offering “an attractive, reasonably-priced three-course lunch” and also morning and afternoon tea. As the student roll and the building expanded new options were added, including three meals a day in the main cafeteria, a coffee bar in the basement and the Terrace Dining Room, located on the top floor. The latter was promoted by the 1975 student handbook as “one (or several) grade(s) above the Cafeteria in the quality of meals provided at lunchtime. Prices are correspondingly higher.” The 1987 handbook noted the popularity of carvery lunches at the Terrace Dining Room (“a different ‘joint’ carved daily”) and also the “omelettes made to order.”
The Union food was always cheap and readily available; quality was another matter. The 1980 student handbook commented grumpily that “meals in the cafeteria have come in for a lot of criticism in the past, but the food could be a lot worse, as many hostel students will testify, and for $1.40, what sort of banquet do you expect?” The 1987 handbook made a better effort at putting a positive spin on the food: “Nourishing, hot and heaps!!!! The only way to describe the very reasonably priced ‘Meal of the Day’ available from the Cafe at lunchtime and during the ‘Tea Hour’. You just haven’t lived until you’ve tasted Union bangers with chips and lashings of GRAVY!!! Wizard!”
As well as its everyday food service, the Union provided catering for functions. With various rooms and a commercial kitchen on hand, it could offer a range of services, seating 600 people in the Union Hall for a formal dinner, and serving over 1000 at one dinner function. Outside catering was an important source of revenue which helped subsidise student services. In 1978, for example, the turnover from regular student meals was $177,000, but an additional $191,000 came in from special catering.
A 1988 brochure promoted the University Union as a function centre, especially for weddings, Christmas functions and 21st birthdays. Food suggestions reflected New Zealand culinary tastes in the late 1980s: “How about Veal Suecloise as a main – that’s escalopes of veal served with a capsicum, mushroom and brandy cream sauce? Or perhaps you’d prefer Scotch Fillet Cordon Bleu with Chicken Liver Mousse? Or then again, perhaps something simpler, like Roast Leg of Beef with Yorkshire Pudding, garden fresh vegetables and potatoes? Or for something a little less formal, how about Sliced Ham, tossed salad, French Dressing and Hot Garlic Bread?”
The Union cafeteria and its menu have been renovated many times in the decades since. A major facelift in 1995 turned the old cafeteria into a “food court”, featuring the Wok Factory, Lunch Pail, Burger Inc. and the Coffee Mill. I recall in 1999 and 2000 part was branded “Y2K” (“so last year,” quipped Critic in 2001). Other options for eating have also emerged on the central Dunedin campus: there are now various food suppliers in the Link (between the Union and the Library) and a cafe in the St David building. And just down the road, in the University Plaza Building (next to the stadium), is the attractive Plaza Cafe, while health science students can enjoy the cafe at the Hunter Centre.
Do you have any memories (good or bad!) to share of Union food?