The Ingredients that Make the Difference

A taco or burrito night at any of the dining halls at the Claremont Colleges is sure to draw a crowd. Pitzer’s Taco Tuesday is notorious for long lines; Mudd, Scripps and Frary all serve burritos on Mondays, and—if one did the research—it would likely be entirely possible for a 5C student to eat Mexican food every day of the week.

However, many students have a preference for which dining hall’s Mexican food they prefer. Although the basic recipes are relatively constant across campuses, the taste of the food at the different dining halls is remarkably distinctive. In fact, the same can be said of all dining hall food, and the explanation lies with the ingredients. 

Sustainability and Purchasing Coordinator of Pomona College Dining Services Samantha Meyer PO ‘10 wrote her senior thesis on the food the college was buying. As one of the first people to research the ingredients and production of Pomona’s dining hall food, she was shocked to find that one third of all the food purchased contained ingredients considered harmful to human health.

“Since going self-operated in January 2011, we have drastically moved away from buying processed and frozen food,” Meyer wrote in an e-mail to TSL. “We now make cookies from scratch instead of buying frozen cookies. We punch our own French fries from fresh potatoes instead of buying frozen potatoes.”

Differences in preparation also reveal the reason for distinct tastes of french fries at different dining halls. Claremont McKenna College uses Canola oil for frying, Pitzer College uses trans fat free Canola oil, Mudd and Scripps use soybean oil with zero trans fat and Pomona uses MelFry Natural in an effort to avoid TBHQ, “a very common additive in fry oil,” Meyer wrote.

While all 5C dining halls try to avoid trans fats and purchase high quality ingredients, the colleges prioritize differently, leading to different results.

“When determining which items to offer local and/or organically, I look at environmental impact, effects on human health, availability and price,” Meyer wrote.

The local food items each college offers vary. Scripps, for instance, serves “local produce items, milk products, ice cream products, bakery products and some protein products,” wrote Malott Commons General Manager Tom Adkins in an e-mail to TSL.

“All produce, milk and eggs served on Mudd’s campus are produced locally,” wrote Hoch-Shanahan General Manager Miguel Ruvalcaba in an e-mail to TSL. In addition, HMC avoids foods with added trans fat, MSG, hormone (rBST) or antibiotics and tries to promote reduced sugar, salt and fats in recipes, following its “number one priority of serving safe and high-quality food products,” Ruvalcaba wrote.

CMC General Manager of Dining Services Pam Franco wrote in an e-mail that the goal of Collins dining hall is “to serve a variety of foods which are prepared from scratch using ingredients that are fresh, batch cooked, seasonal and local when available.”

At CMC, dairy, produce, some fish, poultry and beef are fresh; dry goods such as grains, other poultry, beef and the French fries are frozen, Franco wrote. Around a quarter of CMC’s salad bar vegetables are purchased from farms within 150 miles of CMC, Franco added, though peas are frozen when used.

In contrast, Pomona dining halls do not use any frozen items in their salad bars, though some are canned, such as beans and beets, according to Meyer. In December, the Pomona dining halls received an average of 42 percent of their produce from local farms.

“We get produce deliveries four days a week and prep the items for the salad bar shortly before use,” Meyer wrote. “All of the hand fruit (apples, oranges, bananas) we use are local and/or organic.”

However, Pomona dining halls use premade salad dressings, while other colleges such as Pitzer make their own house dressings, some oil- and some dairy-based, and Scripps offers both house and canned dressings. Mudd’s dressings have the most variety of bases out of the dining halls, using oil, cream, vinegar, fruit juice and mayonnaise as best suit each dressing’s flavor. Pitzer’s ingredients are mostly from local farms as well, only featuring frozen items if they are not seasonally available.

Pitzer also places a “focus on local and seasonal products grown in an environmentally responsible way,” wrote General Manager of the McConnell Bistro Dennis Lofland in an e-mail to TSL. “Our goal is flavorful health-conscious food. We cook from scratch so that affords us a great deal of creativity.”

Perhaps it is this methodology that explains the popularity of Pitzer’s Taco Tuesday, which Lofland listed among Pitzer’s best-received meals. Pitzer offers both braised beef and grilled chicken, both of which are first marinated, and a tofu option for vegetarians. They also serve a variety of vegetables, homemade pinto and black beans, and house salsa and guacamole.

Pomona, in contrast, offers rotating meat options, usually beef and chicken that are made from “all natural, hormone and antibiotic free, vegetarian-fed meat that comes from animals that are given access to the outdoors,” Meyer wrote. Their meat is not processed and is freshly prepared by the cooks. Pomona also has a vegetarian option other than beans and rice, such as tempeh, and numerous veggies. Like Pitzer, Pomona makes its own guacamole (from local organic avocados if in season), salsa and beans, which are often organic.

If neither of those options appeal to students, CMC has yet another take on Mexican food, serving ground beef, chicken, pork and tofu bell peppers with house-made guacamole and salsa. HMC also serves homemade salsa and guacamole with nachos every day of the week.

Still not certain of which burrito appeals to you? Unsure of whether you value organic ingredients, house-made meals or nutritional value most? All that’s left to do is try them all, and let your taste buds decide. 

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