Looking back at the University of Connecticut Dining Services’ menus from 40 years ago, they stand in stark contrast to the state of UConn’s dining operations today.
“I just can’t imagine looking at this menu and saying to the students today, ‘This is all there is,’” Director of Dining Services, Dennis Pierce, said.
The dining hall menu from 1978 that Pierce found shows that most meals consisted of a single entrée, a handful of sides, a pre-plated salad, and desserts.
Pierce, who began working at UConn Dining Services in 1987, said he has seen a dramatic change in the menus and operating style of dining halls since then.
Before the late 80s, students could only eat in their designated residential dining unit and there were no meals served on weekends.
This changed when then-president John Casteen began implementing new policies to change the “suitcase college” culture at UConn. This process included renovating and building several dining units, Pierce said.
“By doing these little-by-little-by-little renovations, we were able to change out systems,” Pierce said.
During this period, Dining Services’ menus also underwent changes to better accommodate students’ dietary needs, Pierce said.
“The first challenge in the late 80s was vegetarians,” Pierce said. “In the late 80s you did not find tofu on this campus.”
As the international population at UConn grew over the years, Dining Services’ menus began to reflect this change.
“What we look for now, because of our student body, is as many different cuisines from around the world as possible,” UConn’s Culinary Operations Manager, Rob Landolphi, said.
Landolphi said Dining Services now regularly serves cuisines based on dishes from over 50 countries.
“[The 1978] menu was very Americanized and, sure we still have to leave some of those Americanized dishes on our menus, but overall now, I think students are more apt to try different cuisines from around the world,” Landolphi said.
Landolphi said he hopes students will take advantage of the culinary diversity UConn offers as an opportunity to explore the kinds of foods they will encounter outside the university.
“When you graduate [and] maybe move out to [a] big city, I don’t think you’re going to be living on hot dogs every night,” Landolphi said.
Landolphi said his experience working with various cultural centers for food fundraisers has shown him many dishes that have been incorporated into menus.
“These are all things we’re going to see cultural centers preparing for fundraisers…and we’re probably going to steal their ideas,” Landolphi said of upcoming fundraisers with items like Korean friend chicken and bubble tea.
Landolphi said the increased international population has also exposed him to foreign ingredients, such as jackfruit, which will begin appearing in dishes next semester.
“We’re being exposed to really unique ingredients we didn’t have access to…30 years ago [which is] awesome,” Landolphi said. “Now that we can get these ingredients it’s going to help spruce up our menus.”
Landolphi said he has also seen a significant increase in plant-based dishes since he began working at the university 17 years ago.
“I think students are definitely eating healthier, are definitely making smarter choices,” Landolphi said.
Pierce said Dining Services has also begun using more locally-grown products.
“Some of the products [were] literally frozen and [then] cooked off and served,” Pierce said. “What you’re finding now is we are more into preparing dishes from scratch and less convenience foods.”
Pierce said he wants students to understand how Dining Services has transformed over the years.
“We can’t operate with the assumption that everyone knows the history,” Pierce said. “[Students] don’t know what they have [now] and how it [has] changed significantly.”
Both Pierce and Landolphi said they believe Dining Services will continue on its trajectory of offering more international, plant-based, local and sustainable dishes.
“As you grow and make changes, you can never go back again,” Pierce said.
Anna Zarra Aldrich is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @ZarraAnna.