Eating Grad Style: Free Food

A few weeks ago, Sci posted on making Lab Cuisine. A couple of people responded well to this, and suggested that I post more on cheap eating as a grad student. Sadly, these people are deluded. Sci can’t cook. At ALL. Lab Cuisine, pasta, and bean stews (which I can make, tho the recipe is not mine) are about what I live on, trying to wedge in fruit and veggies wherever they might be able to fit into the budget. Welcome to life on stipend.

But there are some things about food that Sci does know. It’s how to eat, and particularly how to forage, like a grad student. And so today I would like to speak on the pros, cons, and types of Free Food.

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(I’ve read every PhD comic in existence. I love this man.)
You think it’s funny and weird to smell free food from a distance? Clearly you have never been a grad student.


Free food is an interesting phenomenon. How is detected? Should you feel guilty about getting it? Is there a line at which pursuit of free food becomes tacky? Sci has had many young grad students, eyes full of shining hope, ask her these questions. And in these trying times, it is harder than ever to find free food. And thus, to you, she will spread her knowledge. Use it wisely, and not for evil.
The guiding principles of Free Food:
1) The Heisenberg Food Uncertainty Principle: Heisenberg mastered this principle while in grad school. It states that you cannot know both where the free food is, and how much (and of what quality) there will be by the time you get there.
2) Evolution of Free Food acquisition by natural selection: Free food will go to those who are most crafty at obtaining it, and thus those are most crafty will get the most free food. They will then pass this trait on to their grad student offspring. Those who are not sly, or merely have too much pride to obtain free food, will die out as free food seekers and much seek out another niche in the grad school environment (the niche we call ‘starving’, usually accompanied by the Starbucks coffee they REFUSE to give up).
3) The dopamine hypothesis of Free Food addiction: One of my personal hypotheses, this states that food obtained illicitly and free results in a stronger dopamine signal than food obtained by conventional means. Thus, those who seek Free Food out find it initially rewarding, and are more likely to seek it out again. Soon, however, habit will take over, and you’ll see addicted grad students haunting the halls and seminar rooms on certain days of the week, hoping for a hit. Sci herself has no shame in this regard, and has been known to edit dissertations for free pizza.
4) The opponent-process theory of Free Food: Another one of my personal hypotheses. Based on the opponent process theory of addiction, this states that at first, Free Food is rewarding, but its often inferior quality causes withdrawal symptoms of bloating and Food Coma. These negative effects force you to seek out more Free Food, focusing specifically on sugar in order to get out of your Food Coma. You can see the vicious cycle begin.
5) The Inverse correlation between quality and quantity: This is a hypothesis that I am currently developing, but it appears that it may hold true in most situations. The more likely there is to be abundant Free Food, the more likely it is to be of seriously inferior quality. Donuts, I’m looking at you, here.
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(Look at that. Piles of food, all of it CRAP.)
Free Food Types
Free Food can generally be divided into three main areas: Carbs and Crap, the Stuff you Work for, and Jackpot. I’ll go through each of these in turn, and talk about their pros and cons.
A: Carbs and Crap: This is the most common type of Free Food in Sci’s experience. This usually includes most breakfast items, including donuts (VERY common), bagels (also abundant), muffins, pizza (so common it hurts), and cake (special occasions, but if it’s a sheet cake, usually there’s a lot left over. A good sheet cake can feed a veritable host of grad students). Often also includes chips and crackers, and of course cookies. These types of Free Foods can often be found in the common areas after faculty meetings, at many seminars, and in various lab areas on special occasions such as birthdays or Christmas in July. Unfortunately, with the economy the way it is, Free Food at meetings has diminished in amount and quality, but most faculty members still refuse to meet at 8am without significant breakfast incentive. I also include coffee in this grouping, though it’s obviously not crap, it’s usually found along with the breakfast food.
Pros: pretty easy to find, you can probably get access to these types of Free Food once a week in the worst scenarios.
Cons: many young grad students think free cake is a GREAT idea! And to some extent, it is. But as free carbs are abundant, they get old REALLY quickly. And nothing induces Food Coma quite like a few donuts or cake. In terms of productivity, these are no help. After a while, you may even end up passing up such crap as time goes on. Ok, who are we kidding. You won’t, it’s free. Also, with bagels in particular, what gets left over is often some pretty crazy stuff. Onion bagels with strawberry cream cheese? Yikes.
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(A grad student easily be overwhelmed with the carb-type Free Food. Keep your head above water!)
B: The Stuff you Work For: This includes food that is only available at the meetings that you have to GO to. This includes lunchtime meetings, seminars, etc. The vast majority of the time, the best food is only available at the seminars you want to go to the LEAST (“ooooh! Full box lunch! At an hour long serminar on…hospital fiscal policy…”). It’s working for your food, or at least taking time out from your REAL work to be somewhere else for an hour in the hopes of real food.
Pros: The food is often of higher quality. You can sometimes get full box lunches (though if you arrive late, you’re stuck with the broccoli salad covered in mayo, and the baloney sandwich with pepper jack. You’ve been warned), and some are more potluck style, with meatballs on sticks and cheeses and stuff.
Cons: Great. Another seminar on how to use Excel for fun and profit…
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(This doesn’t fly in the smaller seminars…)
C: Jackpot!!!!: The rarest form of Free Food, Jackpot food is hard to find, but worth staying around and stuffing your face, and then grabbing a plate and squirreling some away for later. This includes full box lunches (even better for squirreling, comes in its own packaging!), fruit trays, veggie trays, hummus, and anything with a chocolate fountain involved (Sci saw one once. It was…so beautiful…*sniff*…). Now, at first glance, a young grad student might think “what?! veggies are JACKPOT!? NO! Pass me the CAKE!” To this I say, wait until you are a third year, pale from lack of sunlight, and able to afford fresh fruit and vegetables maybe once a week. Maybe. After a lifetime of ramen, pasta, rice, and more ramen, veggie trays gleam before your eyes like a nutritional oasis. Fruit looks and tastes like the nectar of Mt. Olympus. And a box lunch?! YES!!!!! Get two and you just got two free meals.
Pros: Actual nutritional value. No Food Coma. Fresh veggies…mmm…
Cons: This stuff is VERY rare. Best times to look for Jackpot-type Free Food is around graduation or thesis defense times. Often there are parties after such rites of passage, and these will often result in veggie trays. Retirement parties are another option, as well as times surrounding traditional holidays. Sometimes you can find those trays of those wrap slices, usually good stuff, but can come in some odd flavors. Box lunches are often under the heading of the Stuff you Work for, but can sometimes be found as leftovers in common areas. You still usually get stuck with baloney and pepper jack.
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(The stuff fourth-year grad students dream of).
Free Food Detection
Haunting the halls is time consuming, but can be worth it in some scenarios. Look for large gatherings of people, preferably those who are well-dressed. The more suits, the higher the food quality.
Your email box is your hunting blind. Sign up for seminar announcements, meeting announcements. Know your faculty meeting schedule for your department. When you see a flyer for a seminar or meeting, your eyes should immediately focus on the bottom, where phrases such as “lunch will be provided” are what you’re looking for. It’s a lot easier than it seems, really.
And now, a word on Free Food Etiquette.
How should one approach the Free Food? If it’s something common, it’s often just left in a common area for the scavengers. All bets are off there. Maybe want to make sure that no one sees you running off with half a dozen bagels. It’s not nice, leave some for someone else. If it’s Something you Work For, have the courtesy to at least LOOK like you’re paying attention in the meeting or seminar. This is not just courtesy, it’s common sense. If the seminar is weekly, you don’t want people giving you the eye if you’re obviously sleeping every week. As for the Jackpot-type food, it’s best if you mingle while people are around. You’ll get the best quality. But this only really works if you KNOW the person for whom the food is technically for. Don’t just walk into some new PhD’s party like you own the place. At least go as a friend of a friend. It’s courtesy. Otherwise, wait until the room has cleared, and the food is alone and defenseless. Go for it.
Now, there’s a certain…feeling about Free Food. It doesn’t do to talk about it too much. Don’t boast to your lab as you head out to a different seminar every day that you’re going to get free food, at least, not unless you invite them along. After a while, obviously and loudly pursuing every possible avenue of Free Food looks…mercenary. So, while you don’t have to be sly, asking loudly about the Free Food all the time just looks naive. You have to cultivate an air of devil-may-care Free Food hunting. You don’t CARE about the food. You just happen to be in the same room with it. All the time. Those who cultivate this air often end up with the best food. I think there’s an attraction principle here somewhere.
But there’s also another bit of etiquette. Always let the other grad students know where there is food to be found. A nod as you head out the door, a mention of the party down the hall. These things not only feed your friends, they can foster good will in the laboratory. It’s more than nice, it’s politics.
I would like to end this post with a plea to the professors out there: feed thy grad students. Remember how poor and hungry you were!? We are, too. And it’s a good political move to feed your grad students. A well-fed student is a happy student, and one supplied with dinner is much more likely to work late (ok, we all work late, the fed one will work REALLY late). It makes us feel appreciated, and sometimes we might even think you CARE! And food is fuel. Supplied with even something as common as pizza, a grad student is good to go, and you might find that manuscript in your inbox in the morning.

13 Responses

  1. this just made my night. i’m about to start a phd program next week so your timing with this is impeccable. i’m also now addicted to that comic. it looks like it started at stanfurd so as a new cal student i should be ashamed to admit to reading it but it’s so funny…..

  2. Ah, the days of food hunting… I remember them well…
    Sci, you’ve done a great job here, but you’ve neglected two of the most significant (and most overlooked) sources of Free Food: religious gatherings and Whole Foods. If you’re at an MRU, there are almost certainly multiple campus religious groups, and they frequently have Free Food at their meetings and events. This source raises the issue of getting caught (try explaining why you’re going to the Presbyterian, Catholic, AND Muslim meetings all in the same week), and the possibility of going to hell, but the food is typically of higher quality, so it can be worth it.
    Whole Foods, well, that grad student gold. At lunch time most Whole Foods will put out at least half a dozen sampling stations. You can do 2 laps of the store and have a full (and nutritious!) meal. We even called it the “Grad Student Lunch” in my time.

  3. Ah, the days of food hunting… I remember them well…
    Sci, you’ve done a great job here, but you’ve neglected two of the most significant (and most overlooked) sources of Free Food: religious gatherings and Whole Foods. If you’re at an MRU, there are almost certainly multiple campus religious groups, and they frequently have Free Food at their meetings and events. This source raises the issue of getting caught (try explaining why you’re going to the Presbyterian, Catholic, AND Muslim meetings all in the same week), and the possibility of going to hell, but the food is typically of higher quality, so it can be worth it.
    Whole Foods, well, that grad student gold. At lunch time most Whole Foods will put out at least half a dozen sampling stations. You can do 2 laps of the store and have a full (and nutritious!) meal. We even called it the “Grad Student Lunch” in my time.

  4. hahaha! this post was awesome. it’s true, you don’t really get a proper introduction to the free food phenomenon in grad school.
    i’ve found free pizza extremely abundant, cookies very abundant, and cake is actually a real rarity around here. yes, i will totally take the free cake, thanks.
    potlucks are the best. seek any and all invitations to them. the people with real incomes bring real food. grad students bring cheap stuff. then, in exchange for bringing something cheap, you get real food that in many cases is home made (which you don’t really have time for anymore) and has real nutritional value. best deal EVER.

  5. hahaha! this post was awesome. it’s true, you don’t really get a proper introduction to the free food phenomenon in grad school.
    i’ve found free pizza extremely abundant, cookies very abundant, and cake is actually a real rarity around here. yes, i will totally take the free cake, thanks.
    potlucks are the best. seek any and all invitations to them. the people with real incomes bring real food. grad students bring cheap stuff. then, in exchange for bringing something cheap, you get real food that in many cases is home made (which you don’t really have time for anymore) and has real nutritional value. best deal EVER.

  6. Toaster’s Jambalaya for Cooking Idiots:
    Trust me, you can make this successfully. It’s not that hard, it only requires 1 pot, and it will feed you for a week. This isn’t exactly a proper jambalaya, but it tastes close enough and contains all the major food groups.
    You will need: 3-5 spicy sausages, 8-10 diced rashers bacon, 2 cans kidney beans, 1 large can diced tomatoes, 1 can diced chili peppers, 1 bag chopped frozen bell peppers, 3-4 potatoes (unpeeled and diced), 1 can corn, some diced onion, 1.5cups of rice and cooking oil. Total cost ~$20.
    1) Heat generous oil in large pot. Squeeze sausages out of their casings into pot and add diced bacon. Scramble until well done.
    2) Remove meat from pot leaving meat-flavored oil behind and set aside in a bowl.
    3) Add potatoes, onion and bell peppers to pot and stir to coat in meat oil.
    4) Once potatoes are sweaty, add undrained cans of chili peppers and tomatoes, then the drained cans of bean and corn. Stir. Add hot sauce, red pepper, salt, and Lawry’s to taste.
    5) Cover and let simmer until potatoes are edible.
    6) Add 1.5 cups of rice and meat. Stir.
    7) Bring to boil.
    8) Cover and simmer until rice is done.
    9) Eat.
    Yields ~8 liters.
    I make this about once a month, and it feeds me well. When I can, I add cornbread as well.

  7. Not free, but a good investment early in school: the rice cooker. Rice, water, and pretty much whatever else is handy combine into cheap meals that can be easily flavored and last a long time. A full cooker of rice, some 33-cent canned veggies, salt and pepper, and a diced chicken breast (or any other meat, really — I’ve seen it done with bologna) is food for a day or two, easy. The combinations possible are near-infinite, and the skills boil down to “chopping”, “can opening”, “approximate measuring”, and “button pushing”. It’s not free, but it’s about as close as you can get without dumpster-diving.

  8. I like “Toaster”s recipe. Sounds fairly complete; you could live on it without suffering any major nutritional deficiency. It is also fairly simple.
    I’m wondering if it could be adapted to a crock pot, Searing up the meat a bit to get the fond and flavor and then stuffing the mess into the crock. Coming back twelve hours later to a weeks worth of meals. If you got the right crock pot you could simply lift out the crock and, after dishing out the maker’s meal and waiting for it to cool a bit, putting it into the refrigerator where it functions as a nutritional well for a week.
    I have done this with a rough and ready beef stew made with cheapest stew cuts, use scissors to remove the gristle and stringy bits, whatever is in season or on sale at the local market. No set recipe but the idea is meat seared up in a pan, starch or a mix of rice, potatoes or oatmeal, mixed vegetables, spiced to taste. Allow to slow cook. It often tastes better after a day in the refrigerator.
    Also get some store brand ‘old fashion’ oatmeal. Avoid the ‘quick’ oats and fashionable ‘steel cut oats’. A thirty serving cardboard canister is less than $4. Half cup oats and one cup water cooks in less than a minute in a microwave. A slice of cheese on top and a banana makes a good breakfast.
    Oats makes for a good starch base for soups and stews. Free food and desktop munching is notorious for causing digestive problems. If your living by grazing on free food your going to like how oats is filling, holds you for many hours on a single serving, and keeps the machinery working smoothly.

  9. Crockpots are the grad student’s Jesus. No seriously, they’re a savior.
    I have late in grad life developed a taste and acumen for cooking, but in early days “cooking” went like this:
    Assemble crockpot on Sunday morning (pretty easy, just plug it in). Huck in a bunch of whatever (frozen veggies, chicken breast, cheap mystery meat, can of beans, rice, lentils, leftovers). Make sure there’s plenty of liquid (often from a can of tomatoes, but water or beer or wine that is no longer fit to drink will also do just fine). Season with whatever spices are to hand and bit of salt. Cover, turn on crockpot, eat whenever one finds oneself at home next, then put the rest in the fridge for later.
    Actually a lot like Toaster’s jambalaya but you don’t have to attend the cooking implement. It’s like a hot-plate that you never have to check on.

  10. Mr. SiT brings you a HISTORICAL example:

    [At Princeton in 1936 as] much effort was made to mimic Oxbridge ritual as Oxbridge architecture; thus at the Graduate College, students wore gowns to dinner, while in the Fine Hall common room, tea was served every afternoon at three. And yet in spite of the tea, the common room had a distinctly casual (and distinctly American) tone that was entirely unlike that at King’s College. Graduate students with little money spent nearly all their time there, returning to their furnished rooms only to sleep. There were no tea ladies or waiters; instead, the teas were organized and served by fellowship students, in compensation for the fact that they earned more money and had less work to do. Off the room was a kitchenette with an electric stove and – wonder of wonders – a dishwasher; here there was kept a large quantity of “cookies” (for Turing a foreign term) ordered in bulk from the National Biscuit Company, which would soon become Nabisco. Particularly during the depression, there had to be a quota on the number of cookies served, in order to discourage hungry graduate students from making a meal of them.

    Leavitt, David. The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer. New York: Atlas Books, 2006, pp 117-118.

  11. For year-round students who will be present during the summer, I also commend the merits of an investment in vegetable seeds. Dispersed carefully into some of the more obscure but moderately cared for flowerbeds around campus (or nearby neighborhoods), this can provide Jackpot to those with patience and modest foresight for minimal effort.
    Zucchini and Yellow squash are easy from seed packs. However, if you can find suitable spots for planting, sweet peppers and tomatoes can be bought at the grocery produce and both harvested for seeds and the remains used for food. Peas run midway; produce is usually a bit underripe for planting, but they’re fairly easy to start from seed. In herbs, mint is nigh-impossible from seed, but from cuttings is only just less maliciously easy than kudzu or bamboo; find a gardener to befiend for some.
    Finding a flower bed with nasturtiums may be worth overplanting it. Almost no gardener questions when three times as many plants come up as seeds go in, and since they have flowers, many people don’t realize nasturtiums are watercress substitute. There are an impressive number near the local art building….
    I also suggest making friends with a bio major who made Eagle Scout (or Girl Scout camp counselor), even if you have to find one who is [shudder] an undergrad. They are usually willing to give a tutorial on local wild plants that are edible. (However, do not trust anyone under 75 on edibility of mushrooms. If they’ve survived the hobby that long, they might have a clue… or might just be a mutant.) The easiest: dandelion leaves make a decent if slightly bitter salad (a trace of lemon juice in the dressing helps), and add both slight flavor and significant vitamins to Ramen. Blowing the seed puffs really can bring good luck for grad students! Don’t expect your native guide to reveal the location of the best stuff like the local wild red raspberries without serious bribes, however. Even undergrad, scout biologists tend to have high expertise and corresponding standards for sexual gratification; connecting undergrad ones with booze has mixed results, especially if you reward beforehand.

  12. You people are blogging geniuses: this is the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject, and I know what I’m talking about. I got my Medieval Studies PhD [translation: no chance of ever making any real money] in the 1970s, and you are describing accurately the world I lived in. And largely enjoyed . . . ..
    The only thing I have to add is that a Salvation Army tweed sport coat makes you look less like a starving grad student, so you aren’t watched so carefully, and being traditionally tailored they should have lots of pockets. What you need for the vegetable plates are big Ziploc baggies hidden under the flapped pockets on the outside of the coat. When they’re full, go somewhere private, transfer the full bags to inside pockets or a pack or briefcase, and reline the flap pockets with fresh Ziplocs.
    Ziplocs wash out easy, too: excellent quality plastic, even thirty years ago.
    Oh, yeah, skip mushrooms altogether: zero food value, rot easily, and of course don’t gather them yourself. But discarded bulk French bread from the sandwich shop makes brilliant French toast.
    Vaya con queso,
    Bill Guthrie
    Parapara, New Zealand

  13. You guys must laugh yourselves silly whenever you hear people accuse scientists of being ‘in it for the money’.
    Also – I’ll second the rice cooker. I tried a diet of cheap 2-minute noodles – these have the nutritional value of cardboard. Over here the trick is to get involved in the clubs that run BBQ’s then go to every one you can – meat and salad!

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