Decades ago, the food at UB wasn’t much different from army chow. Dinner meant meat, starch and canned vegetables, with a gravy most nights. Sandwiches featured white bread, cold cuts and iceberg lettuce. Then as now, the bulk of food was prepared at the commissary, but back then it could only be described as industrial—think beef tips and tuna noodle casserole.
Today, campus dining is more restaurant-grade than military-grade. The Faculty Student Association still runs what used to be called Food Service and is now called Campus Dining & Shops (CDS), and its mission is larger than ever: serving 8,112 meal-plan-account holders this year, compared with the 1,100 students on board contracts in 1971. But the real differences are in quality and variety, including healthier options. CDS chefs, working in small batches as much as possible, turn out Brazilian-style carved meat, vegetarian noodle bowls from the wok, even the occasional stuffed lobster tail.
How did we get from Salisbury steak and Jell-O to Korean fried tofu? It’s been a crazy journey, peppered with highs and lows. Following are a few standouts from over the years.
At UB, the college activism of the Vietnam era spilled over into Food Service issues. In early 1974, for instance, student Gary Storm (JD ’93, PhD ’82) launched a petition criticizing the food at Governors Complex and calling Food Service decision-making “divorced from the direct voice of the students.” Signers complained about everything from the quality to the quantity to the variety of food.
The lack of vegetarian options was a particular upset. The Spectrum described Food Service officials struggling to wrap their arms around what, exactly, vegetarianism entailed. “The accommodations for vegetarians were barely even symbolic,” Storm recalls. “For veggies, eggs were the primary protein. No recipes with beans, nuts, tofu or cheese-without-meat were introduced. Vegans, had there been any at that time, would have starved.”
The next month, quantity flared up as the main issue when Food Service tried dropping the traditional “seconds table,” which had offered students an additional helping. Cliff Palefsky (BA ’74), now a Bay Area civil rights attorney, then served as the Student Association’s “student rights coordinator.” When classmates alerted him they were going hungry, he checked things out.
“You walked down the line and it was steam trays, some vegetable. Quality of ingredients, nutrition—that was not an issue,” he says. “It was whether there was enough. You got one walk-through, and that was it. It was like, are you kidding me? These are growing college students.”
The students took the matter public. “Hunger pain strikes students,” a Spectrum headline blared. Palefsky alleged to the paper that students often had to eat cold food or fill themselves with bread or Jell-O. He wrote a letter calling the situation “intolerable,” contacted a local attorney and threatened a lawsuit.
Food Service took appeasement measures in short order, as he remembers it. “They set up the seconds table—leftover food from yesterday or whatever,” Palefsky recalls. “It was like, ‘We’ll get you more food in a way that doesn’t break the budget.’”
A group of eco-conscious students banded together in 1971 to organize the North Buffalo Community Food Co-op. With a $3,000 university grant, they opened a nonprofit store on Main Street the following year, offering produce, spices, nuts, grains and other minimally packaged bulk goods.
American fast food was in full swing in the ’70s, and UB was no exception. The Bullpen, opened in 1978 in the Norton-Capen- Talbert complex, offered cheeseburgers, quarter-pounders, fries, shakes and hot pies. The Reporter called it “McBullpen’s” for its faithfulness to a certain fast-food chain. Responded Bullpen supervisor Maria Fronteria, “My kids don’t want anything but hamburgers—college kids aren’t any different. It’s what they like!”
The so-called Pepsi-Coke “wars” raged through the ’80s as the university signed exclusive soda-fountain contracts with Pepsi in 1982, then Coke in 1986. “The Pepsi generation is over at UB,” the Reporter declared that year. “The real thing is back.”
The ins and outs of the cola companies’ bidding wars (and donations of big-ticket items like scoreboards to the university) were breathlessly documented well into the ’90s, as the campus’ soda contracts tended to change every four years. Whether Coke or Pepsi, when the dining-hall fare tasted bland, soda could be the proverbial spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
In the early ’80s, the campus boasted one of the hottest restaurants and nightspots in town. Thanks to the downstate provenance of the students who managed the place, Wilkeson Pub (in the Wilkeson Quadrangle basement) was also one of few local joints to serve New York-style pizza.
“The accents, the attitude, were all downstate,” says Keith Curtachio (BA ’87), Campus Dining & Shops’ IT coordinator, who started working there as a junior. “To the point where if you ordered a hamburger, we would not serve it to you with mustard.”
The pizza dough came from the commissary, but the cooks stretched it out to get those super-thin slices and made their own sauce. Come night, the pub morphed into a popular hangout. With the ’70s disco era not far gone, it retained the trappings of that decade—a tri-level, underlit dance floor, a smoke machine, a big sparkly disco ball. The venue kept a huge vinyl collection with more than 4,000 records, and DJs spun on weekends.
Student-run “Gong Shows”—a takeoff on the late-’70s-era national talent show—were held to hilarious effect. At the time, local TV personality Randi Naughton hosted a WGRZ-Channel 2 Friday late-night show called “Randi’s Pajama Party,” which featured a cheesy movie, then cut to Naughton giving funny commentary in PJ’s on a brass bed. That bed was on occasion set up in Wilkeson Pub. Naughton remembers giving away swag—and sampling the pizza. “Back then I didn’t have to worry about carbo-loading!” she says.
In 1985, New York’s minimum drinking age rose to 21, forcing pub managers to get creative. Wilkeson Pub became Wilkeson Restaurant, a full-service eatery with two take-out windows. On one side they served Buffalo’s new Sweet Jenny’s ice cream; the other side was transformed into a New York deli.
Once a month, Curtachio remembers, they sent a truck to Brooklyn to collect Hebrew National products, along with pickles, knishes and pallets of Dr. Brown’s soda. The new Wilkeson incarnation made more money than ever, although not everything was a hit—Cel-Ray, Dr. Brown’s bracing celery-flavored soda, never sold, Curtachio says. Enterprising managers recycled it as a soup base.
A few years later, Wilkeson Restaurant was relocated to Fargo Quad and renamed the American Sports Grill, then Hubie’s, as it continues to be known today.
By the early ’90s, as noted in a Reporter article from 1992, Food Service was working hard to change from its “military image of yesteryear to a wider variety of entrees that appeal to a greater number of people.” The commissary’s scale remained massive, with giant soup vats, massive spice jugs, huge mixers and dozens of staffers slicing 3,000 pounds of fresh produce daily. But Food Service was moving toward where it is today, incorporating more feedback and variety. Cooks worked from a bank of 1,817 recipes and asked for student comments on the food.
That same year, 1992, Putnam’s food court opened in the new Student Union. Its eight restaurants included Bagelicious for New York-style bagels, TBG’s for Italian fare and Señor Wok’s, which offered a then-exotic combo of Asian and Mexican cuisine. Putnam’s was run by a Culinary Institute of America graduate, to boot.
Today the Student Union’s food court is still around, albeit with updated offerings like Jamba Juice, Moe’s Southwestern Grill and Champa’s Sushi to feed modern tastes. The stalwart Goodyear and Governors dining halls also continue to serve students, but with fresh features, like a Mongolian grill at Goodyear and crêpe stations on both campuses several days per week.
Campus Dining & Shops’ current approach is to offer a plethora of options, asserts head chef Neal Plazio, who came to UB in 2013 after a dozen years running his own catering service. “It’s the complete opposite of what you think of 30, 40 years ago, with huge pans and people glopping food on the plate,” he says.
Most emblematic of the culinary turnaround is C3, the Crossroads Culinary Center, which opened in 2012 with a splashy atrium, showstopping open fireplace and seating for more than 600 on the footprint of the old Red Jacket Quadrangle dining hall. It’s an attractive space, but the venue’s real selling point is its food. C3 offers 10 stations, from pasta to vegetarian to wok-cooked entrées to desserts.
At a school with a significant population of students from abroad, and American students with increasingly globalized palates, international meals are now a matter of course. Indian chef Poonam Matta, who joined the staff two years ago, has folded her recipes into the regular meal rotation. A “Tour the World” program offers a unique dinner twice per semester, featuring such cuisines as Korean and Cuban. And a Global Market dining center has been proposed for the North Campus’ academic spine within the next few years.
“The dental school was on Goodrich Street, virtually in downtown Buffalo. Lorenzo’s restaurant in lower downtown was great for a Sunday meal. We unscrewed the cheese shaker and poured on the cheese for a generous serving of spaghetti. Another desirable restaurant was Santora’s pizzeria. One could order a giant 20-inch pizza and a pitcher of beer for $2.”
“I played football, so I ate on campus a lot. We could go over to the Norton Union and load up. They had the big plastic trays you would slide along cafeteria-style. You had ham, roast beef sometimes, potatoes three or four different ways, gravy, big dispensers for milk or iced tea, and desserts—ice cream, cakes, pies.”
“We were eating simply—egg salad, tuna fish, PB&J. The places we really liked to eat were on Bailey Avenue, like Bocce’s Pizza and Bailo’s—they had the best beef on weck, and a special dish, 21 Shrimp in the Glass. We used to pull out the shrimp and count them. Another place we liked to walk was Garden of Sweets—they had the best hot fudge sundae I’ve ever had. I’ve still never been able to replicate it.”
“They used to have these food carts in the different buildings in between classes. Every Tuesday and Thursday in Capen Hall I’d have a hot chocolate and an onion roll—kind of like a kaiser roll with onions in it. That’s what I lived on. Back then you went to the Rathskellar to get a burger and fries, some chicken wings and beer. There was no healthy food in Buffalo.”
“I didn’t like the food at all when I came as a freshman. It wasn’t like my mother’s. Salisbury steak, fried fish and tuna noodle casserole were always there. Now it’s so much better. But we just kind of went with it. We were pretty easygoing, I think.”
“On campus I had the food in Governors: overboiled pasta, overcooked vegetables and a lot of grease. I can remember one or two really awful attempts to cook Chinese food. They called it chop suey, and it was pretty disastrous. A lot of us tried to escape. There was always Duff’s. They had a $9.99 special—a bucket of fries, a bucket of wings and a pitcher of Molson. That was a very tempting deal for college students.”
“I’m not a vegetarian, but it’s always fun to see the vegetarian stuff. They have sweet potato noodles with cashew sauce—that’s one of my favorites. I like Indian, Italian, Chinese—I can choose my own adventure every day. The wings are good, too. When we see them on the menu we’re like, ‘We’re going to go to C3 and have wings tonight.’”
The Glee Club sponsored this modest repast in 1941, and at least one other was held in 1946.
FAST FOR A WORLD HARVEST:
Students participated in Oxfam America’s 1974 daylong fast, limiting themselves to coffee, tea, fruit juice or broth, and contributing the money they would have spent on food to projects helping world farmers grow their own feed.
FIRST LADIES’ DINNER:
Student Carl Sferrazza, a self-described obsessive when it comes to First Ladies, staged a seven-course 1978 dinner in Wilkeson Hall featuring favorite recipes from the White House. The menu included Grace Coolidge’s pineapple salad, Jackie Kennedy’s Potatoes Suzette and Dolley Madison’s popovers.
The classics department co-sponsored a 2014 Roman feast at Crossroads Culinary Center. It offered a menu inspired by ancient Rome (cinnamon lamb soup, melon with mint dressing), plus toga-wrapped greeters, a gold-pillar-lined walkway and ancient Roman music.
HUNGER GAMES DINNER:
CDS held a 2015 “Hunger Games”-themed dinner, based on the blockbuster film and book series, at C3. Featuring rabbit stew, Cornish hens and an archery contest, the dinner won an industry silver medal for special events.
Lynn Freehill-Maye is a freelance writer in Buffalo, N.Y.
No discussion of food on the main street campus and near campus is complete without mentioning the fast food place in the basement between Clement and Goodyear with great shakes or ridge lea for brownies. And off campus-Parkside Candies for ice cream .
How could you have not included the famous "UB brownie"? it was almost a daily part of my lunch. A 3" frosted square of deliciousness, with a walnut half on top. I was there 1966-70. Yogurt was a new thing...Bison Brand, 8 oz, I think for 25. That combination was often a late day pick me up since I spent many hours at school. As a fine art student, our studio classes were three hours long.
We were the second class to live in governors. I remember the food protests. The food was inexcusable. The salad was chickery. I wasn't a picky eater. The food was beyond terrible. There was no food served on the weekend the only thing open was a sub shop. It was a low point in buffalo. The good was they made great grilled cheese, roast beef on weck in Norton Union. Off campus was wings wings and more wings. Before the rest of the country found it. Suprised roast beef on weck never followed suit