As an alumna of Wesleyan University, I knew I was back on campus when I passed a stop sign bearing stickers with the words “don’t” and “believing” framing the word “stop.” Some things never change. Some things, however, change a lot. One of these is the sheer number of self-professed “foodies” that walk those hallowed halls and tree-lined pathways. The school paper, which I edited back in the day, now boasts a food section. A student-organized farmers’ market sets up shop a couple on campus times a month. There’s a program house dedicated to cooking, known as “Full House.” Even the campus catering is done by Bon AppÃ©tit Management, known for its local, sustainable sourcing of ingredients. It’s not that I’m shocked by this transitionâ€”there was a student protest while I was at Wesleyan to get the on-campus grocery store to stop selling eggs laid by caged chickensâ€”but it is a reminder of how quickly food awareness has sprung up in the American consciousness. Some of these Wesleyan foodies (members of the class of ’12, ’13 and ’14, if you can believe we’re that old) organized a conference on food writing called Foodstock, at which Iâ€”along with others more accomplished and more luminaryâ€”was asked to speak.
The morning was occupied by two conversations led by the Connecticut Public Radio cooking-show host, Faith Middleton. The first was with former New York Times restaurant critic and Gourmet magazine editor, Ruth Reichl, and the second was with New York Times wine critic (and Wesleyan grad) Eric Asimov. The afternoon schedule would be packed with more notable names, including Raymond Sokolov, Dorie Greenspan, Jane Stern and Molly O’Neill. But first, it was time for lunch. Talking about food is all well and good, but what kind of food conference would be complete without a feast to gorge on? Lucky, the smarty-pants Wesleyan students who planned Foodstock were on top of their game in this department as well. They recruited a small fleet of food trucks to come to Middletown and park in a lot near the science center. Naturally, I had to scout out the full range of options before deciding what to eat. I passed on Ethiopian, grilled cheese and a pizza truck with an internal oven and opted for three tacos from Hartford-based Lucky Taco.
I tried one filled with carnitas, one with chicken and one with beef. It didn’t take me long to realize that the carnitas is where it’s at. The meat was tender and porky, and the cabbage slaw in the taco added crunch and moisture. I dumped the entirety of my salsa verde cup on top and chowed down. The other two tacos were far less remarkable. The chicken was bland and uninteresting, and the ground beef cried out for seasoning and textural character. Both of these tacos also came with fresh tomatoes on top, which are simply a watery disappointment until tomato season starts in earnest. The remaining two cups of salsa were also tomato based, and they lacked the kick of smokiness or spice I was craving. I sat down on a curb in the parking lotâ€”between Eric Asimov and some undergraduatesâ€”to eat them. Ah, the democracy of food carts!
As I sat there eating my less-than-stellar tacos, I overheard numerous passersby raving about the Lebanese fish wrap from the Munchies Food Truck. I felt a pang of orderer’s regret. Then I stopped myself. Why worry about having missed out on the sandwich when I could buy it and eat it for second lunch? I did just that, although I didn’t end up eating it until later. The battered, fried flounder was tender and moist and evocative of the Northeast region, while also bringing in a kick of the Middle East with tahini sauce and a crunchy salad. The pita was that thin pliant variety that really holds a sandwich together well. This may well have been the best item available at the food trucks assembled in that parking lot, but what struck me the most about these food offerings was the sheer variety at that level of quality. These carts were reflective of what college students wanted and found delicious. Even the little gourmet on-campus market and the vegan cafe of my undergraduate days did not rise to this level of sophistication. Would my classmates and I have thought to plan a conference based purely on the enjoyment of food? Probably not. But, in the age of the foodie, it seems, we are all more conscious of what we eat and how we document its every detail.