CLEVELAND ― A ruckus over the cultural sensitivity of cafeteria food at Ohio’s Oberlin College has led to heaping servings of both derision and sympathy.
The complaints of some international students were first published in the Oberlin Review, the college newspaper, in early November. The article discussed a Japanese student’s complaint that rice used in the cafeteria sushi bar was undercooked and the fish wasn’t fresh; a Vietnamese student’s outrage that a beloved sliced pork and pickled vegetable sandwich called Bahn Mi was more American barbecue than Southeast Asian street food; and a Chinese student’s pan of the cafeteria’s version of the sweet and saucy favorite, General Tso’s chicken.
The story was gradually picked up in ― and picked apart by ― media across the country.
“Students at Lena Dunham’s college offended by lack of fried chicken,” the headline read in the New York Post, referring to a student’s complaint that the General Tso’s chicken was steamed instead of fried ― and to one of its more famous alumni.
The Washington Post in a story posted on its website Monday discussed the cultural appropriation of food and, as did The Atlantic Magazine, detailed the complaints first published in the college newspaper.
“It was ridiculous,” Diep Nguyen told the Oberlin Review. “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?”
Japanese student Tomoya Joshi called the cafeteria’s efforts at serving sushi “disrespectful.”
In a statement Monday, the head of dining services at Oberlin vowed to do better.
“In our efforts to provide a vibrant menu we recently fell short in the execution of several dishes in a manner that was culturally insensitive,” the statement said. “We are committed to making sure these missteps don’t happen in the future. We have met with students to discuss their concerns and hope to continue this dialogue.”
It’s understandable how a student attending school thousands of miles away might yearn for a taste of home. The diversity of the Oberlin College population doesn’t spill over into the town’s restaurant offerings.
If it’s their hometown comfort food they long for, the students would have been better served by attending college about 35 miles away, in Cleveland, where there are plenty of restaurants serving food from Vietnam and its Southeast Asian neighbors, sushi made by masters of this ancient art and seemingly a Chinese restaurant on just about every corner.
Oberlin is home to one of the country’s leading music conservatories and has a long history of student activism and protest that favor liberal and progressive causes. This is an instance when protests have turned inward.
Oberlin College and the town of Oberlin with its tidy buildings and leafy town square appear to be lifted from a Currier and Ives-etched New England setting set smack dab in the middle of Ohio corn and bean fields. It’s a place that Oberlin alumnus Thornton Wilder might have envisioned as his now iconic Grover’s Corners when he wrote his quintessential, Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Our Town.”
Joe Hutchinson, chairman of the food service and lodging management program at the University of Central Florida, said it’s a challenge for a cafeteria to meet the demands of a diverse population of students like the one at Oberlin. And there are other dietary concerns for those who are vegans or need gluten-free foods.
“I wouldn’t want to be eating sushi at a cafeteria in Oberlin, Ohio,” Hutchinson said. “You don’t know how fresh it is.”