The familiar orange packages of Top Ramen littered the countertops of Westminster College student Zach Galanis’ Sugar House home. The cupboards above housed nothing more than Rice-A-Roni cartons and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, all soldiers ready and willing to fight the war on student hunger.
As he poured the chicken flavor packet into the hand-me-down pot full of steaming noodles, 20-year-old Galanis admitted it was the third time this week he had created some variation of the meal. Tonight’s was egg-drop soup.
“Top Ramen is the ultimate college-budget food,” he said. “It’s so versatile.” He smiles, adding in that secret ingredient: Tabasco Sauce.
Such is the life of many college students. Not many refute the little red bottle’s power to spice up conventional food.
“I put hot sauce on everything,” he said. “On a good day at work, I’ll upgrade to Cholula sauce, my favorite.” Along with putting Tabasco on soup, scrambled eggs and spaghetti sauce, his favorite is cucumbers.
In addition to spicy condiments and Costco cases of packaged food, universal staples found in students’ abodes include bread, eggs and coffee.
Just as students discover short cuts to cramming the night before an exam, so too will they find shortcuts to good, tasty food. All you need is a few timeless ingredients, an inventive mind and an appetite. It doesn’t hurt to have a microwave, either.
One day, when the bread disappeared and money was scant, Galanis and his two roommates made a tasty discovery. “We put crunchy peanut butter in between two tortillas and cooked them in a buttery pan,” he said. “Then we dipped the tortilla in jelly ... food has never been the same since.”
Galanis admitted his laziness often prompts him to microwave the creation instead. “That utility is a beautiful thing,” he said.
The wonder of owning a microwave that buzzes, sizzles, then beeps, delivering a meal in a matter of minutes doesn’t go unnoticed for 22-year-old University of Utah student Danielle Holbeck, either.
“There’s nothing like coming home from a long day to a bag of potatoes,” she said. “They’re dirt cheap, and I can microwave them for two minutes,” she said, hauling the sack from her pantry of her rented Sugar House home. “They’re really filling, too.”
Not all students give in to the power of the microwave, however. University of Utah student Sean Brennan doesn’t have the appliance in his Avenues home, nor would he use one if he did. Though also on a shoestring budget, Brennan, 22, finds other ways to cook in an Epicurean fashion, preparing the food himself.
“Instant food like Top Ramen is for wussies and people who go to the Laundromat and look at dials and think, â€˜What the hell is this supposed to mean?’” he said. “When I prepare food for myself or someone else, it takes about an hour, two glasses of wine and loud jazz.
Even if the wine is Carlo Rossi.
Brennan considers himself a highly selective and frugal shopper, going a few times a week to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and spending less than $10 every visit.
“It’s all arbitrary,” he said. “I’ve learned that you can’t get corn all the time, but you can always count on spinach and peppers.
His budget food of choice is something he calls “Irish Curry,” after his Irish background. The sauce consists of coconut milk, curry paste, sugar, fresh basil and olive oil. Although expensive, these are enduring ingredients, he pointed out.
“One time, when I lived in Oregon and olive oil was scarce, my roommates and I resorted to ganja oil,” he said. Potent and very concentrated, the oil flowed like water in the northwestern woods. “It tasted like oil, that’s all we cared about.
Brennan said the sauce goes on whatever he may have in the fridge at the time, usually corn, bell peppers, potatoes, onions and rice.
“My roommates and I cut up huge chunks of the vegetables,” he said. “That way, it’s easier to eat, and we seem more satisfied.
Brennan also considers artistic culinary appeal. “Cutting ingredients large also makes it look good on the plate,” he said. “I feel like I’ve had an expensive meal.
Cheap, creative cuisine doesn’t stop at the main courses, however.
Holbeck makes a massive batch of Rice Krispies treats by microwaving marshmallows and mixing in cereal.
“The grand total for the two ingredients comes to $3.17 with my student discount card,” she boasted.
Galanis likes to think of his approach to dessert as a bit more creative, though no more expensive. He cuts a full banana lengthwise and layers pieces of a Hershey’s chocolate bar inside. After wrapping the banana with tinfoil and cooking it at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, a caramelized banana ensues. “My friends are impressed,” he said.
But it’s actually hunger pangs, combined with empty bank accounts, that prove incentive enough to create edible, cost-effective meals. Considering the work that goes into many students’ food, having enough for leftovers the next day is desirable.