Higher education has afforded me several opportunities in my career that I would not have been able to do otherwise. I have traveled the entire country, I have met friends from literally all 50 states, I have been able to connect and diversify my friendships in ways that is just not possible anywhere else. And then there is the food. I must admit, one of my favorite things about this job is the food. Be it a pizza party with students or a 5-star restaurant with friends there have been moments in my career I will treasure forever, and they begin with food. Food is one of the great connectors in life. Like music it transcends language and culture. We tend to forget differences and we often take chances with our meals. Is that a little spicy, lets give it a chance! This is a post about food.
I must admit though, it is also not really about the food. It is about what the food represents, the people you share it with. Making new friends, and connecting with old pals, there is never a good meal without good company. So, I wanted to retell, in 10 short stories, 10 meals that made my career special.
Meal One – The Baby Shower
In 2001 my wife and I were about to have a baby. Our kid, who is currently a freshman at Mississippi State, was on her way and in the fall the due date was getting close. Nicole worked as an LPC for a substance abuse center, and I was working with the program board at Stephen F. Austin. One day I came into the back room where the students are usually camped because I was called in to be there. And there was a baby shower for Nicole and I! my students had set the whole thing up. From the potluck meal to the cake to the presents that included lots of SFA gear for our little one. I must admit, I cannot remember what we ate or if it was even good, but it was just the idea that my students and the office staff cared about my wife and I to do that. I will never forget it.
Meal Two – Chicken Spaghetti
It was week four after Hurricane Rita and William R. Johnson was finally empty. We were ready to close shop and be done for a while. And we were exhausted. Aramark had really outdone themselves for the entire ordeal. Providing meals for all our residents and for us and without them, it would have not been possible. They made one last meal. It was Chicken Spaghetti, a staple for East Texas. It is spicy and creamy and delish! Our staff and the Aramark staff just sat there, in the quiet and ate. The coliseum was dark except for the lights on the concourse, and no one said a word. And then we could hear our chewing. It was so loud and suddenly, as if on cue, we all started laughing uncontrollably. We were so tired, and we were finally done. It was a catharsis for all of us.
Meal Three – 801 Steakhouse
I was with my students from Omicron Delta Kappa at their national meeting and they wanted to go to a nice steakhouse. So, one of our students set up a reservation in their $1 million wine room and we all dressed up and went to dinner. It would be the most expensive dinner I have ever purchased. We were there for four hours and we all ordered steaks and sides and dessert and those of age enjoyed a cold beer and wine. It was the first time I had to call my wife to get permission to buy a steak that cost over $150. And it was worth every penny. That was a great night of fun and food.
Meal Four – The Shrimp at Elmo’s Steakhouse
My friend Jeanna invited me to dinner at St. Elmo’s steakhouse in Indianapolis during NASPA. While the steaks are the main event the place is famous for their extra spicy shrimp cocktail. So, this dinner was mainly her friends, but she said I would really like them, and she was not lying. I had a blast. But the best part was when we all took our first bite of the shrimp. We all took a big scoop of the horseradish and chomped down. And then we all started crying and laughing it was sooooo spicy! Our noses were running, we all got red in the face, it was so much fun. The rest of the dinner was fantastic, and the steakhouse was a wonderful host but the shrimp and our reaction was the key.
Meal Five – Friday Seder with Chabad at UCF
One year when I was the Student Involvement director my family was invited to Seder with our Chabad organization. So, of course we went. Now I have never been to a Seder and I was not sure what to do. But the students and staff made us feel comfortable and the food was delightful. Now I love traditional Jewish food, but the traditions of the meal were new to me. As I was in line with my plate, I was not sure how to fill my plate, what all the foods were, and I know I looked a bit lost. That was when one of my SGA senators stood next to me and said, “Dr. Preston, can I help you make sense of this?” and she walked me through the entire process with care and love. She then finished with a “thank you for coming to Seder, it means a lot you are willing to be uncomfortable for us.” And that really hit home. Sometimes we need to find joy in discomfort, and this shows students we care, and that matters.
Meal Six – The Spy Café
There is no one I have eaten more meals with or traveled more with than my best pal Adam. We are two peas in a pod, except when it comes to food. He is FAR more adventurous than I am. I am a meat and potatoes guy; he is a fancy lad. We were in Washington D.C. and he had picked this tapas place that was both expensive and I hated everything on the menu. Seeing I was crazy uncomfortable he suggested we find another place. He did not have to do that but that is the kind of guy he was. We ended up eating like a burger at a theme restaurant called the Spy Café in D.C. It was kind of awful and now that is the running joke. No matter where we go, he must ask if there is a Spy Café so we can eat. What a guy.
Meal Seven – Golden Grahams in a Salad Bowl
This one is just for me. My go to meal after every concert, and I have produced over 60 of them was to grab a box of Golden Grahams and a half gallon of milk and pour the entire box into a salad bowl and dig in while watching MTV in my living room. Concerts are basically 24-hour affairs and at the end you are exhausted and just want comfort food. That was mine and I cannot see that box without thinking about it.
Meal Eight – Dinner Time at Jack Camp
For 10 years I oversaw a program called Jack Camp at SFA. It was a freshman orientation camp where we essentially did summer camp things and learned the campus traditions. I was often the camp nurse, ran the c-store, and kept things running behind the scenes. I usually did not see the whole camp until dinner time. Now, the tradition was before you ate you said the blessing. Not a prayer but we all sang the school song. We put our axes up (a hand sign for the college) and sang the school song. It was the most important and unifying thing we did at the camp. We started camp by teaching them the song, we ended camp with the school song and at every meal we sang it. And each meal the song got louder and more passionate. You knew they were becoming Lumberjacks before our very eyes.
Meal Nine – Lunch with my Wife
For about six years my wife and I worked across the street from each other. She was a counselor for the counseling department, and I was in student affairs at Stephen F. Austin. And most days we would pack a lunch and meet each other in my office for lunch where we would chat and have a quiet moment in our chaotic life. That same tradition continued when she began work at UCF and I was there too. Meeting for lunch, just the two of us. We now work in different places and I gotta admit, I miss it. I think we are a stronger couple because of those times together. Also, she would see my students and her students (who were part of a student organization she advised) and it helped them make connections to us as a team.
Meal Ten – November 9, 2016
It was the day after the 2016 election and I must admit, I was none too happy with the result. My friend and co-worker LaToya and I decided to drown our sorrows in Greek food and wine at a restaurant in Tampa. We were there for a conference on transfer success data and we were all bummed out. We slipped out early to hit up happy hour. As we sat there and sulked a bit the waitress came to our table. She seemed bummed too. We all chatted, and the young woman began to cry. She was so worried and said she felt so alone in her disappointment in the election. We all had a moment and bonded. For LaToya and me it was a reminder what we were working for and to shake it off and get to work. I think that was the moment LaToya and I became a team. Since then, she has moved onto another job but for a few years we would often recount the sadness and hope in that meal.
And that is the point. These meals mark time, but they also lock in the confidence that our career and work is special. Each of those moments were not about the food but about the connection. I know there are manty more meals to go but so far it has been special. My career, a meal at a time. Hopefully, we will eat together soon.