Constantly charged, we, the students, have only two places to fuel up: the Caf and the Cage.
The Caf is static; everyone has their default menu lines and regular dinner times. For a majority of the campus, that once-every-so-often trip to the Cage is the spice in our dietary lives. The Cage has it made -- the Caf and the Pause couldn't hope to threaten their mile-line enterprise. So, why do I shell out 4 bucks for a shake, when there are dollar shakes in the Pause? When I hand Robbie my keys, what am I really paying for?
It certainly isn't the food. Now, to be fair, the finger-licking adventures of this super-taster run short and few in between. I can only be the judge of what I eat, and my dietary range doesn't really expand off the kid's menu.
My first-year experiences in the Cage included one, and only one, dish: chicken fingers. Chicken fingers are the universal I-don't-want-to-challenge-my-pallet food. They show up everywhere, sometimes under the guise of "chicken tenders," "chicken strips," or the elusive "clucks." The basic composition of a finger: crumbly, fried, breaded crusties and a chicken's breast muscle. To me, this is no bland experience. One can totally judge a chef by the attention she pays to her chicken fingers. The breaded liner can be laced with a rich, buttery base, and it can sparkle with different sorts of spice blends. Or they can just be deep-fried, tasting only of greasy neglect. The breast muscle itself can be that exact balance of diagonally stacked sinews. Or it can be a conglomeration of muscled clumps held together by chewy, leaky arteries and jiggly fat deposits.
The chicken fingers at the Cage come in sets of four. The first three offer a generally well-balanced muscle composition, and the breading offers a lightly spiced and dry flavor (no clinging grease). However, the fourth finger is always a gnarly joke. Thicker than the rest, the breading conceals its true innards: a sloppy slice off the edge of the breast, joined to something gross and something even grosser. For me, putting a finger like this in my mouth is like opening a chicken's chest, sticking in my tongue and licking around for buried treasure. It is a very intimate experience, and I don't remember any of those chickens asking me to go steady. So I spend $4.20 for an intimacy crisis. Every time. And I continued to spend that much at least once a week.
Sophomore year, I graduated to the grilled cheese. Honestly, I had not been attracted to the idea of a grilled animal byproduct until my 19th year. I always ordered the exact same sandwich: sourdough bread and cheddar cheese. Sourdough and cheddar actually compliment each other, the sour deluding the sharp. However, the sour only deludes the sharp when attention is paid to the bread. What are we grilling? What is touching the burning grid? The bread! Sometimes the Cage takes the name grilled cheese a little too literally. I did not spend $2.80 to have my taste buds drowned by toxic spills of cheddar, cheddar, cheddar and cheddar. The bread must work as a frame, and the cheese should be a pal -- not an oppressor. In addition, the failed grilled cheese requires the hidden cost of a forest of napkins. Perhaps the price of napkins inflated the price of squeezed cheese flood. Again, why did I continue to order something that vexed me so?
For the sake of this article, I decided to combine my undergraduate experiences. I ordered the chicken finger melt. I stared at this monster sandwich, preparing my mouth for the cheddar-ooze flood and crunchy chicken logs. Then I couldn't go through with it. I gave it to a football player and dropped 80 cents on an apple, a mere dent after the exorbitant $4.90 that I spent on the sandwich.
Now, as a well-tasted senior, I have graduated to food with more than two layers. I've also found the confidence to be very specific about what I want. I now order a grilled chicken caesar wrap, hot-pressed with no tomatoes. The Cage has nothing to do with how slimy and uneven the tomatoes are, neither do they have anything to do with my inability to ingest cold meat. However, it is their fault that Caesar juice drips from the wrap like oil from a Jeep Cherokee, again, raising the invisible cost of napkins. My version of the grilled chicken Caesar wrap is safe. I wouldn't kick it out of bed, but we definitely do not tango to the moon. For this, I drop $4.05.
So what am I paying for? The consistency of an apathetic meal? The alternate to wandering haplessly through the Caf? The opportunity to sit at a table alone and not feel judged? Whatever it is I pay for, it certainly isn't the food.