Rare Means Rare at Exeter

Tofu, veggie patties or even turkey burgers aside, beef is still on the menu. According to college foodservice officials, beef is very much in demand and holds its own among the array of alternatives—chicken, pork, fish and vegan options.

America seems to have an on-again, off-again relationship with beef. It was devalued over the last decade as many consumers, armed with new crops of research results, began to question the wisdom of the traditional meat and potato dinner. Beef was, at least for a little while, overshadowed by a current of demand for vegetarian cuisine, leaner meats and other alternatives perceived as healthier.

Still, beef seems always to ride out the waves of food trends and is a mainstay in the American diet.

It's what's for dinner: "When vegetarianism came to the forefront, we were concerned that beef would take a back seat," says Walter Griffin, director of dining services for Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH. "But beef has been a traditional entree and for me, removing beef from the daily diet would be a mistake."

Exeter, a private prep school that boards a majority of its more than 1,000 students, serves an array of beef dishes, many of which are old-fashioned comfort foods. Meat loaf and roast beef sandwiches are ever popular, as are London broils and short ribs. And of course, the hamburger continues to reign supreme.

Griffin says for a time it seemed beef sales were hindered by negative publicity ranging from concerns about hoof-and-mouth and mad cow diseases and E. coli to other health issues such as heart disease. However, beef has remained a popular choice while foodservice providers strive to offer consumers as much variety as is feasible. Griffin adds that he believes it will continue to trend up.

Tom Siegel, executive chef at the University of Montana, in Missoula, has a hunch that beef was never as out of mode as many people thought. He says while it appeared that consumption was down, he suspects that the perceived drop-off was somewhat exaggerated. "In actual numbers, we still had very solid beef sales here," he says.

Simplicity: Beef is a menu staple at the Univ. of Montana. The rule of thumb, however, seems to be: keep it simple. "This crowd likes their beef in a plain fashion," says Siegel. This is especially true of the university's younger students who eat at the campus' only resident hall dining facility, which serves about 600 students for lunch and 800 for dinner.

Meat loaf, pasta with Bolognese sauce and chicken fried steaks are among the most popular. Beef is cooked in a number of other ways:

Chopped beef filling a taco.

Roast beef sliced and layered in a sandwich or served on a plate au jus or with mushroom sauce.

Or a charbroiled beef patty on a bun.

It is also the centerpiece of one of the most requested dishes the university serves in its catering services: a tri-peppered, stuffed beef tenderloin.

Still, Towson (MD) University's Dick White points out some undeniable changes in the American diet. "Twenty years back, beef was overwhelming the most popular item," he says. But he says, as beef has trended down, there has been a subsequent rise in popularity of turkey and chicken.

Part of the mix: These days beef is just one of a variety of menu options than could have been found in foodservice outlets 10 or 20 years back. Yet it continues to be an important component in most menus.

White says the cheese steak sandwich probably ranks as one of the most favored beef dishes served at Towson Univ. The campus also menus meat-filled lasagna, pasta with meat sauce or meatballs, beef stir-fry—and of course, hamburgers, with or without cheese.

Hamburger is the top beef item at Cottey College in Nevada, MO. Asst. fsd Maryann Feldmann says health concerns don't seem to be slowing down beef consumption at the 300-student school.

Cottey, a two-year women's college, serves at least one beef dish daily at its dining hall. Meatloaf, stir-fried beef and broccoli, and the Greek dish moussaka are all on the campus menu rotation.

Beef meals show up as special requests, as well. The campus' dining services cooks up specific orders at least twice a week for its Centennial Dinner program. The program grants the students of each of Cottey's 34 residential suites the opportunity to order a customized, special dinner one night during the school year. Students in each suite are given a blank menu that they can collectively fill out, and their wish-list dinner will be made for them on a designated night. Requests range from snails to lobster, but filet mignon, carne asada, and other beef specialties also show up on students' menus.

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