Foreign Elations

International House's all-you-can-eat meals are Southside's best-kept secret.

His hors d’oeuvre is an ice-cream sandwich. And they’re good here: Blue Bunny brand, big as chalkboard erasers, studded with almond bits.

He unwraps it, nibbles. Reflected in his large glasses is the crowd roiling around him at dark-wood refectory-style tables lining a lofty hall whose east wall is a window. Outside, a terraced garden fades in the vanishing daylight. The young man finishes his ice-cream sandwich and unwraps a Cornetto. Also before him are two cups of sparkling watermelon juice, his coffee topped with a whipped-cream Matterhorn, and a plate overflowing with salad, spaghetti Bolognese, a black-bean burrito, an orange, an apple, a baked potato, nubbly golden fried chicken.

They’re clamoring for that chicken on the buffet line: a girl in a Google shirt, a boy whose jacket bears the circle-A anarchist symbol, another in a Yonsei University shirt, Francophones discussing gun ownership, a woman in robin’s-egg-blue salwar kameez. Others crowd the salad bar with its jewel-bright greens, beans, and cheeses, or spoon out yogurt, cereal, cottage cheese, and steamed rice, brown and white.

In other words, it is dinnertime at International House, a majestic domed and tile-roofed 77-year-old experiment in global fellowship, and home to 600 mostly foreign UC Berkeley students. Its dining hall is Southside’s best-kept secret, because for the price of your average burger, Coke, and fries, nonresidents can eat to utter repletion here, quaffing channa masala and vegan goulash and coq au vin and Jell-O in the columned refectory, or on a creamy patio flanked, Riviera-style, by citrus trees.

Some in the buffet line spoon out baked ziti and vegan stir-fry, but most want the chicken — even though they shun the turtle-green tomatillo sauce that is supposed to top it. The sauce gleams in an adjacent tub, ladle cocked as if to say: c’mon. But like any buffet crowd, this one votes with its hands. And its hands keep reaching for the chicken tongs, the feta-lentil salad, the spicy chickpea-okra soup, the cappuccino, the bagels, the toast, the PB&J, the tapioca pudding, the blue-cheese chunks. The Froot Loops.

When we were small, we realized that being grown up means being able to eat as much as you want of whatever you want, whenever you want it. When we were small, we scowled at peas and resented Dad’s I’m-entitled yawn as he speared the last waffle. When we first left home, these memories still thrummed in our minds and we made up for lost time with midnight brownie bakes and ten-sausage breakfasts, but then we forgot. Sometime between Gerber’s carrot puree and now we became so predictable, so eggs-before-ice-cream. We forgot that euphoria, the liberating dada of the two-hour megameal.

Another night at I-House, we are eating chile relleno casserole, tacos, potato salad, African tomato-okra curry, Chinese sesame-noodle salad, mashed potatoes with chicken gravy, vegetable soup, chocolate pudding, iced green tea, hot cocoa, granola, raspberry yogurt, olives, and hard- and soft-boiled eggs, in that order. Because we can. The curry is sharp and sly and sunset-red, the salad nutty and sweet, the soup heavy with penne, the casserole masonry-dense but comforting. A din rises. At the next table, someone says, “Chomsky.”

America’s first International House was founded in New York in 1924 after a young Caucasian man on the steps of Columbia University’s library said hello to a Chinese student who told him that it was the first friendly greeting he’d received during his first three weeks in the States. Berkeley’s I-House, one of many such independent, self-funded institutions nationwide, opened in 1930 — “right here on Frat Row, smack in the middle of elitism and privilege,” says kitchen-services production manager Warren Clark. In those early days, local property owners “were outraged” about I-House, Clark laughs. “They were afraid that people of different races were going to sleep together and get married — which they did.”

Many of those couples return for I-House’s annual Valentine’s Day dinners. Other theme-meals span the year — coming soon are an Oktoberfest dinner on October 19 and, premiering October 27, a Uyghur (say wee-grr) dinner that features lamb, flatbread, and other specialties of the Chinese-Muslim minority. It replaces a former I-House annual event, the Native American dinner. Clark got the idea while reading a spy novel in which Uyghur separatists are recruited as undercover agents.

A world traveler and trained chef who once ran corporate food services, Clark now researches recipes from a vast database and plans I-House’s menus. “We have to calibrate them to feed hundreds of people from fifty countries at every meal,” he explains, standing in a cavernous white-tiled kitchen where vintage steam kettles flank an actual French chef stirring a pepper-eggplant melange in a bathtub-sized vat. Other chefs whisk past bearing tubs, trays, samples of Thai green-papaya salad and spring rolls. In I-House’s earliest days, Clark says, each meal featured only a single entrée.”You took it if you liked it. If not, tough luck,” he shrugs.

These days, each I-House meal features at least one non-dairy entrée, because more than 40 percent of Cal’s freshman class is of Asian origin and many are lactose-intolerant. “Plus,” Clark says solemnly, “we’ve become much more mindful of nut allergies.”

To quell homesickness, staples at weekday lunches include miso soup and jook, salty Chinese rice-porridge.

But the best best-kept secret here is Sunday brunch. No crowds, because students tend to stay up late on Saturday nights. Typical morning dishes, French toast, scrambled eggs, sliced cheeses, a huge span of cereals, fresh fruit — and leftovers. Right there, steaming faintly in the tender autumn-morning light: meatloaf and soup.

Sitting alone at the end of a huge table, a man polishes off three plates of pickled-beet salad before 10 a.m. And what is he thinking? I will have a beet breakfast, damn you, perhaps. Smiling, he reads a science magazine.

That’s autonomy.

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