Graduate School Gourmet

By JoAnne Hewett | January 17, 2006 8:11 pm

The recent issue of Symmetry Magazine (a joint publication of SLAC and Fermilab, devoted, by their own assertion, to the dimensions of particle physics and worth taking a look at) has a humorous article on graduate student cuisine. The Symmetry editors polled a set of particle physicists and asked for their best and most memorable graduate student culinary experiences and then published the results.

You have probably been wondering, keeping you up at night no doubt – Just what do graduate students eat anyway? Or, you might wonder – Why could this possibly be interesting? Eating well as a graduate student typically poses serious challenges: students have little time or money. Most of us who have been through the experience look back, shake our heads, laugh, and wonder – How did I live through that? Most of you current students probably wonder – How am I going to live through this!? Those of you planning to attend graduate school, well, here are some enticing recipes just for you:

Broiled Pigs’ Feet
From Johns Hopkins University physicist Jonathan Bagger

“I lived with four housemates in Princeton. We had an ongoing competition to see who could make the cheapest meal. The winner, at 17 cents a serving, was pigs’ feet. Not cooked the way pigs’ feet normally are, but simply broiled.”

Place pigs’ feet in preheated broiler (or oven at 450°F) Broil until done. Place artistically on plate and serve. Yum!

Perhaps you’re looking for something a little more typical:

Noodles à la Kephart
From Fermilab physicist Bob Kephart

“Noodles à la Kephart got me through graduate school at SUNY Stony Brook.”

* Boil a large package of macaroni.
* When cooked, add a brick of Velveeta cheese and a package of the cheapest hot dogs* you can find, cut up.
* Stir.
* Empty into dish.
* Eat for lunch and dinner each day for one week.
* When finished, return to Step 1.

May be garnished with canned peas, eaten cold from can.
*Caution: Do not read ingredients on hot dog package.

Here’s my contribution to the article:

Graduate Student Beef Stroganoff
From SLAC physicist JoAnne Hewett

“During my graduate student days my diet consisted of food that was cheap and quick to prepare. My main staple was Kraft Macaroni & Cheese at 29 cents per box. Other favorites were hotdogs with a slice of cheddar cheese wrapped in a piece of whole wheat bread; frozen fish sticks (fish was touted as brain food); tuna casserole; and taco salad. Once every couple months, on the weekend, I would make a humongous batch of spaghetti. The sauce consisted of a jar of Rague to which I added a pound of real hamburger meat and spices from a jar labeled ‘spaghetti spices.’ I considered this spaghetti absolutely delicious. It was a real treat.

“For fancy dinners, for example when I was cooking to impress somebody or when my parents visited, I made what I called `Graduate Student Beef Stroganoff.’ It is a hand-me-down recipe from physicist Tom Rizzo when he was a graduate student. My mother pretended to like it and copied the recipe. She still has that original recipe in her file, and here’s a picture of it. I wonder if she’s ever made it? The recipe is in my handwriting, with notes added from both my mother and Tom Rizzo.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Food and Drink
  • Sean

    JoAnne, your non-fancy-dinner selections constitute a substantial fraction of my childhood meals, except mine were notably worse. (By grad school I largely subsisted on Chinese food and ice cream.) I shudder to think how many hot dogs I microwaved with a slice of American cheese, wrapped in Wonder bread, and wolfed down in my youth. I just hope that none of the molecules originating in those hot dogs still linger in my body today.

  • Bob Munck

    Graduate School Gourmet

    Scout’s honor, I read your second sentence as “The Symmetry editors boiled a set of particle physicists …”

    I think I’ve hurt myself.

  • Sean

    Bob, boiled particle physicists don’t make good eating. They’re kind of stringy.

    (Oh, I kill myself!)

  • Sam Gralla

    Hi JoAnne,

    I’m quite surprised you were even able to eat that stuff as a graduate student, considering what a sophisticated palette you have now! Did you enjoy foie gras as a graduate student? Do you still enjoy hotdogs with cheddar in flimsy bread? :)

    I tend to braise stuff on weekends and eat it during the week. And of course make large batches of pasta. Also a really useful one is italian sausage with sauteed onions and peppers (as a sandwich, on some kind of bun). In fact I have a gigantic container of sausage/pepper/onion mixture sitting in the fridge a few doors down from Sean’s office right now… (but hands off buddy, unless you get really hungry ;p)


  • A grad student

    1. Place several sweet potatoes on a tray in the oven.
    2. Cook for 1 hr and 15 minutes.
    3. Eat them 2 of them.
    4. If you are hungry later eat the remaining ones, otherwise save them for lunch the next day.
    5. Repeat several times a week.

  • JoAnne

    Oh – particle physicists are much better if we are poached and not boiled! (Say poached particle physicists 3 times fast…OK, I’m getting silly!)

    Sean: you are what you eat. Those hotdog molecules (not to mention the American cheese) are bouncing around as we speak.

    Sam G: I had foie gras for the first time in 1998 (in a restaurant in France just outside of CERN) – many years after grad school! The last time I had mac&cheese and hot dogs, I gained FIVE pounds in ONE night! I have not touched the stuff since (unless I’m at a baseball game when a Ballpark Frank becomes a necessity).

    Grad Student: Perfect! Just the kind of thing the article was looking for! And, much healthier than Sean and his hotdogs!

  • fh

    Germany makes the best frozen Pizzas.

  • Arun

    I was not vegetarian when I was in grad school – the easiest meal was chicken breasts smothered in Campbell’s mushroom soup and baked + rice cooked in a rice cooker.

  • Paul

    Cheese toasties – makes a loaf of bread look like a feast, and they’re quick enough that cooking time may be neglected.

  • Pingback: Crooked Timber » » The 17c grad student meal()

  • Eugene

    Baked Chicken Thighs

    Stick em into the oven. Baked at 350C for 30-45mins (according to taste/time). Eat em. No marinating needed. Good stuff.

  • Anonymous

    Hmm…graduate students will make excellent Fear Factor contestants…I wonder why they never came up with “He who knows all, eats all”…but wait, they did: The NERDS- the only candy a nerd can afford!…or how about: “The decay of the hot dog particle- a Sean Carroll Study: year 80″…

  • Philip

    I just read somewhere that during WWII in Great Britain when food was strictly rationed and proteins were especially scarce, biologists ate their lab rats.

    Maybe you physicists could figure a way to market Schrodinger’s cat as diet food. Zero calories–at least in this universe.

  • Ambitwistor

    My advisor told me a story of his graduate school days at Chicago in the 1970s… he lived in a bachelor apartment with three other guys. One of his roommates had the following cooking strategy: put an eggplant in the oven and turn it on. When you hear the eggplant explode, dinner is ready. He said that nobody ever cleaned the oven either, and consequently, their meals were a statistical mixture of all previous meals ever prepared in that oven.


  • Ambitwistor

    P.S. I will not even begin to describe my graduate colleague’s turkey bacon and peanut butter concoction, nor my other colleague’s soup prepared in the uncleaned coffee machine.

  • citrine

    I know that a lot of Asian grad students buy staples such as rice and condiments in bulk during the semester breaks. For those who live in small towns, this means doing a day trip to an Asian Food store in the nearest big town and returning home at night with a carload of stuff.

    Fried rice is pretty quick and tasty. It’s also low cost and uses up a lot of leftovers, too.

    To me, one of the most memorable phrases from “Cosmos” is that the brain is where matter turns into consciousness. So Sean (and others), think of matter from those hotdogs and Velveeta that transformed into your consciousness. :)

  • Quibbler

    For those of you wishing to smarten up your culinary repertoires, this is my standard student fare. And it’s super-yummy.


  • steve

    When Steve Sommars and I were grad students at SUNY@SB in the late 70s we organized a dessert club that worried about the ice creams and baked desserts we could do. One of our cheesecakes placed 2nd in a Macy’s NYC contest. Another member made serious art breads that were sold (illegally I’m sure) at BNL every day. Chocolate arrived every few months from people who were commuting back and forth to CERN.

    Our oven was labeled in milli-electron volts …

  • Harv

    As an astronomy grad student, I feel I must contribute.

    When I lived by myself, I ate seasoned noodles a lot – angel hair pasta with various spices, parmesean cheese (out of the can), and olive oil. I also would make Kraft Mac & Cheese with ground turkey or Shepard’s Pie – ground turkey, canned green beans, & cream of mushroom soup topped with out of the box mashed potatos.

    Now that I’m living with a gourmet cook, I eat very well (Indian, Thai, Mexican, Chinese) and did even when he was still an astronomy grad student, too. One of our simpler dishes was French Bread pizza – one loaf of grocery store fresh baked French Bread, sliced in half lengthwise, one can of Ragu Pizza Sauce, some mozzerela cheese, and any veggies or pepperoni to taste. Put together and bake at 350 degrees for ~10 minutes or until cheese melts/bread gets crispy.

    Sam Gralla, sausage with peppers and onions is one of our staple meals too – we usually eat the mixture over pasta and top it with freshly grated parmesean cheese (I’ve moved up in the world).

    Nowdays, when he’s gone, I’ll just eat out or may be make an omelette.

    Though I will say we live in a place with a lower cost of living and a grad school that pays well.

  • Chad Orzel

    My own grad school staple required a bit more work, but, weirdly, it’s really popular with people in my department now– I made it for a departmental potluck lunch, and got a bunch of requests for the recipe.

    I tended to make that, or chili, or a sort of “food that was on sale stir-fry” thing together with a great big batch of rice, and eat it for lunch and dinner over an entire week. I also had a couple of pasta things that could be padded out to a week’s worth of food (and at 6’6″, 270-ish, I go through a lot of food in a week…).

  • Quibbler

    It almost pains me to hear some of these stories. I eat well and cheaply at university. The recipe i linked to in my post (number 17) is one of my current favourites — there’s nothing like harisa to warm you up in January. It’s not for people who can’t handle spice though.

    Other standard fare includes steamed or stir-fried veg with pasta, chicken and veg and rice, home-baked bread, lentils, or risotto (which is a brilliant plan for students — it’s cheap, easy to cook, doesn’t require that much in the way of ingredients, yet is so filling and much more interesting than plain rice).


  • JoAnne

    fh: I am stuck on frozen pizzas to this day, actually they were too expensive for me as a grad student, but I eat them in large quantities now! In fact, I just had one tonight – a CPK (CA Pizza Kitchens) portobello mushroom pizza which I embellished with proscuitto, goat cheese, and fresh tomatoes. Yum! I’m a sucker for pizza…

  • robert

    Good to hear that pig’s feet are still sustaining post graduates. Many years ago, the good wife and I would purchase a foot or two from the local butcher. Boiled up, this provided meat and jelly sufficient to make pork pies (this is the UK after all) that sustained us for days. And what did we drink? A bizarre brew made by boiling up dandelion roots and lemons, adding sugar and fermenting. Excellent , though the bottles did tend to explode in the summer.

  • Sam Gralla


    Wow–I’ve got to find me a gourmet chef to live with!


  • Astro Grad

    I feel amazed that no one mentioned frozen dinners or cans of soup! A guy in my class didn’d even have cutlery or plates, he just heated the stuff in the microwave and ate it with plastic spoons. I on the other hand, definitely had utensils but ate frozen meals 10 meals out of 14. The other 4 meals I would do some cooking but very basic stuff, like fried rice & some veggies.

  • Pingback: Plotinus or Bust! » Graduate School Gormet()

  • Bob

    I eat one raw bell pepper with each meal along with one jalapeno. I even sneak them with into restaurants, cut up nicely in a zip loc. Being a celiac, pizza is out of the question along with any bread whatsoever. Yet, from what I am reading here in these posts does appear to fit what most grad students do throw done their gut…Pizza wins by a mile.

  • Harv

    Sam, I do recommend it, though my fiance is only a gourmet chef on the side – he’s a theoretical astrophysicist by day. :)

  • Paul

    There’s a persistent myth at Stanford about an unfortunate (stupid?) grad student who ended up in the hospital with a bizarre smattering of bruises and rashes covering his entire body. At first the young doctors were unable to diagnose the illness, so they called on a more experienced clinician. After some thought, the wise old doctor asked the grad student what his typical day was like, specifically what he ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “Hot dogs,” the student replied. “For which meal?” the doctor asked. “All of them.” According to legend, this was the first diagnosed case of scurvy (vitamin-C deficiency) in the history of Stanford Hospital. The treatment: “Go home and eat an orange.”

  • Pingback: Friday Femmes Fatales No 41 - Philobiblon()

  • Pingback: A Stanford Physics Student in Berkeley » Blog Archive » Grad Student Gourmet()


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

See More

Collapse bottom bar