It’s a prosaic Friday evening in the thick of Pilani winter and with all caution thrown to the wind, I traipse into the mess, hardly eager to register my bi-weekly minimum of mess attendance.
I am at once greeted by the wry smile of the suit-clad mess manager and the general din of plates clanging, benches sliding and colleagues summing up the day’s exploits. Making my way toward the food counters, I glimpse the evening special: paneer. I don’t care to identify which variety. They all float in alarmingly orange gravy, taste about the same and are rationed by the ladle by surly mess staff, lest an unscrupulous first year helps himself to an extra few. I turn on my heel, lurching back toward the exit, in time to catch a burly senior plunging his hand into the vegetable tray, staring unabashedly. To have a writer’s imagination is sometimes a curse, I think to myself, nauseated.
I pull out my phone, ready to speed-dial Pizzeria (three years on this campus does that to you). I am informed by a harassed proprietor that outgoing orders would be delayed by 1 hour. Minimum. Post-placement revelry exacts a steep toll. Determined still, I brave the cold to reach Looters on the other side of campus, falling quietly into the queue. Around me, I see patrons animatedly following up on orders, filling seats and chowing down. Order in hand, I resign to a corner, aggressively tearing away at the wrapping to unravel an underwhelming chicken burger. I stare at it for a few seconds, then proceed to take it apart. Neatly sprawled across the wrapping sheet are now: flimsy bun, already fragmented, deep freeze (now deep fried) home-kitchen-variety chicken patty, dollops of cheap mayonnaise, ketchup, and sundry vegetables. There it sat, this spectacle of ordinariness, loathed by few, cherished by some, but passable to most. And therein lay the problem. That this travesty of flavour (or the abject lack thereof) fulfilled the bare minimum of a vague and unimaginative conception of what a burger was supposed to comprise.
A bastardized conception of the franchised urban burger, the Pilani burger experience comes up short on almost every count except its ability to hold the famished engineer (or a campus-full) to gastronomic ransom. Itself a spurious derivative, the franchise variety hardly captures the essence of the real thing: an ineffable sensory experience and superlative engineering feat. The sweetness of bun juxtaposed with the acidity of pickle, succulent meat oozing flavourful juice, luscious melt-in-your-mouth cheese, engineered rigorously to optimal proportions. Brioche or Portuguese buns? American cheddar or Swiss cheese? Fat to lean ratio? About 20/80. Bacon? Bacon. The meat, cheese, and bun composed in a heavenly symphony – that is the essence of the burger. The rest – sauces, vegetables, pickles –only meretricious ornamentation. And this isn’t gourmet. Just the diner-variety $2.50 quarter-pounder. Imagine how the modest ANC burger from the days of yore must compare.
If you find yourself to be in denial of this fact, think of the last patronizing Hollywood-directed ‘Indian’ movie you watched that spent its casting budget signing Dev Patel for the singular purpose of force-feeding you his ‘Indian-ness’ for the length of its runtime. Like most international filmmakers who can’t seem to envisage characters of Indian origin beyond driving taxis or selling slurpees while effecting exaggerated accents, the Pilani burger suffers from a lack of creative forethought and purposeful design. It only endeavours as far as a second-rate imitation of the real thing, secure in the knowledge that people have little choice and little inclination to challenge the status quo. If you make the ‘this-is-as-good-as-subsidized-rates-can-get-you’ argument, you’re probably part of the problem too. Imagine how damning a majority of people like you can be to the prospect of salvaging the campus food scene. Why bother holding authorities liable when they have flimsy counter-arguments ready-made? Even among the more eccentric on campus, ‘Burger Messiah’ is a tough sell. After all, this isn’t the sort of thing that would shine on a resume. Not like Coursera-certified ‘ML/DL expert’ anyway.
But it isn’t completely hopeless. The Pilani burger, for all its flaws, provides deep insight into the campus ethos, laying bare a culture of complacency and compromise. Because we couldn’t manage the actual thing, we’ve learned to content ourselves by feigning contentment. It takes an intrepid first step and many fruitless, thankless steps thereafter to change things. How do we expect to drive 21st-century counter-culture, combat neo-fascist ideologies and deliver cutting edge innovation for the betterment of humanity if we can’t manage to put decent food on our plates?
Can’t we, as engineers, engineer solutions to our (food) problems? Food for thought. Literally.