It’s all about the presentation.
As a kid my dad told me that you can cook the best steak in the world, serve it on the finest china with the nicest linens, and you’ll have a meal fit for a king. Serve the same steak on a garbage can lid and no one will touch it. It’s all in the presentation.
I was reminded of this when the eighth anniversary of the demise of the famed "chicken cosmo" came and went last month – April 4, to be exact. The chicken cosmo was a near-universally liked sandwich served in the Penn State dining halls. For more than 26 years, generations of students and alumni sang its praises and swore it was the greatest eating experience since, well, sliced bread.
At the height of its popularity Penn State Food Services was making 274,000 chicken cosmos a year. Alumni requested them when they returned for visits. People made videos about them. On their last day of existence – April 4, 2008 – special T-shirts were distributed marking the event.
The cult of the chicken cosmo. A breaded chicken patty garnished with lettuce served in a soft and delicious white-bread bun.
Here’s the rub – I believe students once considered a key part of this delicacy an inedible scrap of compressed meat and the bane of their dorm living experience. Travel back in time with me to a simpler era – the 1970’s. Blue jeans, mini-skirts, rock ‘n roll. And the despised “chicken steak” in the dining halls on campus.
In those simple days the dining halls were simpler as well. Students could only eat in the dining hall in the dorm area where they lived. There were no special names or cuisine focuses – each dining hall served the exact same food as every other. Things were so simple that when salad bars were introduced in the late 70s, they were viewed as a revolutionary concept.
And like clockwork, the dreaded chicken steak showed up regularly on the dinner menu all over campus.
The chicken steak was a breaded chicken patty served plain on a plate. No garnish or gravy. It was the butt of many dining hall jokes and skewered regularly in The Daily Collegian. One Collegian column related how an associate dean lecturing to a class referred to the collegiate atmosphere as a “cafeteria of knowledge” to which a wise-guy student replied, “Yeah, and we’re in the chicken steak of curriculums.”
Personally, I was convinced that the chicken steak was unfit for neither man nor beast. This is where our story takes a personal turn.
In the fall of my sophomore year, unhappy with being served this vile concoction, I tacked a chicken steak to the bulletin board above my dorm room desk. There it hung, day after day, for the rest of the school year. No change. When spring term ended I knew in the fall I would be rooming down the hall on the same floor, so I removed the bottom drawer of my dresser, placed the chicken steak on the floor and replaced the drawer, knowing it was unlikely that space would be cleaned over the summer.
When I returned to the dorm in the fall I went into my old room, retrieved the chicken steak, and tacked it to the bulletin board above the desk in my new room. No decomposition, smell, or visible change.
At that time I was involved in student government and president of the dorm area where I lived, which made me a member of the governing body for all the dorms – the Association of Residence Hall Students (ARHS). At an ARHS meeting a few weeks into fall term I was eager to exhibit proof of the inedibility of the chicken steak and hasten its elimination from our dining hall menus.
Luckily, chicken steak was being served in the dining halls the day of the meeting. I took a brand-new chicken steak, along with my year-old chicken steak, to the meeting that night. When discussion about the dining halls came up, I produced my two chicken steaks. I explained one had been cooked that day and the other was one-year-old and had not been preserved in any way. I passed them around for everyone to examine and when they were unable to determine which was which, I suggested if insects and bacteria wouldn’t eat them, we probably shouldn’t either.
In true volunteer organization fashion, my demonstration resulted in my appointment as the liaison to food services and being tasked with ALL the dorm food issues (good life lesson – sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut).
Interestingly, the appointment turned out to be a good experience for me. I learned never to read the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Defect Action Levels Booklet. I got to work with the late Bill Curley, the director of food services, a great guy who was as no-nonsense an administrator as you could ever want. I got to taste-test lots of options for the dining halls – such as a concoction called ratatouille (long before the movie) that I found very unappealing – as well as stromboli and sausage sandwiches which were added to the menu.
We even made some headway on the chicken steak. From food services standpoint they understood the widespread animosity towards it. But enough were eaten to demonstrate someone (not anyone I knew) wanted them, and they filled a niche with regards to cost, preparation and nutrition that wasn’t easily replaced. As a concession to our request food services reduced the frequency with which chicken steaks were served and continued to search for other options.
Soon thereafter I unceremoniously buried my personal chicken steaks in the quad for discovery by future civilizations.
Years later my wife and I visited Happy Valley for a football game and the students we met regaled us with stories about a new menu item in the dining halls – the chicken cosmo. A delectable treat consisting of a chicken patty and lettuce inside a tasty bun. A college student’s dream meal. However, without cell phone pictures or the internet it took another few years before I was able to gaze upon this culinary “winner, winner, chicken dinner” and see what all the fuss was about.
But once I finally got my first glimpse of a chicken cosmo, one thing seemed very clear to me – Penn State food services had dressed up the dreaded chicken steak!
As I said, it’s all about the presentation.