JAMES HATTORI, host:
There are a lot of things to consider when deciding on a college - the academics, the campus, the teams. Now, there is another factor - food. Those of you who survived college cuisine back in the day maybe choking on that one, but commentator Bonny Wolf says you'll find surprising treats in some campus cafeterias these days.
BONNY WOLF: Let me tell you about the special. There is Asian duck consomme, mussel bisque with roasted corn, pesto-crusted pork loin and oven-roasted beef with a black-pepper demiglace. That's all from last week's menu at Wheaton College in Illinois.
Wheaton is a Christian liberal arts school with small classes, Division III sports and some of the highest ranked campus food in the country. It's a new world. Sushi is an entitlement and there are master chefs on campus. The quality of the pasta is almost as important as the quality of the pre-med program. The Princeton Review's Best 366 Colleges has just named Virginia Tech number one for best campus food - and that's according to student ratings.
Richard Johnson is the director of dining services at Virginia Tech. He says one student this fall told him he came to the college because of the food. Johnson says it's a consumer economy and the school looks at students as customers.
So at Virginia Tech, pizza is cooked over hickory wood that the university splits itself. Campus chefs worked for three months on their gumbo, because if they're going to serve gumbo at Virginia Tech it's got to be as good as you could get in New Orleans. And if neither gumbo nor wood-fired pizza appeals to you, there's always the whole lobster or the 16-ounce rib eye — both cooked to order, of course.
Virginia Tech just bumped Bowdoin College from first place in the campus food ranking. The small school in Maine uses students' family recipes for that home-cooked taste. Bowdoin also gets points for starting the school year with a lobster bake and for its policy of buying local seafood and produce.
Buying local and thinking sustainable are growing trends on campus. Berkeley has gone so far as to put in a certified organic kitchen.
Schools know they have to listen to their students - students who want to start the day with a fair-trade latte and end it with hormone-free meat on their hickory-cooked pizza. It's not a perfect world, though. There are plenty of Burger Kings and Chick-fil-A's on campus. And the companion list to Best Campus Food is one called Is This Food? It's pretty long.
But schools are listening. When I was in college, it never occurred to me to complain about the mystery meat we were served to anyone but my roommate. Of course, when I was in college you had to wear a skirt to dinner.
HATTORI: Bonny Wolf is the author of "Talking With My Mouth Full: Bundt Cakes, Crab Cakes and Other Kitchen Stories." She's also the host of "Kitchen Window," NPR's food podcast.