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Wednesday, June 25, 2008 11:52 am

The food of love

When a taste of home cooking made people sick — and lovesick

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Peter Glatz, in 1972

You could say we fell in love over dinner. Of course, there was that roll of toilet paper. My husband, Peter, and I were freshmen at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Going away to college is a dramatic change for every college student, but it was more extreme for me than for most. An only child living in the country, I was used to solitude. My roommate and I got along well, but we were polar opposites: I loved the pine trees that blocked the window because I didn’t have to close the blinds to change clothes; she dressed in the closet. She was a neat freak; I definitely wasn’t. If I set books on my desk and went to the bathroom before class, she put them away before I returned. The mix of people was also new. I’d gone to Ball-Chatham schools, which were not exactly hotbeds of diversity then. At Glenwood High, the only student who didn’t fit everyone else’s WASPish profile was a Jewish girl two years ahead of me. At UIUC there were students of every background, color, and creed; most were from the Chicago area. There were also many disabled students from everywhere; at that time UIUC was unique for its accessibility.
Then there was Unit One. Peter and I were both charter members of “an exciting new living and learning unit that will have the accessibility and camaraderie of a small college while utilizing the resources of a major university.” It’d sounded fantastic on the application. Unit One students would occupy the bottom two floors of Allen Hall, making it UIUC’s first coed dormitory. There’d be guest artists and professors in residence, and students could take special Unit One classes or design independent-study projects. How cool was that? Ah, the late 1960s and early ’70s! I’d love to know how closely Unit One’s first year reality matched its planners’ expectations. It was certainly exciting. It was also so unstructured that it bordered on chaos. Men and women were on separate floors. Technically we had curfews, but they weren’t enforced. Some special courses were worthwhile, but others were just silly or bizarre. One guy got credit for rebuilding a motorcycle; the greasy parts lay on newspapers in a lounge. Peter took a class titled “The Unspoken Thing.” It explored varieties of nonverbal communication; students were encouraged to come to class “in an altered state of consciousness.” One class activity was a sleepover at the professor’s apartment; his bedroom consisted solely of wall-to-wall mattresses. The highlight for many Unit One men was when beautiful Nora decided to hold a nude figure drawing class with herself as the model. It was certainly well attended, but any thoughts that it was a serious academic venture were belied by the number of guys who came to “class” equipped only with ballpoint pens and lined notebook paper. For better or worse I missed out on all the academic craziness. As a voice major, I had few electives; my only Unit One course was a private tutorial on William Faulkner. What I didn’t miss out on was that camaraderie. UIUC’s students were a mix generally, but the designers of Unit One had deliberately put together as diverse a bunch as you’d find anywhere, and because we were a “unit” there was less of a tendency to form friendships on the basis of shared background. It was fascinating getting to know people so different from me. It expanded my worldview but also made me appreciate my background and family in ways I hadn’t before. That included food. The dorm food was truly terrible, and before long we’d begun talking longingly about foods we missed. Eventually several of us decided that we’d bring back food to share on Sunday evenings after a weekend at home. First, Japanese-American Janet brought sticky-rice cakes and chicken teriyaki. Audrey from Skokie returned with beef brisket and a noodle kugel. Then it was my turn: chicken and homemade egg noodles, corn, creamed spinach, a huge salad, and raspberry pies. Everything except the flour and sugar for the noodles and pies we’d raised or grown ourselves. Even the lettuce came from our greenhouse. The food quickly disappeared. There were about a dozen of us. I’d seen Peter around but never met him; he’d had a couple of casual dates with Audrey; I had a similarly loose relationship with David, whose room was near Peter’s. Somebody suggested going to the 50-cent movie — 2001: A Space Odyssey — but everybody but Peter and me had Monday assignments. “You guys go by yourselves,” they said. Peter was broke, so I paid. He reimbursed me with stamps his mom sent, hoping that he’d write. I didn’t care for the movie, but I sure liked being with Peter. Afterward, we headed back toward Allen Hall but wandered off course. Peter was fascinated by stories of my close family and the organic produce farm, a huge contrast to his suburban-Chicago home and parents who constantly fought. Before I knew it, I’d asked him to come home with me sometime. Shortly after midnight, Peter had to make an emergency bathroom trip, and then another and another and another. He began realizing that he was seeing the same guys in the bathroom each time — and they’d all been at dinner. The next day brought the first beautiful spring weather. Peter and a couple of buddies, exhausted and washed out (literally), decided to skip class and head to Allerton Park, the beautiful estate owned by the U of I, which has hiking trails. His intestinal problems seemed over, but Peter shoved a roll of toilet paper in his jacket pocket as insurance. The guys decided that I’d given them food poisoning, and back at the dorm they found that the girls had had the same problem, which seemed to confirm their suspicions. I’d had an early class and been gone all day, so I didn’t know that anything was wrong, but when I returned I found a bunch of friends who weren’t very happy with me. I felt terrible but also surprised: My mom and grandmother had been preparing church dinners for hundreds of people for years; they knew about food safety. The discussion was just heating up when a voice came from behind us. “You don’t have food poisoning.” It was Tony, a few years older than everyone else. “Nobody threw up, right? And Julie’s not sick. It’s just that your systems aren’t used to that much fresh food.”
It made sense. The dorm food was basically grease and starch with a little protein thrown in. I hated it and had been subsisting mostly on fruit and things from home. I was off the hook — and, most important, it hadn’t ruined my budding relationship with Peter. We spent every minute of our free time together that week. On Thursday, David stuck his head in Peter’s room: “Have you seen Julie lately? I think there’s something wrong. I need to talk to her tonight.” Peter was waiting after my last class to take me to Metamorphosis, a hippie co-op/restaurant; then we found a strategic bench outside our dorm. We lingered until Peter saw the light in David’s room go out. On Friday, Peter broke it off with Audrey, and by Saturday we were engaged. That was 36 years ago. Fourteen months later we were married. Many of our Unit One friends thought were “selling out,” but to us, having lived in that environment, the conventional seemed unconventional Surprisingly, Unit One still exists (it now occupies Allen Hall entirely), though it’s evolved quite a bit from the wacky excesses of that first year. Our oldest daughter lived there as a freshman, and our niece Ria just finished her second year in Allen. Our first week together was a lifetime ago, and so much has happened since: kids, careers, bad times, good times, laughter, and tears. Just in case we ever forget, we have a picture of Peter sitting on a statue in Allerton with a roll of toilet paper in his jacket to remind us of how we fell in love.
Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.
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