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Taste-testing at the Mullins

This past Thursday, the Mullins Center underwent a staggering transformation. Basketball nets and courtside seats disappeared, but the crowd noise remained. Concession stands closed down, but the scent of food lingered even stronger in the air.

The court was packed with vendors and Dining Commons chefs alike, as thousands of hungry students elbowed their way through the crowd for a shot at some free food, drinks, and maybe – just maybe – a little taste of glory.

This was the scene at Taste of UMass. Put on by the University of Massachusetts Dining Services, the annual extravaganza is the nation’s largest campus food service event, and they take it very seriously. Every dining hall on campus was closed down for the evening to allow preparation time, with the desired effect being an out-of-the-ordinary eating experience.

This year’s theme was “Global Dining, Smart Eating,” and that mantra was reflected in the choices offered up by the DC-run booths. Tapas from Spain, sushi from Japan, salsa from Mexico and scallion pancakes from China were among the international offerings, while rotini with meat sauce and other standard DC fare held down the home front.

The University was not the only food supplier of the evening. Major retailers such as Trader Joe’s and Big Y were in full-scale free sample mode, fishing for customers, local businesses used their booths to get the word out about their new, healthy products. Even the likes of Frito-Lay, Coca Cola and Tyson Chicken were present, handing out snacks by the armful (and, inadvertently, stocking fridges across campus).

The food theme carried through into the entertainment for the evening, as big-name celebrity chef Martin Yan was in attendance, giving stir-fry demonstrations and handing out signed copies of his latest hardcover, “The Yan Can Cook Book.”

Iron Chef UMass, a new event this year, was also a hit, pitting four teams of students (one representing each dining hall) against one another in a heated culinary battle. Iron Chef America’s Kevin Brauch hosted the event, narrating the challenge and hamming it up with Chef Yan on the JumboTron. In the end, the team from Worcester DC emerged victorious, winning themselves a brand new set of iPhones and some serious kitchen cred.

Not every happening was gastronomical in nature. “UMass Idol” and a local battle of the bands took up the lion’s share of the speaker space, with the former continuing nearly all evening. The talent level was high, as all the singers had already passed through a qualifying round, but when both music events performed at the same time, the effect was a bit cacophonous.

The last event of the night was another newcomer this year: hot dog eating. Sponsored by Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, the competition was officially sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating, and the participants were fighting for a spot at the Nathan’s July 4th contest on Coney Island.

“I’ll never touch a wiener again,” said one participant, after 12 minutes of furious face-stuffing.

“I think it went very well,” said Ken Toong, executive director of Dining Services. With over 8,000 students passing through, the highest attendance in three years, Toong has every right to be pleased.

“We had the best ‘Idol’ ever, and I think students really enjoyed the variety of food and beverages,” he said.

At 9 p.m., the Mullins center emptied out, select DCs re-opened, and life returned to normal in the UMass eating scene. Stuffed students, laden with stolen snacks and swiped soft drinks, made their way back home. Some were champions, some were spectators and some simply were sick off of hot dogs. But all of them had one thing in common: they had gone out of their way, gone out on a limb, and done some taste-testing.

Andrew Sheridan can be reached at asher1@student.umass.edu.

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