Guide to the Nostrum Universe Nostrum Correspondence
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you read this week's epistle from
To the Lord, Praises Be / It’s Time for Dinner so Let’s All Eat
The problem is simple.
The average multi-day forensics
tournament has to feed anywhere from two hundred to six hundred debaters,
Speechies, coaches, parents, and assorted hired judges, plus any felons hiding
in the protective coloring of your average American high school (which is why
some tournaments issue tickets upon registration, to make sure that the felons
don’t eat some Polician’s share of the bounty), the local homeless who make it
past the crack school security system, the gendarmes of the crack school
security system, the custodians, the copy-machine woman, Republican Presidential
hopefuls who can’t find New Hampshire, and any number of other freebooters whose
stomachs start to growl at the appropriate moment. College tournaments usually
don’t bother to feed the assembled multitudes, on the assumptions that any money
they take in during registration is best kept on their own side of the ledger
sheet, and that the debate universe is better off eating fast food at the same
places the college students do. But high schools are not always surrounded by a
protective ring of fast-food eateries, and dinner on Friday night is usually
between the second and third rounds, where the last thing the tournament
director wants is half the entrants wandering away seeking sustenance off the
grounds. Any delay among the early rounds can lead to disaster later in the
night, when the time comes to house the assembled multitudes. So high schools
inevitably bring the food in to the students, working on the premise that the
more they can control, the fewer horrible things will happen. This premise is
not exactly true, but it is as close to a tournament-running maxim as has yet
So the problem is feeding two to six
hundred people in approximately one hour.
The solutions are as simple as the
In the best-case scenario, the high
school cafeteria staff works overtime, their faces decorated with gleeful
happy-to-be-here smiles as they outdo themselves in the kitchen, laying out a
choice of two main courses, soup, a pasta entrée, deli sandwiches, and a
delightful and fresh salad bar featuring all-you-can-eat shrimp. Not only is the
food delicious, but the school administration picks up the tab, allowing the
tournament director to pocket more of the proceeds from the registration fees
rather than spending a goodly portion of them on sustenance.
But the best-case scenario never
happens. And probably won’t, until Quilty Prep decides to host a tournament.
The worst-case scenario, which every
tournament director has attempted at some point in his or her career, is the
other big money-saver, where the families of the host team all make X number of
sandwiches, their contents clearly labeled, which are offered to the
forensicians in neatly wrapped individual portions. Every forensician
theoretically gets the sandwich of his or her choice, the costs are evenly
distributed among the team families, and again the tournament director gets to
pocket more of the proceeds from the registration fees rather than spending a
goodly portion of them on sustenance. The reason this scenario is seldom
attempted twice is that, while it would appear that the larger the team, the
easier the load, in fact the larger the team, the more likely that half of them
forget to bring their sandwiches, or refuse to bring their sandwiches, or simply
arrive on Friday with the mantra, “Sandwiches? What sandwiches?” So there’s
seldom enough to go around, and the ones that are going around tend to weigh
heavily toward the butter of the peanut or the sprout of the bean, as compared
to the ham of the Virginias or the beef of the Corningmen.
In other words, if they go the
sandwich route, the food sucks.
So the usual solution to the dinner
problem is to make it a catered affair. While most towns have local eateries
capable of and eager to spend time on the other side of the serving table, and
have numerous culinary suggestions that would please even a crowd as notoriously
picky as a herd of forensicians (who, for instance, will never eat any pizza
more than six hours old), as a rule tournament directors tend to rely on what
apparently is a national franchise, an operation named Debate & Dinners Inc.
(“Our Promise to You: Our food will sink in your stomach, not in your budget”).
Algren is no exception to this rule, and their experience with D&D is the
same as all schools.
At exactly six o’clock, the Debate
& Dinners truck pulls up outside the high school cafeteria. The driver, the
only D&D employee who will be seen that evening, climbs down from the cab,
wipes his greasy hands on his white coveralls, grabs his clipboard, and knocks
loudly on the cafeteria door.
His knock is answered by one of the
parents assigned to the dinner brigade.
“Sign here,” the driver says,
sticking his clipboard under the poor mother’s nose.
She signs there.
“I need help loading this stuff in,”
the driver says. In reality, help is not the correct word, as he has no
intentions of carrying anything in himself.
By now three other parents have
joined the first one, and they march out in the D&D driver’s wake to the
back of the truck. He reaches up and unlatches the door.
The smell of baked ziti is
“That’s it,” he says.
The back of the truck is stacked with
large cooking pans covered with aluminum foil, plus a pile of serving utensils.
The driver continues: “Ziti to the
left of us, salad to the right of us.”
Into the valley of death ride the
It takes them half an hour to move
the food and utensils from the truck and set it up on the cafeteria tables. The
goal is to begin the line with plate pickup, followed by warm ziti, or at least
ziti as warm as a can of Sterno can get a yard long baking pan, followed by
salad, Italian bread, brownie, and at the end, plasticware and D&D Brand
Italian Vinegarette (sic -- this is, presumably, some sort of small female
vinegar). The first wave of forensicians is already drifting in before they
finish the set up.
“You think there’s any way we can
heat these up a little,” one of the parents asks, eyeing the stack of ziti trays
that they’ve placed on the floor next to the table. Fortunately, the Board of
Health will not be visiting here tonight.
“The kitchen’s locked,” a father
replies. “It’s a union thing. They won’t let us in because they think we’re
“Think there’s any more Sterno on the
“It doesn’t matter. The driver’s long
“Isn’t he going to pick up all the
“He’ll be back later tonight, after
any possibility of his having to do any work has long passed.”
The ziti itself, famous
coast-to-coast, does have certain remarkable characteristics. Its color, for
instance, a rather Gauginesque pink, is otherwise not found in nature, and
certainly never found in food. Most interestingly, however, is that any amount
is both enough and not enough. That is, no matter how hungry you are, no amount
of it will fill you up, but at the same time, after eating one bite you really
don’t feel hungry anymore.
It is a paradox worthy of a Gilbert
and Sullivan tune.
The salad is at best nondescript, a
demonstration that there are indeed uses for the hard white cores of iceberg
lettuces. D&D Brand Italian Vinegarette, a delicately seasoned concoction
the consistency of motor oil, is the perfect accompaniment.
The bread -- the staff of life, if
you will -- has the virtue of never having hurt anybody, and what is served as a
spread promises “true butteree flavor,” and is so delicious that if you close
your eyes you can almost imagine that you’re eating real margarine.
Finally, there are the brownies, a
chocoholic’s delight of flour, baking soda, salt, a minimum of half a peanut in
every other bite, and a soupcon of the best chocolate D&D money can, or,
more to the point, is willing, to buy. At least one whole egg guaranteed to have
originated within a bona fide chicken is used in the creation of each and every
large baking pan’s worth.
Of course, as the parents serve this
delicious dinner to the desultory line of forensicians, wondering how the
children could ever survive eating this fare, they, unlike the D&D caterers
responsible for it, are blindly unaware of the reality of the debate diet, which
is that, for the most part, debaters don’t eat during a tournament, and those
debaters who do eat, will eat anything.
Some of them have even learned to
like baked ziti.
The adults on the circuit, however,
to a man (or woman), have sworn off baked ziti for life.
In Vedantic Tab, it’s a Dormouse
A tab room runs on a schedule
directly opposite from the tournament that surrounds it. When the forensicians
are at their busiest, the tab room staff is playing Starcraft and chomping on
powdered doughnuts, and when the forensicians are in the cafeteria staring in
horror at D&D’s most recent edition of baked ziti, the tab room staff is
furiously entering data, operating rounds, chanting intonations and sacrificing
“I don’t like this,” Mr. Lo Pat says,
whirring through the doorway of the tab room.
Nip Sazo and Tilde Hyphen-Emdash are
sitting at the Macintosh. She is reading results off the ballots while Nips
enters them into the computer. Tilde eyeballs each entry on the screen to
double-check its accuracy. Neither of them respond to the bionic coach from
“Oh,” Mr. Lo Pat says. “I didn’t
realize you were still tabbing.” He sniffs the air, his eyes darting left and
right. “Blood?” he asks.
“Three ferrets,” Nips replies.
Mr. Lo Pat nods. “A three-ferret
tournament is a good tournament.”
“If we can keep it to three
The number-crunching continues, until
finally Nips sits back and announces. “It’s time to schedule the round. Let’s
He presses a button. A moment later,
the printer begins to churn.
“Should I get another ferret?” Tilde
“Third round is traditionally a
hamster,” Mr. Lo Pat says.
“In the Confucian system,” Nips
agrees. “We’re using Coptic tab.”
“Then it is another ferret.”
Nips grabs the sheet when it is
“Every debater debating? Yes. Every
room taken? Yes. Every judge judging? Yes. It looks good,” he says, handing the
sheet to Tilde.
“Every debater debating. Every room
taken. Every judge judging. You’re right. It looks good.”
There is a high-pitched screech from
a cage in the corner from a ferret whose life has been spared.
“Make a hundred copies,” Nips tells
The third round of Varsity LD is
about to begin. The other rounds have all been tabbed and announced. It is time
for the tab room to relax and the forensicians to sacrifice their spiritual
ferrets of evidence, logic and argumentation.
“So,” Nips asks, standing up and
stretching, “what don’t you like?”
Mr. Lo Pat whirrs toward him. “Quilty
are here without an adult chaperone.”
Nip Sazo sighs. “I know.”
“You shouldn’t let them register.”
“What can I do? Send them back on a
six hour trip back to Quilty after they’ve already gotten here?”
“What if something happens?”
“Like I don’t know what. But
something can happen. There can be accidents. Medical events. Natural disasters.
If something happens to a Quilty kid, where’s the adult to take some
responsibility for it?”
Nip Sazo shrugs. “Nothings going to
happen, Lo Pat.”
The Lodestone coach looks up from his
“You may regret ever saying that.”
He spins his chair around and whirrs
back out of the tab room.
Will the delivery service come and pick up the dinner remains?
Will any forensician ever eat ziti again?
What about the poor vegans?
Will Mr. Lo Pat's dire predictions come true?
What are we going to do with all these canned goods and bottled water?
If we knew they answers, we wouldn't have to write our next
episode: "Giuliani and Julie Andrews -- Coincidence or cosmic betrayal?"
Go to the next
episode Jan 26, 2000.