Durham, N.H. — ONE Thursday last month, dinner at the University of New Hampshire dining halls was full of surprises. Any student might have been struck speechless if he or she hadn't read the posters tacked up around campus with a picture of Madeleine Kamman, international teacher and cookbook author, television cook, and lecturer and a description of what was to come. It was a pretty face framed with soft white hair, a gentle smile that could have, but didn't, promise chocolate chip cookies. There on the warming tray were glowing, golden brown chicken pieces surrounded with small beige mounds of mystery. Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic!
Next to it was Duck Legs Confit, also golden brown and glistening suspiciously as confit will.
Here's the entire menu, and keep in mind that 5,000-plus people would pass through the three dining halls between 4:15 and 6:30 to gobble every bit. Hannelore M. Dawson, manager of planning and nutrition in the university dining service bannered it a ``Fabulous French Feast for Five Thousand.'' Also keep in mind that students from 18 to 22 are usually considered the world's worst eaters.
Carte du Jour Rolled Leg of Lamb Proven,cal Magret de Canard aux Noix Soupe au Pistou Polenta & Creamed Mushrooms Poulet aux Quarante Gousses d'ail Beefsteak au pil-pil Confit of Duck Legs Spinach with Lemon Juice and Rind Courgettes `a la Latine Riz a L'Am`ericaine Fougasse French Bread Pogne Orange Tart Serpent aux Pommes at aux Prunes Assorted French Cheeses Assorted Fresh Fruit
Of course this was a special occasion, the first of a series called ``Great Cooks on Campus'' and Mrs. Dawson's way of introducing students to food at the top, another facet of their college education.
A few days before, Ms. Kamman was around to show the bakers how to make those special breads, to instruct the kitchen staff, and speak to the students and faculty on French provincial food. She was also on hand to make gracious turns through all of the three dining halls to say ``Bon Appetit'' on the night of the dinner.
She was a coup, this marvelous and inventive teacher. ``I just decided to reach for the impossible,'' Hennelore said, ``wrote her a letter and mailed it before I could lose my nerve.''
But Kamman lives in Bartlett, N.H., which is a two-hour drive north. Her son went to the University and - most important - she had the time. Early in the month she sent down a possible menu and Dawson went to work.
The food was - dare I say it? - A Fabulous And Fantastic French Feast for Five Thousand. The lamb was pink inside, the zucchini just done, the polenta so good that some diners made a meal of it.
Adult members of the community and friends of Kamman from Boston were scheduled to eat at 6:30, after the students had dined.
We had no doubt about the night's success. The bread was almost gone, and the assorted cheeses on the menu - store-size chunks of Cantel, French munster, Compeaux, just-right wheels of Brie - had been enthusiastically ravaged. In fact, a block of Swiss from the regular dining stores was brought in to fill the gap.
Even Kamman was pleased. Usually she lectures and teaches where the kitchens are staffed with passionate cooks. Even dishwashers in fine restaurants are headed for the next station up the chef's ladder and will hang on each of her words.
But at UNH the kitchen is a place for locals to earn a little money and some of them to get a free degree. Anyone can take a class there for credit, if it can be worked into his or her schedule. So even if their training is as good as any French restaurant kitchen, where is the fire in the belly?
``They were great,'' Kamman said, ``especially when you consider what they knew and how much they did.''
Through Dawson's efforts, student dining-hall goers have been prepared for most things. She is a warm and affectionate woman with a talent for drawing both staff and students into her projects.
Since she took over the menu planning two years ago she has introduced signature dishes and special dinners. The International Dinner served here included tandoori chicken, a vegetarian moussaka, tempura, squid rings batter-dipped and deep-fat fried to a crisp brown. Squid! Guacamole, gaspacho, chicken salsa opened a Mexican Fiesta.
So student diners at UNH have a right to be blas'e. A simple weekday menu has mushroom crepes on Monday and spinach tofu crepes on Wednesday. The aesthetes can live on salad. All three enormous halls have two salad bars that would put any commercial operation to shame. Ingredients change daily, and romaine and red-tipped lettuce can be seen among the iceburg.
The central bakery occupies the ground floor of Stillings, one of the newer dining halls. There, bakers are putting jalapeno peppers in the biscuits and turning out the best granola the students have ever eaten.
For the French dinner, Kamman arrived in Durham early to lead these superior bakers in the French breads - an orange flavored Pogne, a Roman flatbread called Fougasse, and simple French bread. Also they baked orange tarts rich with slightly bitter orange rind.
Then there's Serpent Aux Pommes at Aux Prunes, which is like a strudel. Historically, strudel dough was brought by the Germans when they were pushed into France by the Huns. Or it might have been brought by the Arabs who invaded Southwest France when Spain was the Caliphate of Cordova and phyllo was a staple. Or maybe it was both.
These bits of partly digested information came from Kamman's lecture on Wednesday night before the dinner: ``Ethnic Influences on French Provincial Cooking.'' Standing before a lecturn in a chemistry classroom - elements chart on one side, map of France on the other - she took the audience from prehistoric remains of grain found on a grinding stone in a cave through countless invasions.
Poor little France, bombarded from all sides, but each bombardment either meant that the invaders' own cooks assimilated some of the local cuisine or they left behind something good to eat.
The Romans brought fish soups and grape vines. The Vikings made it to Marseille, but no one seems to find a trace of their food. Fish pudding and dried reindeer meat don't seem very French. Catherine de M'edicis gets great press for bringing cakes and cookies from Italy, but Kamman says her contribution was fruits and vegetables. ``In medieval times, the French diet was nothing but mush,''she says.
And so on. She could have spent two hours on Lyon allby itself, she said. Many ethnic influences were obvious in the French dinner menu - polenta from Italy, spiced and rolled lamb with its Arab undertones.
The University of New Hampshire has 10,000 students on a campus that is a composite of the entire state. Durham looks like many small New England towns with a main street for the shops and tall church spires in the residential sections. University buildings dot the rolling landscape.
Old Victorian stone monstrosities stand in front of sleek new buildings bright with glass. Small modern dorm complexes that look like condoes sprang up like mushrooms as the enrollment grew.
The terrain is hilly enough to remind us that the White Mountains are up the road. Enormous outcroppings of granite, stands of pine, and trickling streams that can turn into a torrent when the snows are melting further north.
In spring, a million lilac bushes curl around the foundations of the buildings and line the paths.
Kamman is now a state resident, living in Bartlett, formerly her vacaction home. Now it is her center of operations. Her first classes when she came to the United States from France were in Newton, Mass., just outside of Boston. She coupled classes to a restaurant where students got the only kind of training that works - performance under fire.
Her methods have always been professional - a litle too intense for the ladies who want to ``do a little gourmet cooking.'' They disappear, these dilettantes, as any cooking school will tell you.
They are a coterie, Kamman's students past and present - irritable and demanding of other teachers and impatient with any food that isn't up to Kamman's standards.
Now she is lecturing all over the country, having shut down her school and restaurant in Glen, N.H. ``My plan was to do less work,'' she said. ``But my schedule is more full now than ever before.''
Food small talk is not one of Kamman's talents - particularly now that her interests seem to be gathering the entire universe into the subject.
This month she will leave for France to conduct cultural tours, ``with a few days of cooking in the middle at Annecy.'' She once had a cooking school there, after she had moved back to France from Newton.
I asked her if she had found any local crayfish up in Bartlett where there are many mountain lakes. A self-important state official has said there is no such thing.
``Ah, yes, there are the little gray ones, the best if you can get them from unpolluted waters. He said no crayfish? They are all over New England.''
And then she said, ``Our boys caught them in Walden Pond when we lived in Massachusetts.'' Walden Pond. It somehow puts a spin on crayfish.