I’m on my way to the conference, and I’m fondly remembering the ridiculous meals I’ve had at NCECA. The things I eat during the week of the conference are generally a compromise, a mediocre peace treaty between how much noise my stomach makes, and how much more my feet are willing to walk. One year, the year I got smart, I bought provisions at a convenience store and carried Kind bars with me to eat when I was too tired to forage for lunch. That was also the year where dinner was a package of deli ham, eaten straight from the plastic pouch it came in, purchased from the same convenience store. I was starving, exhausted, and forgot to get bread.

As I write this, I am on a 9 hour train to Pittsburgh, and will be sleeping on an air mattress on the floor, hopefully with blankets. I haven’t arrived yet, but it will be in an 8-12 person AirBnB. Why don’t I know the exact number of people? Because the booking was made through a friend of a friend (of a friend), and I will only know one person in this house (…I think it’s a house). I will spend my first night sharing a hotel room (total number of roommates TBD) before I join the cast of Real World NCECA: Pittsburgh edition. I teeter-tottered to the train station early this morning, frumpy in my biggest winter coat and laden with luggage and wrapped sandwiches; when I dropped the cap to my thermos, a very pregnant woman looked on in sympathy as I tried to bend down without keeling over. The train has just left Philadelphia, where the power goes out for 15 minutes and we sit in stuffy darkness while the engine recharges. This is normal, says the girl on her way to Altoona.

Alarm bells going off? No? Let’s take a step back and look at the situation again: I am a girl, traveling by myself, about to sleep in a house full of total strangers. I consider myself a cautious person – I was raised to be aware of my surroundings and keep an eye out for ne’er-do-wells, especially in big cities. And yet, I am totally comfortable with this arrangement because I will be in a house with clay people, and we are all here for NCECA. This annual pilgrimage we all make is the stuff of Chaucer, and now I know what it must have been like to be a pilgrim in the middle ages (… well, sort of – by this age I’d probably have lost most of my teeth). When I read the Canterbury Tales in school, I never understood why total random strangers would start telling stories on their journey – this to me is the equivalent of telling everyone at the grocery store what you’re making for dinner and why you need to touch every single tomato. But now I get it – there is nothing like the company of fellow devotees. We have a shared purpose and a shared love, even if we all express our passion differently, and that creates a sense of safety, a feeling of being understood innately, if only in this one dimension.

Ordinarily, I like a bit of comfort when I travel – on road trips, I prefer to wait for a nicer rest stop rather than using the only bathroom at the gas station, and I often fly with a neck pillow and slippers. But for NCECA, I don’t mind small discomforts. Experience tells me that I will soon be so tired I will happily fall asleep anywhere, only to wake up again and charge back in to soak up all the happy intellectual clay particulates that float around during this time of year. I will wait in line for 2 hours for a lukewarm cup of tea that tastes like burnt coffee, sit on the ground to take notes if I can’t find a seat, and memorize the map of the convention center only to still have absolutely no idea where the Cup Sale is. I will barely be frustrated, because I’ve done this before, and I will do it again.

And, it turns out, I’m not alone. I casually asked a few current and former board members about their memories of scrambling for food during the conference. I figured I couldn’t be alone in having meals of desperation while running myself ragged, and I was right. Keith Williams, former president, remembers eating “a lump of stinky cheese… a big hunk of Romano I’d gotten at a local grocery store in…Houston? the Phoenician? It must have been 3/4 of a pound. I bought it as a snack thinking it would last me awhile, but I walked around and ended up eating the whole thing for lunch that day.” He said this to me while gesturing with his hands that the cheese was roughly the size of a softball.

And Shalya Marsh, former Student Director-At-Large, explained that “one conference there was no food around [the convention center], and I had not eaten in forever, and I was so hungry that I snuck into the 50 friends meeting and ate all the apples from their leftover boxed lunches.” She was quick to clarify that “the meeting had ended, and a bunch of people had not eaten their apples.”

Many former NCECA board members don’t remember eating at all, or not eating until late at night, although there seems to be a collective memory of lots and lots of granola bars. These are the things we do for love. So, since we’re all on this journey together, fellow pilgrims, tell me your story. What are your memories of wacky meals eaten during NCECA?