By Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic).

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a university of good fortune must be in possession of a food truck.

I got my first inkling of this almost symbiotic relationship when as a student at Oxford I noticed the permanent presence of a kebab van outside of University College. Now trading as Ahmed’s Bar-B-Q with a 4.9 star rating and nearly 1,500 Facebook followers, the proprietor is still on to a good thing.

Part of me wants to believe that the van first took up residence as an ironic comment on the college’s claim to have been founded by Alfred the Great, whom myth tells us could not make a cake without burning it. I suspect, though, that the co-location is more of a comment on the quality and availability of food in the present.

More recently, I have learned that when a food truck disappears, its memory weighs upon the present, curving space-time and pulling individuals together.

Dolly’s is an absent-present on our campus. It looms large in the memories of our community who connected with us from the 1970s to the early part of the new century. Indeed, so strong is the memory that when we put out a call for information to our alumni at the very start of our large-scale construction project, responses came in thick and fast. The search turned up a photo of a formal dinner at Dolly’s from 1984, and alumni even tried to help us track down the original van.

We were unsuccessful in finding the original Dolly’s van, but enterprising alumni engaged in archival work and noted that thanks to the National Library’s Trove, we have a digitised copy of a 1998 interview with the second owner of Dolly’s in the student newspaper, Woroni.

The interview contains some useful truths, such as the connection of the van’s name back to the co-host of the television game show Pick-a-Box, and the importance of frying chips at high heat to attain crispiness. Moreover, it purports to claim that the magnetic attraction of the van extended to the Australian government, even capturing Pauline Hanson with its charms.

1984 Burton and Garran Hall Formal Dinner, courtesy Dr Fiona Groenhout (BA Hons 2001)

But much of the rest of the story is beautifully uncertain, told through the veil of chips and gravy memories and an acknowledgement that most encounters with food vans don’t hail from the daytime or from sober discourse. What is solid is that Dolly’s abides across time, genders, and degrees. It is one of the things that hangs alumni memories together.

None of this should be surprising to us. Some of the world’s best-known historians, from Natalie Zemon Davis to Marc Bloch have reminded us about the importance of food and humour in building and sustaining the identity of groups.

The memories of alumni also, however, have an important message for those of us who work in universities today. They remember the university. They remember wonderful researchers and teachers, as well as cleaners, receptionists and cooks. But they use those memories to connect with other people, and use humorous and often self-deprecating stories to gently prod us out of lines of thought that see only that one discipline, that one project, that one research output, or that one business process. They remind us of our wider value.

They challenge us to put the why back into the what of university life; to explain the impact of our work; to find the kindness in our interactions within and beyond our communities; and to remember with pride that we have the privilege of making a better world. Alumni are critical to who we are and who we might be.

A food truck is therefore never just a food truck.

Dolly’s is gone, but the Pop Up hosts a new kebab van, along with a new version of another one of Canberra’s most iconic food vans, Brod burgers. So too, we have Vietnamese and Peruvian food vans for a new age. Roll on the good fortune of decades more of stories, and a reminder that we need more than our present to see our future.

This blog’s shout out is our alumni, and for Felicity, Colin, Maree, Janice, Norm and the Alumni Relations and Philanthropy Team, who remind us about the why.