The late actress Rosalind Russell was famous for this line: “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.”
Obviously, she never saw me tackle an all-you-can-eat buffet. I like to eat. I especially like to eat vegetables. At a country buffet in North Carolina recently, I gorged on beans, slaw and olive salad. (I know, olives don’t scream “down home” to me either, but it was good.)
There seem to be two types of people: Those who eat buffets, and those who don’t. I’ve known folks who’d go hungry if the only option was a buffet. The father of my oldest friend is in the “no buffet” camp. He’d eat his own belt before cruising steam tables with a plastic plate. On a cross-country trip, he drove his family through three states before finding a non-buffet restaurant somewhere in Central Florida. By that point the clan was screaming and flinging Fritos at his head.
(This is the same man who almost fainted when I made a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich in his kitchen and used the same knife to spread both PB & J. His exact words were, “Good God, Julia! Don’t do that!” before he swooned into a chair. My friend explained that Pop had a few food issues. He also never learned my name.)
Years ago I found myself famished in Twin Falls, Idaho. I asked a woman in a hardware store (I needed a screwdriver--long story) to recommend a good restaurant within a mile. (I was also out of gas.) Without looking up, she said, “Aren’t any. Just buffets.”
I try to avoid chain restaurants when possible, but beggars can’t be choosers: I ate at a Golden Corral, and it was fine. (It did seem like a safer bet than the Mexican free-for-all down the street.)
Buffets seem to be most popular in the Southeast, and we have it all: Barbecue pork, fried fish, Brunswick stew, fried chicken, baked chicken, collards, corn, lima beans, baked beans, cornbread and, of course, banana pudding and bottomless sweet tea. We Southerners can’t bear the idea that someone might leave hungry.
I’ve been to Amish buffets in Pennsylvania and seafood buffets in Monterey, but never found one buffet in all of Montana. Oddly, every restaurant I entered in that landlocked state offered fried salmon, which tasted a lot like South Carolina catfish. In Wyoming I ate at a steak buffet, back when I ate steak. In Minnesota they’re called smorgasbords, but I’ve never been to Minnesota so I don’t know what’s on them.
Usually I prefer ordering from a menu and having my meal served, if only because it keeps me from eating until I black out. I don’t go to breakfast buffets any more, though. On my last foray, at a national chain, scrambled eggs were scattered from the sausage links to the stewed apples. The grits had chunks of French toast in them. Then a little boy grabbed two fistfuls of bacon from the pan and screamed (appropriately), “HAWG!!” I had toast and coffee, and that was the end of breakfast buffets for me.
The only time I’m truly uncomfortable is at a Japanese hibachi steakhouse, and it’s not because of flying knives. It’s because I can never eat all my chicken, rice and veggies, and have to ask for a doggie bag. Then I have to sit there with my stuffed tummy, smelling fresh food sizzling all around me. It makes me a little dizzy.
Almost like a swoon.
Julie R. Smith, who really likes K&W Cafeteria on a Sunday afternoon, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.