Friday, November 9, 2012

Buffets: So Much Promise, So Much…

After a day of yard work or home renovation, my wife and I have tradition of heading for one of the local Chinese buffets. You not only burn 500 to 800 calories with several hours of physical labor, you also burn some of the guilt of all-you-can-eat dining. Some, but not all.

Chinese buffets are my favorite buffets because you can, if you are careful, eat somewhat healthy and stay below the ludicrous gluttony level. It's easy to eat $6.49 to $9.99 in sushi and seafood, plus they have items we haven't managed to successfully prepare at home. I'm quite good at rationalizing the Chinese buffet experience.

Then, there are the "country" buffets that hold so much promise… until you are eating the meal. And then there is the post-meal regret. I simply haven't found a set of rationalizations for the country buffet, even when I'm extremely hungry.

It starts simply enough: the buffet seems convenient and you're famished. The idea of some old-fashioned meat, potatoes, and pie lures you into the buffet. There are dozens of these places, some of them actually part of the same parent company. They are as distinct as the mashed potatoes and bulk gravy they serve.

The initial enthusiasm is tempered the moment you find yourself in the cattle-yard style winding line. You try to tell yourself it is like a theme park: the wait will be worth the reward at the end. Then you survey your fellow livestock and realize there is a reason stereotypes exist. Jeff Foxworthy must have stood in these same lines on numerous occasions. It's not polite, certainly not politically correct, but the patrons of the feed trough approach to dining are obviously loyal to the concept.

Obesity is a serious problem, not something to mock or dismiss. Yet, I can't believe the people in these lines are taking their health seriously. When you have trouble fitting within the wooden barriers that guide the lines, you don't belong at a buffet. When your scooter makes a groaning sound as you try to advance, you need to reconsider the all-you-can-eat habit. I've heard a manager say they were removing booths because too many customers don't fit, so they need tables.

You pay your admission fee, often including a discount stamp and a ticket, and the sense you're at a theme park is reinforced a little more. As you walk to your table or booth, you might pass "themed" buffet displays: La Hacienda, The Lighthouse, Wok Way, and Grandma's House. One buffet has the Green Grocer instead of a salad bar. All we need is a log flume to complete the experience. There are balloons for the kids at some of the chains. Eating is fun!

When I see someone trying to carry two or even three plates through the buffet lines, each piled higher than my complete meal, I want to know how anyone could be so hungry. Something must be wrong, medically, because nobody should need 4000 calories at one meal. Worse, these same people hit the dessert bar and take one of everything. It's stunning and heartbreaking.

Seeing these men, women, and children — especially the children — you start wondering about the choice you've made. Maybe obesity is "contagious" culturally. The buffet isn't quite like a county fair, but deep-fried Twinkies and funnel cakes might be the only foods missing. Come to think of it, I have seen funnel cakes at a buffet. One national chain has added cotton candy and fresh mini donuts, common fair foods in the Midwest. Yes, what could possibly go wrong with cotton candy and dozens of kids on sugar highs?

It's hard to enjoy a meal with an announcement loop in the background. "Please, no running in the restaurant. We ask that all children under ten be accompanied by an adult. Please do not drop food on the floor. Thank you for keeping our restaurant clean." Thankfully, we've only heard these polite pleas in one location of a national chain. The announcements are ineffective, as if anyone expected them to work.

I'm not sure why the atmosphere is so different at Chinese buffets, but it is. I would have thought buffet patrons were buffet patrons, but that's not the case. My assumption is that it is the food that determines the clients.

When I mentioned this to my wife, she pointed out that children like hot dogs, simple burgers, and cheese pizza. They aren't interested in coconut shrimp, broccoli beef, or seafood medley with calamari and octopus. Kids are picky eaters. They aren't interested in the dozen different sushi rolls at my favorite buffet. They are repulsed by food that is rubbery or in shells.

The Southern-style buffets specialize in fried chicken, meatloaf, and a half-dozen potato dishes. Simple and familiar. And fattening.

Why do we go to these places knowing the experience will not measure up to the ideal? Maybe its hope. We hope that "this time" it will be nice. Plus, the food isn't really that bad — you merely need a bit of self-restraint.

My wife and I have developed some buffet strategies. Go early, so you avoid the rush and get fresh food. Go on weekdays, not weekends, unless you go between lunch and dinner on a Saturday. Forget Sundays: the church crowds rush to the buffets. Go to the "grill station" so you know the food is cooked while you wait. If there are desserts, opt for the pies in cases or the items they serve to you, because the kids love to pick through the desserts.

I'm sure we'll keep trying the buffets. The convenience is hard to resist. Let's hope that convenience doesn't catch up to us.

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