As we pushed open the glass doors and walked into the entryway, my nostrils began to twitch. "What's that smell?" I asked, fearing the answer. My husband just smiled as we walked through the roped off corral to the beginning of the feed line where we helped ourselves to a plastic cafeteria tray and some cups we then filled with the beverages of our choice. "Two?" droned the cashier, and I reluctantly forked over my cash.
"Where do you want to sit?" I asked with some trepidation, surveying the dining room. "It doesn't matter," serenely replied my husband, seemingly oblivious to the over bright lights and obese herds stampeding the feed line. A panicked cry came from across the room, "I need more biscuits!". Tommy plunked our drinks down on an empty table and we hesitated for just a moment before beginning our own attack on the buffet line.
I headed for the salad bar and filled up a plate with lettuce, red bell peppers, grilled chicken, bacon bits and croutons topped with Italian dressing. Tommy shot me a quizzical look before disappearing down the long meandering line of food. I found my way back to our table and started happily munching on lettuce. "This isn't so bad," I thought, just in time for Tommy to arrive with a plate piled high with ribs slathered in a variety of sauces.
He attacked the meat with an enthusiasm that slowly waned as it became evident that he had amassed a plate of gooey bones and fat with bits of meat binding them together. For some reason, this made me want to try and see if I could get better ribs than he had, as if there was a secret stash of meaty ribs somewhere that you could have if only you could mutter the password to a man in a trench coat and hat. "Have the guy slice them for you. I didn't get that kind," my husband offered helpfully.
I trotted off to ask "the guy" to chop a hunk of rib onto my blue plastic plate as Tommy half-heartedly picked at his bones. When I arrived back at the table, I tagged Tommy in and he left me to make his next selections.
I found that the ribs from "the guy" were indeed a bit better than the ones my husband had been subjected to, but still nothing to write home about. I had also acquired a greasy, overcooked ear of corn and an oddly chewy baked potato. Meanwhile, Tommy came back with roasted chicken, stuffing and sweet potatoes with a generous coating of gravy, most of which he seemed to enjoy. While we ate, I indulged in a little people watching. I was fascinated by the old man in the corner who had a stack of empty plates beside him and what appeared to be a single potato on the one in front of him. The woman at the next table had a heaping plate of deep fried zucchini which she, apparently, thought was finger licking good. Tommy noted that the employees were all getting just salad bar. "Do you think they know something we don't?" he asked. Just then, the speaker system blared out a message, "Everybody wish a Happy Birthday to Robin Jones! Happy Birthday, Robin!" and I had flashbacks to the County Fair. The feed line, the staticky announcements on the PA system interrupting the country music, the smell of beef...it was all too much.
I glanced back into the corner. The old man had finished his potato and gone back up for seconds. As I watched, he came back to his table with a solitary piece of chicken. The woman at the next table had refilled her plate with more deep fried zucchini. By now, I was working on my third plate; an eclectic mix of spicy orange chicken, Mexican rice, and lasagna. As I pushed food around on my plate, my mind drifted and I started thinking up new slogans for the eating establishment we had chosen. "Just like homemade...if you grew up in prison" or "Just like your mom used to make...if your mom wasn't much of a cook," came to mind. And yet, for some reason, I was drawn once again to refill my plate...again and again.
Are you sure that was Pineapple?
And that, my friends, is the magic of the buffet line, its raison d'etre, the secret to its popularity...no matter how terrible the food, you can always go back and fill your plate with something else. Hope springs eternal at the buffet line, as do heartburn and regret. Because, however little you may eat of your dried up pecan crusted tilapia or the oddly chewy baked potato, you have still managed to help yourself to a dozen plates of tepid, mediocre fare and consumed approximately enough to feed an Ethiopian village for a month without ever feeling sated because you never found anything that tasted very good. You found quantity over quality and you found it to be unsettling to the stomach. You look around you and see dissatisfied faces with double and triple chins. You see wrinkled noses sniffing the contents of plates trying to figure out why their corn on the cob smells of grease. And yet, you go back for more, because, for god's sake, it's All You Can Eat and you can still eat more and maybe, just maybe, there's something good up there at that ten mile long line of warming trays!
I discretely unbutton my jeans and fill a plate with chocolate lava cake and self-loathing...maybe dessert will be better.