For some, it is clowns. For me, it is buffets. They terrify me, because I always make bad choices. Once I sat down and realized I had dished up an entirely white plate for myself: potatoes, filet of sole, cauliflower… I am not sufficiently fond of my own race to make that a good decision. Often, I annoy those queued by criss-crossing the room or going to the end of the line to scope out the desserts so I can reverse-engineer my selections. Choosing is hard. Unless you are lucky enough to be strolling through an elegant hotel’s brunch buffet, with sunlight streaming through French doors and silver-plated chafing dishes arranged on white tablecloths, you find yourself squinting through a smeary sneeze guard at sunken stainless bins of food that is strangely lit, often unrecognizable.
Other people love buffets. They flock to them and gush about their plenitude. Crowd-pleasing foods are spread out before them as feasts were for the ancients, and they pile their plates high with a mish-mash of favorites. I do it too—then glance down and cringe. I miss plating. Has anyone ever assembled a pretty buffet plate? I miss a chef’s careful orchestration of tastes that complement one another. I miss menus, because I love imagining, from the words, how delicious a certain dish might be. (I pick wine and racehorses the same way.)
Buffets remind me how greedy I am, and how easily my judgment can be skewed. Inevitably, I wind up either overstuffed and queasy or mad that I have wasted my money. The fact that I cannot take home something I cannot finish makes me crazy—I hate waste—so I sneak a napkin-wrap into my purse and pray it will not ooze. Once, I gave in to my criminal impulse ahead of time and brought a zip-lock bag, knowing I would trim away all the fatty meat and had a dog at home desperate for it. The caper brought a cold elation: I had owned my avarice, even schemed to refine it. But it felt too furtive, and I never tried it again.
The only part of buffet culture I adore is having a jumbo Belgian waffle ironed for me, hot and fresh, with real whipped cream and strawberries—but by the time my waffle is done, everything else on my plate has congealed, and my friends are already off hunting for their second course. Buffets are like the rest of life: Someone always wants more. So instead of enjoying a civil conversation while you all wait for your meal, people pop up willy-nilly, heading back for this or that, and you wind up eating at least a third of your meal alone, which is about as civilized as eating from a sack during jury duty.
Empiricists love buffets, because they can peer at all their options, maybe even spoon something up and study it before deciding whether to take more. Those hungry for quantity or permission love buffets, too. I once watched a group of Japanese tourists, no doubt yearning for the fresh seafood they can have at home, descend upon a platter of crab legs at a casino hotel as though it were their first meal after a colonoscopy.
The setting of that frenzied consumption is significant. In England, the landed gentry needed a “groaning sideboard” (always the description in novels) to accommodate a full English breakfast for weekend guests who straggled downstairs as their hangovers permitted. A “buffet” (named for the piece of furniture that supports it) made sense. But in this country, it was Las Vegas that popularized the buffet, back in the Forties, when the strategically priced Buckaroo Buffet tempted people to linger in the casino. No lure works better here than commerce.
Americans took to buffets, using them for conferences, brunches, special occasions, cruises, a rare taste of ease for a family on a tight budget. The names often conjure earlier days, from Buckaroo to the Golden Corral, The Old Country Buffet, Home Town Buffet… All this homestyle comfort is meant to ease your gnawing worries.
I get it. I get the initial appetitive thrill, the savoring of possibilities, the relief of not having to calculate the add-on costs of a second-thought salad or a dessert, the end to ritual combat over the check. Nonetheless, the process brings to mind those sadistic contest prizes where you can have everything you can toss into your shopping cart in ten minutes. Go!
You would think a buffet, at least pre-pandemic, should remove all anxiety. You cannot go wrong. You do not have to choose a single entrée and endure the consequences. You can march right back to the buffet and start all over again. And again. And again. Soon none of it tastes very good, because the fastest way to kill desire is to over-satisfy it. And now you have a dozen judgment calls to make instead of just one. The only thing that makes me more anxious is those damned dim sum carts coming round all the time, expecting me to know in an instant what I want and frowning when I wave them on. Just when I thought I had outlived peer pressure.
The real problem, I begin to see (aside from the fact that I am a bougie snob who enjoys being served pretty food) is that I like my choices constrained. Too much freedom, and my brain freezes. It was the same when I could pick any dissertation topic, write a murder mystery with any plot, paint the walls any color I liked. Menus are like palettes: They narrow down for you, until the mix-and-match is a fun game with just enough choices. Creativity needs parameters—as does freedom itself.
Parameters are not what the buffet is about. The buffet is about abundance and near-infinite choice and quantity. Buffet workers replace those empty tubs fast, because the sky is supposed to be the limit. This transaction is unfettered and unregulated; in other words, you can eat until you pop. Nauseated by the orgy, I vow to constrain myself and select only a few healthy items. I feel sad. Deprived. Cheated of my money’s worth.
This is what consumerism does to us: It shows the wide array, the endless possibilities, and makes us feel deprived when, wisely, we select an affordable bit of it for ourselves. The idea is to spend a little too much and overdo it. Fulfill all impulses. Squeeze joy from your dollar. Fight for that last crab leg.
As America failed to learn, abundance requires self-restraint.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.