“Remember how sometimes you would go to a restaurant that was just okay, but it was still like you were in another world?” my husband says one Thursday night, month five of the pandemic. We’ve just cooked our 132nd dinner at home, white-bean burgers with carrot-top pesto (I am newly afraid to waste the green fronds of a carrot). “I want that.”
Nothing could’ve been more otherworldly than a “just okay” buffet. No other species of restaurant so swiftly ships you to that place of unrestraint. The laws—even the light—are different. No menus, no courses: You help yourself by the noisy glow of heat lamps to a parade of food that is unpredictable, unappealing, spotty, crowded, always a little gross—even before the term “moisture particles” became a dreaded part of the national vocabulary.
There are two definitions for buffet. The first is a verb from the Old French buffe; in my dictionary, this “buffet” is below “buffer state” in a column capped by an etching of a buffalo. “Prob. echoic,” the entry notes. To strike back, to fight, to force away by struggling or hitting repeatedly. (I buffeted the buffet?) “Often used figuratively, as the ‘buffets of fate.’” As in: The buffets of fate found me at another obligatory “just okay” buffet; the buffets of fate find me missing all those obligatory “just okay” buffets.
The second entry is the noun: Furniture for keeping silver, china, linens, or “a counter or table where refreshments are served, or a restaurant with such a counter.” B-fa- ´, boo-fa- ´: Old French for “display bench.” The noun buffet reminds me that the verb buffet is pronounced buff-it, rhymes with “skip it.” The noun reminds me that the valuables we keep stored away are sitting right there in the dining room, waiting, ready to serve us.
1989 – 2002. My family would keep tabs, counting plates, for instance, at a Bonnie’s Dining & Banquets Billiards Buffet (How many plates did you have? Five? This is six.); at the Brookfield Zoo Easter Bunny Buffet; at a country-club buffet in Itasca, Illinois, where we are interlopers gawking at a rosy, checkerboard husk of a ham.
At the Drury Lane Christmas Brunch in Oakbrook Terrace, an annual reunion of my father’s grad-school friends, I’m a girl in ribbed tights at a table of women wearing sleigh bells, men seeing who could eat it all—build your own omelet, prime rib, roast chicken, dill salmon, Belgian waffles, whipped cream, skirted tables of mini croissants, mini bagels, mini muffins, bacon burnt or limp, Canadian bacon leathery pink, sausage pucks and links, eggs Florentine like sullen frogs on sodden English muffins, pale blintzes, mini doughnuts plopped fryer-hot into a field of powdered sugar.
All you’re having is vegetables?
All you’re having is quiche?
This is my fourth plate of nothing too bad. Whereas the rest of my family brags about leaving stuffed, I strive not to leave full. How many times can I walk by and resist: ice cream sundae station, butter caramel, sticky ladle, chopped peanuts, blitzed toffee in cat-litter clumps, waiters topping off a bowl of maraschino cherries. How much hot fudge does it take to melt a scoop before you’re back in your seat?
Is your little sister just eating bar fruit? a churchy family friend would ask me.
I ate like a pig, my dad would say proudly. Black forest cake, Jo?
My mother would sulk after three mimosas. Out came the Polish: S´winia.
Orange-dusked Thursday in 1999, somewhere in St. Louis on the Pleasantdale Middle School eighth grade trip: We arrive by bus at Old Country Buffet. The room smells like pancake mix and barbecue sauce. Girls eat from soup bowls heaped with rainbow sprinkles. Boys ketchup everything. I feel like a veil is lifted on some grandiose but nightmarish idea, food as garbage. The families we’ve barged in on try to ignore us and eat in peace, but we’re an undeniable busload, quickly amped on sugar. The boys start flashing hand signs and shouting “OCB!” in Ice Cube inflection. A man in a bee costume—why does Old Country Buffet need a mascot?—flits through the dining room; the alternagirls pose for Polaroids.
Even then buffets made me remember another time, the sad simple wonders of life when I wasn’t trying to vanquish my own appetite. For example, I am six, seven, eating a dish of strawberry frozen yogurt at Golden Corral in Dixon, Illinois. My grandmother teaches me to eat like an adult: I sneer at chicken nuggets. I sneer at chicken fingers. Wings enter the picture: Sneer. My meal is fatigue-green green beans, scalloped potatoes that taste like wallpaper. Salisbury steak in a mud bath of gravy (Salisbury says fancy). Then: a Mother-Daughter Brunch hosted by St. John of the Cross. 1997, 1998. I wear a jumper, black and butterscotch, printed with a frenzy of sunflowers. The tablecloths are lavender and peach, frilled with fanned napkins. I am not a skinny daughter; my mom is not a skinny mom. I feel self-conscious about getting up for another plate. The food is ladylike and unfun. Finely diced bell pepper speckles the scrambled eggs.
Anxiety comes in different flavors, and at Home Run Inn, the buffet is 60 percent pizza. The restaurant is grand-slammed with Chicago sports paraphernalia, on the border of Downers Grove. I am fourteen, fifteen. There is endless iced tea, ten Sweet’N Low lunches, where I avoid slices for as long as possible, filling up on dry romaine and creamy broccoli salad studded with chewy tabs of bacon. The breadsticks are greasy, garlicky, gnarly. (Lots of trying and failing to make myself puke in the bathroom.)
2003 – 2018. A Chinese restaurant in La Grange: buffet $6.95 handwritten on the neon green paper taped to a porthole in the stucco. The buffet as economical, workaday option: I go on lunch breaks, the summer before college. Chafing dish with egg rolls, regular and vegetarian, wrappers tough, tanned. Mongolian beef, wilting scallion sheaves; kung pao chicken littered with waterlogged peanuts; bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, button mushrooms; wide broken noodles sautéed in brown sauce. Two cauldrons. Fortune cookies.
An office park a few minutes from Lambert Airport. Sometime in grad school, with my work friend CA. It’s our day off from the bakery. Get out of the Civic, brush dog hair off my dress, drift through shimmery heat toward a tower of 1980s onyx. We ride the elevators to the fifth floor like spies in a buddy comedy: the skinny bulimic and the big bulimic tackling an Indian buffet with a Pan Am view.
The doors open. Behold: red currants, persimmon oranges, melamine plates. The sweet, damp aroma of coconut drowned in curry. We drink mango lassis at a window table overlooking the parking lot as planes descend upon the tarmac.
Should we do this?
Silk plants dangle dusty vines over the sneeze guard. A pageant of samosas, piles of naan glistening with butter. Vegetable makhani, lamb vindaloo, muddy saag paneer. A round table of treacly milk sweets. In this world, I try everything.
A tiny girl in bike shorts drinks a giant Pepsi at the empty bar of Koreana, an ad hoc buffet in an Illinois railroad town: a folding table of banchan on plastic dinner plates, hunks of radish stabbed with tinseled party toothpicks. Three entrees. Quiet white rice. Amber, oleaginous sweet-potato noodles.
During the four months I work in the pastry department at Spago, I staff one dessert buffet for a holiday party. (This is five years after my only other buffet-staffing, at an omelet station at a golf-club restaurant in Saratoga Springs, next to a second-generation ice sculptor.) Pre-party, I build a cookie wall, piling sterilized, stained, rough-hewn wooden boards with chocolate, oatmeal raisin essence with orange, chocolate chip. Later, I change my toque and coat, remove my wedding band and earrings. I burn my wrists making waffle bowls. All night, I scoop ping-pong ball portions at the sundae bar: Mexican vanilla, dark chocolate, salted caramel, calamansi sorbet. Calamansi is a citrus fruit, I tell three hundred guests in cocktail attire. Try them all, have as many scoops as you want. At the buffet everyone is free to get weird with food. How good it feels to put seven petit fours on a plate, try a bite of two, scrape the ganache off an abysmal brownie with one’s teeth, pawn off a streuselish mystery, mash the rest with a fork, put the mess to bed with a napkin. The buffet lets you live yesterday, today, and tomorrow in an instant. There are things people don’t talk about.
I have twice been to the NoMI brunch buffet at the Park Hyatt Chicago, where the sushi chef worked behind his glass panel rolling tight, delicate maki, luxurious with milk-pink strings of crab. This buffet is so extravagantly remarkable that it has earned the shorthand NoMI brunch. The second time was a singular buffet experience, the morning after my wedding: a dozen friends, hungover in sunglasses at a long table dinging with champagne flutes. Mimosa light rushed in from the windows over Michigan Avenue, and I sat on the banquette, right in the middle, and people kept bringing me caviar and white tuna since I hadn’t gotten any at my reception.
My last buffet—at least until the next one, set vaguely in an unpredictable future—is Sawa’s Old Warsaw, a luncheon after my grandmother’s funeral. I fly in and out of Chicago the same day, the final Friday in February. Coronavirus is not yet synonymous with pandemic; I’ve brought a baggie of baby wipes doused with lavender hand sanitizer.
From Cermak Road, Sawa’s looks like a bricked-over Disneyland mill without the waterwheel. The interior is a Rat Pack penthouse suite, pink lights and pink soffits, chandelier crystals big as silver dollars. Mirrors flank the dining room, framed by maroon damask curtains.
“Lunch buffet,” the waitress says. “You may go up and please use each time a fresh plate.”
There are twenty drink orders: start with grandchildren, the cousins. White wine, decaf coffee, pilsner, please. Kiddie cocktail—Shirley Temple (how long will people still recognize that name?). How much longer picking up a dinner plate and putting it back because there are salad plates, and one aspect of portion control is adjusting your dishes. I don’t want all that room for fried chicken, potato pierogis, golumpki, roast pork, breaded tilapia, potato pancakes, warm sauerkraut, fruit dumplings in margarine, steamed green beans, they say the Salisbury steak is good.
I inch down the line behind an uncle. I hang close to my cousin. I build a salad, dot it with blue cheese and pickles; she places a cup of cream of celery soup on a dinner plate. Shoulder to shoulder, we once-over the warm food. The heat smells like Lawrence Welk.
“I’m really going for it,” my cousin says, spearing a kielbasa.
“Do it,” I say. We walk back to the table together, eyeing the desserts: sprinkle cake, carrot cake, kolaches.
We set our plates on the thin placemats, fretted with Greek keys.
“I can’t believe you’re a mom now. You look good,” my cousin says gravely. She sips her chocolate phosphate. “This is pretty weird. Wanna try?”
Sure. I drink from her straw. The chocolate is weak and effervescent. We remember being teenagers, trying to be satisfied by Canfield’s Diet Chocolate Fudge soda.
At home, I test my thrift. I study my larder, a little embarrassed. Thirty-five boxes of gluten-free casarecce? This is the food I bought. I have no right to hate it or waste it. I decide what to prepare without deliberation and cook, feeling bleak gratitude as I stretch puttanesca with pasta water and tuna.
At the buffet, there is no need to apologize for being antagonistic toward abundance. It was our pose, our stance, a chance to be defiant and unruly, ironic and willful, a silly way to test mettle. What a luxury, that pleasure, exploratory and bondaged. What form would the debauch take? Would I indulge? Resist? Feign moderation? Waste?
Now I miss the mix of feelings, grape jelly melting into au jus. Before a buffet, I would enter a panicked ecstasy. Mouth hungry, aware of my tongue, touching the soul behind my ribs. I would be overwhelmed by the parataxis. Breakfast spilling into lunch, soup cup balanced on salad plate, bottle of vinaigrette you put down and I pick up…or cruets, green oil and straight balsamic? Croutons sunflower seeds crostini. Food in its prelude to digestion: hollandaise congealing, butter beading, syrup baring its oily eyes like tarpit bubbles.
Now I miss mood swings while stalking platters of sliced cheese and cut fruit. I miss the grinning melon, the big black flies. I miss prowling the line and hounding the smell of baked mozzarella cheese, the blistered sheet stretching over an enormous lasagna. I miss the dance of one server holding new food while another follows to lift out the scabbed remains; I miss the chance encounter with an unfilled slot in the buffet, an empty pool of simmering water and steam. I miss holding a plate to my chest, standing back, waiting. I miss impatience. I miss skimming the labels and growing agitated if the labels were a) missing or b) misplaced. (Trout almondine is clearly not Shrimp de Jonghe.) I miss the Bermuda Triangle of the carving station, cutting board pink with watery blood, that iron reek. I miss walking around the islands of the buffet, cruising, doing a loop. I miss the commensurate magical thinking: Doing a loop will signal the server to clear our plates; doing a loop will empty my stomach; doing a loop will invite a miracle of greater abundance. Doing a loop, I sight an arrival of mini cheesecakes, a new species.
I am nostalgic for public excess; I am nostalgic for helping myself. And I miss being buffeted by an endless combination of choices in a carpeted banquet room packed with other people, all of us hoping to pick the best thing, to satisfy the shared poles of our appetites. Rangy, incongruous, comforted by just-okay appetites.