Many people are lucky to have a great mentor, someone who took them under their wing and taught them more than just the requisite curriculum. I was not one of those people. But don’t sympathize for me, as I’ve had many great teachers and advisers who have sherpa-ed me through this thing we call life.
Those people led the way inside classrooms or offices, the formal institutions of learning. I also have phenomenal parents who raised me on a diet of morals like tolerance and ambition and hard work. And that would have been enough, dayenu, but there is just one more pillar of my development, a source of countless lessons that shaped who I am and my decision-making evolution: All you can eat buffets.
Some of my most valued trial and error tutelage comes from the real-life practicum that is an empty plate and too many options. All you can eat buffets are an excellent laboratory for some of the more important economic, philosophical, and moralistic aphorisms that the world has to offer.
Here are some of my more useful takeaways from a world where you can never take things to go:
If you go into the buffet knowing you are not going to beat the house and eat more than you paid, it takes a major burden off of your meal. A not-so-secret secret is that no matter what the cost basis of your plates are, they are not giving you a refund or a trophy or even a compliment.
That money is gone, don’t meat-sweat it. Now you can just go enjoy the things you like without making every decision an economic one. Who cares if the steak tips, which are grey, have a higher value than the baby back ribs? Eat the thing that makes you happy. If you love tater tots and mac and cheese, the only thing you need to overthink is your cholesterol.
We’ve all been to buffets with friends who are ready to throw down the gauntlet. Plate after plate loaded to the edge and empties stacked next to you in some kind of thick measuring contest. The moral, hidden like the actual shrimp pieces in the chafing dish of mostly brown sauce, is that the person who consumes the most is never the winner. Most often they are the one who will pay the biggest price, even though you all spent $15.99.
Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Oddly Professor Tyson’s words transcend the gladiatorial arena that is a boxing ring, all the way to the gladiatorial arena that is the buffet aisles. Any buffet-er (buffet-ist?) worth their weight in prime rib, comes in with a plan. You have an idea of where to start, what will be on your prized-plate round, and how to finish your meal on a high note.
Unfortunately buffet’s punch back, maybe in the mouth, maybe just above the belt. And your plan is apt to get rearranged and disheveled, much like your optimistically tucked-in shirt.
Our family used to go out to an upscale buffet every year for Thanksgiving Dinner (long story for another time), and I always had grand aspirations of a traditional turkey plate, before veering toward the sushi station, and then finishing on a high note with the lamb chops. I learned the hard way that if you love lamb chops, make them your first stop because a third plate may not be in the cards that day.
This sounds like a sentimental mantra, something grandma may cross-stitch and frame above the family table. Unfortunately in this case, it is tied to the intestinal horrors of the all you can eat buffet epilogue.
I learned this one at Cici’s Pizza in 2006, on a car ride home with friends. Our driver drastically mismanaged his unlimited pizza, pasta, salad, and desserts intake to distance-to-home ratio. In the backseat, as I was grappling with my own self-awareness, he swerved three lanes and pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot like the hero of an action movie. There was action that day. There were no heroes.
Most of these lessons only take one occasion to learn. Most of them. I learned this one in New York City in 2007 and Washington D.C., in 2008. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, there was soooo much shame.
All You Can whatevers should be mutually exclusive. You should but don’t have to trust me… references provided at request.
Buffets can often be a feast for the eyes too, where the people-watching is a real premium add-on. And while that will always come with some sort of judgment, remember that you and they had the same idea today. In the end, we are all the same disgusting creatures that god created in his or her or their disgusting image. Or whatever. The guy in a sweatsuit eating bread pudding and meatloaf certainly has opinions on the way you are one-biting a carton of deviled eggs.
Overserved is a common defense for the next day maladies of over-consumption. Saying you were overserved is placing the blame on someone else for your own lack of discipline. And while the inherent gluttony of all you can eat buffets seems like the most American thing, so is blaming others for problems we have created for ourselves.