The summer before 8th grade, I went to Tennessee on a mission trip with my church youth group. For 10 days, my friends and I visited needy homes in the heart of Appalachia—most of which were double-wide-trailers—and did odd jobs. We built a porch for one shut-in; at other properties we cleared brush and cut knee-high grass.
In addition to coming home with a heart full of the lord’s selfless love, I also returned to my parents with a new addiction.
“Oh you do, do you?” she said. I suppose that’s the type of thing you fear as a parent: a tangible sign your little boy isn’t so little anymore. One day he’s scarfing Captain Crunch at the kitchen table, the next he’s asking you to pass the creamer.
To my mom’s credit, she took it in stride, and from that moment on, I ditched the most important meal of the day in favor of Folger’s.
While my mission trip ended my affair with breakfast, I can always be talked into brunch. There’s something about a meal that encourages you to mix the sweet treats of breakfast and the savory salt of lunch that really speaks to me, especially if it also happens to be a brunch of the bottomless mimosa variety.
My wife and I don’t brunch enough to use the word as a verb, but when I lived in D.C. with my then-girlfriend, we went at least once a month.
I considered tossing out lunch altogether and just becoming a full-time bruncher, but then we made reservations at a place that served their brunch not by the item, but as an all-you-can-eat buffet.
I understand now brunch buffets are the norm, and some people even prefer them, but for some reason, this was my first time at a brunch buffet.
I was immediately covered in a cold sweat, because here’s the thing: on the whole, my experience with buffets have not been what you’d call positive.
One of my earliest memories is of eating at the Sizzler salad bar when I was four or five and getting hopelessly sick on the way home. My parents told me it was a coincidence, but I knew better. My body chose to exhibit those flu-like symptoms at the Sizzler as a defense mechanism, the same way Texas Horned Lizards shoot blood from their eyes to ward off attackers.
In 6th grade, on our way home from a field trip to our nation’s capital, we stopped at a place called the Horn & Horn Smorgasbord. Now, this was the mid-90s, so we were still a couple of years away from people being repulsed by the idea of eating at a place with the word smorgasbord in its name. My friends and I were fine with it, because at 12 years-old, the only thing we wanted in our lives other than seeing a real, live boob was the promise of a bottomless plate.
The sixth grade class spent an hour shoveling as much fried garbage into our faces as we could and trading “Horn and Horny” jokes. Then, after a third helping of soft-serve ice cream, the chaperones dragged us back onto the buses, our mouths puckered from too much sodium, our stomachs bloated like engorged ticks.
It might have been the rubbery scallops or the calamari or the baked drumsticks that looked a liiiiittle too pink, but 30 minutes later, about the time we passed through Harford County, word came over the radio that someone on Bus 3 was about to be sick. Bus 4’s driver replied she, too, had a kid complaining of stomach pains.
Three rows behind where I sat holding my girlfriend’s sweaty hand, a girl whose normally rosy complexion resembled cellophane weakly raised her hand.
Since we were on regular school buses, there were no restrooms, no place for kids to deposit the refunds the smorgasbord was about to issue. Teachers rifled through purses and backpacks, searching for shopping bags or lunch pails, anything to catch the impending storm of spew.
That’s the kind of thing that’s funny until it isn’t. You laugh at your classmates’ misfortune, suddenly noticing a peculiar churning in your own stomach, and then brother, the joke’s on you.
Six kids got sick in total, enough to warrant an emergency pit stop at the Chesapeake House. The victims’ parents had to drive the hour and a half down I-95 to come fetch their kids while we continued toward home.
I was lucky enough to be spared from the illness, but not the fragrant aftermath. Even with those shitty little bus windows all the way down, my friends and I breathed that pukey air for the rest of the trip.
You’d think after my episode at the Horn & Horn I’d swear off buffets forever. I did for a bit, accompanying my high school friends to the local Chinese buffet but never partaking. No amount of moo goo gai pan was going to change my mind.
But then I went to college and had to start paying for my own food.
When my friends and I moved into a house where the rent was roughly half my monthly wage, I was forced to re-evaluate what constituted a meal. If it filled me up for less than $5, it was acceptable. Less than $3 was ideal; if I got costs down below a dollar, I was unstoppable.
I discovered something called the “Great Dog” that year, a chicken frank made by a company called Gwaltney that cost a dollar for an eight-pack. Cut up a couple of those bad boys, drop them in a pack of chicken-flavored ramen, wash it all down with a Keystone Light, and you were living the dream.
Enter Cici’s Pizza.
When you grow up in New Jersey, you come to understand pizza is its own art form, a medium to be studied and worshipped. Pizza is not a food where you sacrifice quality for price. But when you’re a college graduate with $110,000 in loans making $8.50 an hour at a guitar store, a $4.99 all-you-can-eat pizza buffet sounds pretty fucking magical. You hope your Uncle Sal, looking down at you from heaven, will forgive you.
Remember when you went to a fast food restaurant as a kid and you could never decide which fountain drink you wanted so you just squirted a little bit of everything into your cup? That was me on my first trip to Cici’s.
It wasn’t the best pizza I’d ever had; it didn’t even crack the top 10. But it was piled with ingredients I’d never imagined putting on a pie.
I got the Buffalo chicken pizza, the barbecue chicken pizza, the zesty ham and cheddar pizza, the alfredo pizza, and of course, the greatest invention of all, the mac & cheese pizza. I mean, how could I not? It was the fanciest meal I’d had in 8 months, aside from the time my roommate’s parents took us all to Olive Garden and I inhaled my Tour of Italy.
I left so stuffed with dough and cheese I thought I might have to be rolled home. This must be what rich people feel like, I thought, full and content, their stomachs not silently begging for more like Oliver Twist.
My good mood carried me through the evening, when I laid in bed thinking about what it would be like to eat my fill every night, drinking premium beer instead of the discount stuff they drain off the bottom of the tanks.
I drifted off to sleep, dreaming of full refrigerators and picket fences and credit cards with zero balances.
My midsection made a 911 call to my sleeping brain, saying shit was about to go down, and if someone didn’t get here soon, there was going to be a problem.
One of my favorite movies is the 1993 cowboy epic Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, and Sam Elliott. There’s a scene where Wyatt Earp, played by Russell, yells at the vigilantes who just killed his brother. “You tell him I’m coming,” he says, “and hell is coming with me!”
As I sat in my darkened bathroom for the next 2 hours, staring at the shower curtain and allowing vengeance to be served, I thought back to that field trip to Washington D.C., how the universe had already taught me this lesson a decade before, and how I’d compromised my ideals for the promise of cheap gratification.
And yet, 2 months later, I found myself with $5 in my hand, offering it to the cashier at Cici’s Pizza, ready again to fill my abdomen with as much buffet pizza as it would allow. The first time was a fluke, I reasoned, a losing hand in the food poisoning lottery. Places like this couldn’t exist if people were constantly getting sick from its food, right?
This was the logic I systematically dismantled while I sat emptying the contents of my intestines later that evening. Who eats at places like this? Poor people like me. Poor people like the ones I helped on my mission trip to Tennessee. And who doesn’t have money to sue places like this? Poor people like me. We just had to sit and bear it.
Suddenly I understood the cultural fight between the have and the have-nots, the reason politicians railed against the economic plight of the common man, the reason shut-ins needed coffee-drinking teenagers from New Jersey to cut their grass for them. Was this what they were fighting for? The right for people to eat food that didn’t give them diarrhea?
These were the memories that ran through my mind as I stood at the head of the brunch buffet in Northwest D.C., plate in hand, just knowing whatever spread that followed was going to make me sick. I wasn’t far enough removed from those experiences living hand to mouth that I was willing to spend the rest of my day on the toilet for some eggs and meat with tasty but unknown origins.
Then I saw the carving station, the guy with the 3-foot-high chef’s hat holding a giant fork and knife, dispensing slices of premium ham and roast beef.
Turns out you can eat at an all-you-can-eat buffet without making reference to Tombstone or the Final Destination series or the word smorgasbord. But at the end of the day, I know I’m much safer dropping brunch altogether and just having a cup of coffee.