Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah. In this season of excess, I’d like to talk about an area of excess very close to my heart: The buffet. Buffets and I go way back. When I was a kid, “We’re going to Sizzler.” was music to my ears. I was a pain in the ass about food, and Sizzler worked well with my unrefined palate. I can’t imagine my parents loved it. But I did.
Out in the first-ring suburbs of San Francisco, I’d load up on chicken tenders and spaghetti with marinara, plus a giant Sprite. The salad bar and carving station were lost on me. But not the dessert. Sizzler. had. soft-serve. machines. And it was awesome. Sometimes I’d lay a cube of red Jell-O gently to the side of my Oreo-crusted chocolate-vanilla swirl, an artistically placed fruit cube sure to make my sister roll her eyes.
The soft-serve with gelatin backer tradition endured. I was 23 at a Chinese buffet on Belmont and Elston, but this time it was my then-boyfriend snorting at my creation – a neat vanilla twist with green Jell-O and fortune cookie garnish. He eyed the rows of almond cookies, his hand hovering over their rounded, pale yellow tops.
“I’m sure they’re not vegan.” I said. I was mad at him.
He sighed. “Probably not.”
We liked buffets for some of the same reasons. We both liked Chinese food of varying quality, from Chinatown’s best to China Fast Wok to Panda Express at the Des Plaines Oasis (It’s like McDonald’s for Chinese people,” he said, and I mean he was born in Taiwan so who was I to argue). And we liked to eat a lot of it. He didn’t eat animal products but wasn’t highbrow about where his non-meat came from, and liked anywhere that let him load up on vegetables, white rice, and tofu, plus the never that great kappa rolls for garnish. Then another round for noodles and fried rice. We took advantage of endless trips, pacing ourselves to get the most out of our experience.
And it was an experience. I liked to look at other diner’s selections. Every now and then you’d see variety platter from the American section: dried-out pizza, sad fries, and that grossly delicious prepackaged garlic bread. Usually this was kids under seven. Sometimes it was a giant pile of sweet and sour shrimp, the small mound of rice an afterthought. Sometimes it betrayed their not-so-secret sweet tooth, a double plate stacked high with fresh fruit, cookies, and brownies – in my opinion, a waste of stomach space. My own plate was potstickers, green beans, crab rangoon, rice, whatever Hunan or Szcehuan chicken was available, and sometimes beef with broccoli. That was round one. Round two delved further into the starch families: chow fun, chow mein, and occasionally a chunk of cantaloupe for color. Round three was dessert, and maybe more chow fun. It varied, but that was the general format.
I wanted everything. He didn’t. This extended past buffets, into areas beyond limitless egg rolls and General Tso. We didn’t last, but my love of buffets persisted. I haven’t been to one in a long time, not so much out of relationship nostalgia and more the noble and boring goal of trying to eat less like a jerk. But I remember them, a uniquely Chicago United Nations of endless food: Indian. Polish. Pizza. Thai. Old Country Buffet or Golden Corral. Flattop Grill totally doesn’t count.
In theory, I sort of get buffet hate. You’re probably going to overeat. They’re not fancy places. But buffets speak to me of possibility: everything you want is here for the taking. Pick up a serving spoon or metal tongs and go for it – it doesn’t matter if you have a little or a lot, because you can always return. Your decisions aren’t written in stone. You’re allowed to make missteps. It’s freedom, and it tastes really good. Like the fat and salt in a lot of my buffet favorites, that feeling is delicious and addictive. It is important to feel like lots of things can happen, and that you have agency over them. You screwed up the first round with honey walnut shrimp, which with its mayonnaise contents has no business being out there in the first place? It’s cool – theres a gleaming, golden pile of combination lo mein waiting for you. You can make a mistake and come back from it.
Plus, soft-serve machines. Come on.