Captions: Scenes from the chain buffet last night.
Sometime in the early 1990s Ryan's came to town (and like most every other chain that tries to sink roots into my hometown they’ve since pulled up stakes – or in their case, steaks – and left). They arrived with much fanfare. To our hometown still nursing a hangover from too many shuttered factories and bolting businesses, the buffet-on-steroids concept was just what our city’s populace needed for a collective balm. I remember my grandma exclaiming
with child-like excitement: “you don’t need to order off the menu, you can just eat your whole meal from the salad bar, they even have chicken drumsticks!” It was as if somehow you were getting a deal, maybe gaming the system a little, by just eating off the salad bar. Of course the reality was that is precisely what the restaurant wanted. The $10 price tag (disclaimer: my wife gets on me for throwing around numbers like that without verifying so, no, I don’t know the exact price, but it was something like that...adjusted for inflation) wasn’t designed for them to lose money.
Buffets have boomed in recent years. There are pizza buffets, ethnic buffets (my favorite), casino buffets, and just general chain-restaurant trough buffets. The food is generally bland to appeal to the widest panorama of palates possible. But what used to be pure bliss for me is now tempered by my increasing germ paranoia. I now eye the sneeze guards warily. And did that guy just touch the bread end of the tongs with his hands? How long has that broccoli been sitting there steaming?
I miss the cafeteria concept. I remember my grandparents taking us to The Hot Shoppe (owned by the Marriott Corp) or the cafeteria chain, The Cambridge Inn, frequently. We’d dutifully push a tray down a line and choose our food from behind glass cases that a worker would dutifully and sometimes even happily plop onto our plate. But you have to pay workers to do that so restaurant economics gradually shifted to buffets. But I have an increasingly uncomfortable love-hate relationship with them. I love the idea of unlimited, copious quantities of all-I-can-eat food. I don’t like the idea of some guy messing with my bread tongs.
Of course, buffets aren’t the only cesspool of potential food contamination. I remember driving to visit Lovina once in Michigan with my friend Mark. We stopped at a chain gas station convenience store somewhere near Lima, Ohio with the usual array of soda machines and sandwiches. By the Slushee machine was a rotisserie slowly turning wieners for hungry customers, a staple of interstate highway food fare. An employee carried some wieners to the rotisserie in his arms from the back storage room only to clumsily drop them to the tile floor. In a flash, glancing furtively in each direction, he scooped them up off the floor and put them on the rotisserie. 5 second rule, I guess?
Which brings me back to yesterday. Every few years Rachel and I will get invited to the local chain buffet restaurant (there used to be at least three in my town, one still survives) for a family birthday or celebration. And every time I get a little more germophobic about it. What’s happened to me? I used to cruise through the line at Ryan’s in a state of carefree bliss. But yesterday I skipped the salad. There were dressing drippings, blue cheese mingling with Ranch…shredded cheese strewn about the bar like confetti. So I opted for some pasta salad instead, which looked okay to my eye but tasted like it was past its prime. My Dad’s roast beef was so rare that a vampire would have happily joined him for dinner. Yet, still I come back, lured by the irresistible temptation of endless plate piling.
By the way, I can tie this topic to the Amish. One of my favorite buffets in the whole world is Mrs. Yoder’s Restaurant in Mount Hope, Ohio. The buffet is clean and stocked with some more unusual offerings. The lettuce seems crisp and fresh and there is no blue cheese swimming with the Ranch. And the buffet is tended to under the watchful eye of Mrs. Yoder herself. I think when the owner herself is there, instead of some kid working for a distant corporate chain, that makes all the difference.
Despite my fear that I’m eating salmonella salad or e-coli casserole, I’m sure I’ll find myself back at the chain buffet again sometime. But I’ll stay away from the convenience store rotisserie in Lima.