“A face only a mother could love” is the first glimpse of a hotel breakfast buffet’s craggy features: margarine and stale cereal, formica table tops with coffee rings. Consider me briefly maternal, staring down tubs of ice full of chemical fruits and packaged foods, a round iron sculpting the golden musculature of a hot waffle (if you’re lucky).
When I wake up in a new city in a strange bed, I am my infant self, empty stomached and uncaffeinated. I am rarely in hotels, this year a strange anomaly in the usual sea of rented rooms and fold-out couches. I didn’t know the disappointment and delight of a lit breakfast sprawl, the cool scent of freon and burnt coffee.
Hodophobia strikes in starched hotel sheets. I wake up the first morning, anywhere, convinced that the only cure for my prickly anxiety is to fly home and make coffee in my same silver pot on my same stovetop, slice bread with my same serrated knife and brown it in my same elderly toaster. My blood sugar, always mildly wonky, blitzes like poor electrical wiring at the start of any trip. Hours of travel, full of oddly timed meals and the toothy butchery of sour gummy animals, leads to hypoglycemic mornings with matching fluttery hands and heart.
Brain and blood sugar come together to convince me, upon waking, that if I don’t eat immediately I may never eat again.
The hotel breakfast buffet is a counterpoint.
I go downstairs and begin.
I eat a pancake the texture of an old sponge under a blanket of strawberry jelly in an empty dining room on the tropical tip of Texas. I pour brown pebbly flakes onto vanilla and xylitol spiked yogurt surrounded by weary gamblers at a casino hotel on the outskirts of Illinois. I consume a stunned breakfast after waking up in Seattle, seemingly by accident. I arrived in the middle of the night to swoop and solve a crisis, and I awake the next morning to drink hot coffee and bite into the cold velvet of a banana from a tub of ice.
I eat an unconscionable number of powdered scrambled eggs, a landlocked astronaut strolling the Holiday Inn lobby, slurping orange juice from concentrate. I gulp coffee sheer as tulle, like cheap beer, the primary selling point being the accuracy of its deliverable temperature. I choose between flaccid melon flesh and settle on honeydew.
I eat some or I eat mildly. I am satisfied, but only once have I been seduced, at a glossy breakfast buffet in Chengdu. I sat under bright lights and licked and chomped my way through a plate of sponge buns stuffed with salted pork drizzled with buzzing golden ash oil, the kind that makes your lips and organs purr and hum several seconds post-mastication, a mouthful of lightning. I drank four coffees paired with quivering egg tarts in flaky golden shells. I consumed heaping platters of passion fruit and yellow watermelon, so honey fleshed and crisp sweet it was like eating a brick of honeysuckle nectar. I let the chili sweat wash over me as outside the air went from 75 to 85 in a cool hour, thickening, soft as muggy cashmere. I ate cold noodles coated in crushed peanut and coriander and scallions and peppers, tangled on top of oily slick cabbage laced with hollow red pepper skins, greens limp with oil and salt.
It was transcendent, and familiar. Sure I dunked freshly fried unsweetened donuts into cold soy milk, but only after passing the same-as-ever omelet station with its cubed bell peppers and sliced mushrooms, the promise of eggs tailored and folded. The breakfast buffet rules apply, from Texan islands to fancy Chinese hotels:
Jazzy standards and covers, piped in through hidden speakers.
The din of utensils rushed across plates.
Bloodshot travelers with shoulders caved in like turtle shells.
Pastries with no origin story beyond cling wrap and a toaster oven.
My empty stomach and trembly hands clattering into the lobby.
The stunning pleasure of a met need.
The Aesthetics of Food is a literary series where writers respond creatively to the sights, textures, smells, and sounds of food. Please send queries and submissions to email@example.com.