It wasn’t the best of times. I was out of work and out of luck, and as my financial situation slumped and food prices soared, I responded by trimming the fat from my budget. And what better place to do this, I reasoned, than at the all-you-can-eat buffet, where I could figuratively tighten and literally loosen my belt a few notches? Even as the obesity epidemic offered the twin temptations of a high-fructose corn syrup diet and sedentary lifestyle, the lure of a continuous-course meal at a penny-pinching price was too strong for me to resist. Desperate times called for desperate pleasures.
At first glance, the fundamentals of the buffet system seemed fairly straightforward: pile a globular mass of grub on my plate, devour said mass, ad infinitum. I knew that the execution of this plan could quickly run afoul of the gastronomic adage that one’s eyes are bigger than one’s stomach, however, and that successfully avoiding this pitfall would be contingent on laying the groundwork.
Because the stomach is a muscle, I considered it prudent to take it for a few test runs before I attempted to stuff a smorgasbord inside. Just as marathoners progressively add distance to their training routine, I steadily expanded the dimensions of my feedbag with a strict regimen of water and iceberg lettuce. Although this initially struck me as a draconian measure, once I was staring down an abattoir’s worth of meat, I recognized my temporary suffering as a necessary evil.
But unfortunately, it’s not always what’s on the inside that counts. Case in point: By wearing form-fitting fashion, I sealed my fate as someone who looked and felt like I was constricted in sausage casing. It was clear, in hindsight, that I should have dropped all pretensions and surrendered to my sweatpants, sweeping aside any vestigial inclination to appear more fancy than frumpy with the question, “Do you really want your tailor to double as your emergency contact?” Since endurance eaters don’t fit into our culture’s impossibly narrow definition of glamour, it wasn’t the time to dress to impress, anyway.
While the other details of my demeanor were incidental, there was one aspect of my appearance that I regrettably overlooked: my hair. Blinded by my bangs, I selected a subprime cut of roast beef and scalded my fingertips plucking stray strands from my au jus. My advice? Tame those tousled tresses!
With hair obstructing my view, I failed to claim a strategic anchor near the archipelago of food islands, which not only would have given me the advantage of proximity, but would also have offered the convenience of taking inventory and regularly monitoring the restocking of my favorite offerings. That newly replenished pan of cream cheese wontons? It could have been all mine! And I wouldn’t have had to share the teriyaki chicken skewers, either.
When it came to choosing flatware, I decided to forgo the customary cutlery and seize the serving spoon instead. Sure people were rubbernecking as I maniacally wielded the fried rice scoop, but I was undeterred, committed to the mantra quantity over dignity. (Note: Nowhere is this maneuver more apropos than at Asian buffets, where chopsticks are the foremost enemy of efficiency.)
Next, I grabbed the amount of napkins I thought I would need. I thought I was being generous, but between spills and sweat and stains, the amount of napkins I actually needed was at least double, maybe even triple, my initial estimation. (Shout-out to the forest that was felled in service to my have-you-no-decency display.)
The final item on my preprandial agenda was selecting the beverage that paired best with sanctioned gluttony, a multiple-choice test made all the more exasperating by the constant fusillade of cubes cascading from the ice dispenser. First I gulped down a glass of milk. Wrong. Too thick. Next I chugged a soda. Wrong again. Too aggressively effervescent. And diet iced tea? Again, wrong. I took just one swig before dumping the dross on a conveniently located faux fern. The correct answer, one that I belatedly identified, was water, if for no other reason than to whet my appetite for further caloric conquest.
Implicit in my trip to the all-you-can-eat buffet was my willful abnegation of self-control. Here, restraint was both undesirable and impossible, and once I had surrendered myself to an entire fried chicken, protocol and propriety seemed like quaint relics of meals past. Hawaiian pizza topped with green bean casserole? Don’t knock it until you try it. An amalgamation of nachos con carne, clam strips, and sauerkraut? It was a Choose Your Own Adventure for my gastrointestinal tract. The possibilities were endless! And, needless to say, nauseating!
There are two important caveats, lessons I learned the hard way. One, if my gauche uncle Gary would need a guide to pronounce a menu item—chipotle chicken, chicken cacciatore, “herb” anything—then I should have abstained from stuffing it down my gullet. And two, even though I coded my mission in apocalyptic terms, under no circumstances should I have approached the sweets that had suffered the scorch of the heat lamp. Here things rapidly went from bad to worse, as the puddle of melted soft serve failed to mask the aridity of the almond cookies that were more desert than dessert.
More important than the substance of my intake, however, was my rate of consumption. I inhaled a slab of triple-decker tiramisu and wolfed down a nest of crab legs too quickly and found myself preemptively paralyzed with satiety. After I had exhausted basic delay tactics such as bathroom breaks and social media updates, I decided to challenge myself with a slew of more ambitious diversions:
- Hazarding a game of Edible Jenga with a precariously stacked tower of spring rolls.
- Sculpting a smattering of potatoes—baked, mashed, au gratin, cheesy hash browns, curly fries—into a dystopian landscape.
- Prodding a piece of sautéed shrimp-cum-Minotaur through a labyrinth of fettuccine Alfredo.
- Rescuing a fleet of sinking buttermilk biscuits from a cesspool of white gravy.
- Jumpstarting my high school biology knowledge by performing a tabletop prime rib dissection.
Beyond the finitude of my stomach, my main enemy was the steady influx of other patrons who I feared would mistake a wayward glance as an open invitation for chitchat or—worst-case scenario—sit down in my booth uninvited. Because I was in a vulnerable food-altered state, I failed to activate my tunnel vision—the best defense against potential interlocutors—and accidentally made eye contact with other patrons, including my own reflection in the sneeze guard (which, truth be told, was my most cringe-worthy encounter).
After my second or third dessert plate, my head swimming in the waves of over-satiety, I found myself regarding the ersatz edibles before me with both revulsion and reverence, the line between them irrevocably blurred. I tried not think of my overindulgence as indiscriminately shoveling food into my mouth, but instead, and with imperious panache, as devouring the American Dream. After all, it was not only my right, but my destiny to demolish a mammoth wedge of apple pie and declare “Mission accomplished!”
I woke up facedown at my table. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” taunted me from hidden speakers. My clothes soaked with perspiration and garnished with a spectrum of splotches, I dug into my pocket and yanked out a fistful of cash, tossing it amid the all-you-can-eat carnage. Realizing that I was unable to unmoor myself from my booth, I raised a napkin, my white flag, to signal my surrender.
Robyn Schindeldecker is a Minneapolis-based writer whose work has appeared in Chicago Literati, Entropy, and Typehouse Literary Magazine, among other places. When she’s not making a mess in the wordsmith’s forge, she can be found making a mess eating pancakes.