The Lure of the Buffet

The underlying concept of the buffet — value and excess — plays perfectly into our insatiable appetite for endless quantities of practically everything.

Shrimp buffet

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Of the manifold gifts we have received from Sweden — ABBA, full-body massage, and Ikea, among others — my favorite is the smorgasbord. Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1939 that smorgasbords, which originated in the 14th century, finally showed up on our shores, at the New York World’s Fair. Americans quickly embraced what Swedes had long enjoyed. The underlying concept — value and excess — played perfectly into our insatiable appetite for endless quantities of practically everything.

Naturally, it wasn’t long before smorgasbords found their way to Las Vegas, where casino owners understood the appeal of visitors bellying up to tables piled high with food before bellying up to gaming tables piled high with chips. “Those buffets are all about debauchery and abundance, so they fit right in with the gestalt of Las Vegas,” Jenny Eden Berk, a New England-­based eating psychology coach, told me.

Even now, in the era of the coronavirus and social distancing, as many Americans lament the sleeker bodies they once had, all-you-can-eat buffets (essentially smorgasbords with a high-cal twist) remain popular staples along the Vegas Strip. It was undoubtedly in Sin City that millions of us first encountered tables heaving with row upon row of exotic-seeming seafoods, dim sum, enormous meat entrees, artisanal breads, egg confections, mystery soups, multi-veggie soufflés, creamed who-knows-what, and mousse-topped desserts half a foot tall. All brilliantly illuminated.

“Those buffets are all about debauchery and abundance, so they fit right in with the gestalt of Las Vegas.”

But away from Las Vegas, sadly, all-you-can-eat buffets are disappearing from our dining culture. They boomed until the ’80s, when we began a sharp pivot toward smarter eating. According to one market research report, as the number of restaurants in America increased by 22 percent since 1998, buffet establishments fell by 27 percent during the same ­period. Golden Corral is the last national buffet chain standing. Local all-you-can-eats, which charge, on average, about $20 per person, are few and far between these days. Lavish $70 spreads are available mostly at high-end hotels.

That’s too bad. Yes, I know, enormous buffets can trick us into frenzy-eating, but they can also be pleasurable in a way that eating at a traditional sit-down restaurant sometimes is not. For instance, if you’re like me, you feel no loss in occasionally bypassing the “fine-dining experience,” which can entail faux-fancy menus, haughty waiters, and apologies for food that “we’re so sorry got burned.” At buffets, no burned food!

Also not a lot of great food. What you find may include aging mayo-based salads (susceptible to contamination), cream-based pasta dishes (packed with saturated fat), fried foods (cooked in cheap oils), and plenty of sprouts (often tinged with bacteria). It’s well known in the industry that buffets are frequently where food scraps land. You may not fall deathly ill, but quality can be dicey.

You do need to restrain yourself, though. Examples abound of customers who abused the privilege, such as a 350-pound Wisconsin man tossed from an establishment after consuming a dozen fried fish fillets. And a woman who was removed from a Golden Corral after downing every one of the available brownies. C’mon, folks — all I ask is that you use napkins and utensils and try not to embarrass our species.

Otherwise, have at it. Eating coach Jenny Eden Berk, speaking in defense of beleaguered buffets, told me: “If you eat there consciously, you can give your taste buds foods that are spicy, savory, and sweet. We need all that variety. It helps start the digestive process.”

Fantastic, I say. No one could possibly oppose the unalloyed joy of healthy digestion!

In the last issue, Cable Neuhaus wrote about swimming pools.

This article is featured in the July/August 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. Your view that the American buffet was about excess is completely wrong…As you said the Swedes gifted the rest of America with the smorgasbord…The first one I went to in the 1970s was a lavish affair with all kinds of hams and meats and salads…self serve, I believe, because Sweden is a sparsely populated place and so manpower is at a premium…prior to that, restaurant dining in America meant a sit down place with waiters and waitresses much more so than it is today…the self serve smorgasbord meant variety and a good deal for the price for customers, less work and expenses for the restaurant owners (chefs don’t have to constantly cook to order, just master a 20 recipes or so)..Other American restaurant owners picked up on the value for the money theme by offering unlimited buffet salad bars (the ones that became chains often had farms backing them, so they more veggies than they knew what to do with due to American farming inventions and growing methods.. before this, food was a scarcity for many Americans even at the middle class level, e.g. cereals and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were VERY common in the early 1970s in the middle class neighborhood where I grew up, Campbell’s soups were WIDELY a part of the American diet, not something anyone turned up their noses at…Maybe 10-15% of the kids got help to have lunch (95% white, middle to upper middle class American school)
    So the buffets in America were definitely not originated in excess, and did not become widespread bacchanalian affairs in Las Vegas until much later, although as you wrote, the no limit rule certainly contributed to overeating and American obesity by the time the new millennium rolled around. And yes, Las Vegas buffets ARE about excess, all the better to keep you around the tables and slots and eat up far more of your $$ than they give away to you at the buffets


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