I don’t dine in buffet restaurants very often. Though a few times a year I like to visit my friend Roger Bickham at his restaurant The Movie Star on Old Hwy 11 in Hattiesburg. Roger runs a great buffet— it’s local, the portions are replenished often, the food is hot, it tastes good, and he’s one of the all-around good guys in the restaurant business. Additionally, Movie Star is one of the only places I can get my English-peas-in-a-nest-of-mashed-potatoes fix.
Buffets are a different animal in the restaurant world.
People act differently at a buffet. A strange and manic sense of urgency kicks in when they enter the buffet line as if the food is going to run out. Visions of the opening scene in the musical Oliver arise. Panic sets in. Desperation is thick in the air. Seemingly normal people become hysterical hoarders who pile their plate way too high with food as if their first time through the line will be their only shot at lunch.
And when I say “people,” “they,” and “their” I mean me.
I don’t know what it is, but whenever I’m at a buffet, a switch clicks in my head and I transform into some type of buffet beast. At the mere sight of a buffet line a heretofore-unseen survival instinct kicks in from deep down in my being that is singularly focused on the remaining two drumsticks in the fried-chicken pan.
In an instant my primal hunter-gatherer instincts kick in and all common sense is lost. I get impatient with the person in front of me who is taking too long at the turnip greens, I want to kick the shin of the little kid in front of the turnip green guy for taking the last of the fried okra, and I shoot lasers from my eyes at the fat man three places ahead of me who is spending way too long picking through the fried chicken and piling his plate sky high with catfish filets. Will he see those last two drumsticks under the thighs in the corner of the pan?
This causes me to load my plate with way too much because— even though I know that the kitchen is going to be pumping out food for the next three hours— something in the back of my mind tells me that it’s all about to be gone.
I don’t hate buffets. I hate myself at buffets, and I hate myself before, during, and after buffets.
I become a different person at a buffet and I don’t like that person very much. The buffet beast hidden deep inside me sees a full moon in the form of a bunch of steam table pans and— no matter how hard I try to keep the beast at bay— he rears his ugly head every time. By the time I reach the banana pudding I don’t recognize myself.
As a kid in the 1960s and 1970s we didn’t have all-you-can-eat buffets and I was a much nicer person. We had a few all-you-can-eat catfish restaurants, but they were table service establishments.
I was a disc jockey at a local radio station throughout high school. On Thursday nights record company representatives would take my boss— the 500-pound program director— and a few of us jocks out to eat to try and talk us into playing their most recent releases. My boss always chose a catfish house that served all-you-can-eat catfish. In Los Angeles and New York record companies were bribing DJs with drugs and women. In Hattiesburg, Mississippi the payola was served with hushpuppies.
When this restaurant originally calculated the per-person cost for an all-you-can-eat catfish customer, there is no way they had my 500-pound boss in mind. He could flat-out eat. I always loved the looks on the faces of the wait staff when we walked in. It was an oh no, he’s back kind of resignation because they knew they were about to be hoofing it back and forth from the kitchen for the next 90 minutes.
My boss was a talented radio personality, a funny guy with a great voice, and a prodigious eater. I never saw him fully satiated at an all-you-can-eat catfish restaurant. He never, ever threw in the towel. He simply got bored of being there or tired of eating and just quit making them bring him more food.
A few years ago my publisher sent a photographer down from New York to do the food shots for my grilling book. He had never been to the South and I had a great time showing him my favorite local culinary haunts. Towards the end of the two weeks I took him to an all-you-can-eat catfish house. Several of us were engaged in a discussion about the day’s work when I turned to the photographer who was seated next to me. He was zoned out, staring at the menu, and repeating under his breath, softly— and to no one in particular— “all you can eat…. all you can eat”
He looked up and asked, “You mean they just keep bringing it to you? How can they do that?”
“It’s a Mississippi thing,” I replied. You’re a little guy, they aren’t worried about you.”
He loved his visit to Mississippi and he loved the food down here. I never took him to an all-you-can-eat buffet. I told myself it was because his Upper West Side sensibilities wouldn’t have been able to grasp the concept. The cold hard truth is that I would have never wanted him to see the buffet beast in action.