The Supposed Death and the Triumphant Return of the Buffet

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Growing up, few things seemed as important as a trip to the buffet. I say the bar because the warmers all fade together – an integral part of a large, endless table; a physical manifestation of the Infinite Scroll even before the Infinite Scroll was invented. To call it a meal would be dishonest; nothing less than the “journey” captured the feeling of the experience, which stretched time, space and stomachs.

I’ve been thinking about buffets lately because, if you haven’t heard, they’re back. The pandemic is far from over, but health restrictions that kept restaurants and grocery stores away from self-service buffets and salad bars have been lifted. And rather than the death of buffets that so many predicted in 2020 and 2021, the all-you-can-eat model is back – somewhat tweaked, revamped with social distancing measures, but still present.

What’s in the buffet that keeps us coming back for seconds (and thirds and quarters)?

The modern American buffet owes a debt to the smorgasbord, Scandinavia’s bread-and-butter table. The spread, which emerged in the 16th century, has its roots in the more formal tradition of the brännvinsbord, a table of spirits that was served at banquets. Scandinavian immigrants brought the tradition of “smorgy” with them to the United States in the late 1800s (the term smorgasbord is said to have first appeared in American print in 1893), where it merged with other nascent forms of the sideboard here. Historian Jan Whitaker has mapped the concept’s early history, from colonial-era “supper clubs” to the “free lunches” of the 1800s, dishes handed out by taverns to boost sales of accompanying alcohol . These became “buffets or cafes”, where, for a small fee, businessmen could obtain hassle-free prepared meals.

Teebers in the temperance movement tried to scuttle those early buffets, but the pattern reappeared, adapting to the times. During the Great Depression, for example, the all-you-can-eat format was used as a gimmick to bring people back to restaurants. The hope was that by creating a fixed price for an unlimited amount of cheap food, people would have more incentive to dine out. Even etiquette specialist Emily Post helped promote this style of dining, with a calculated 1933 endorsement of the newly invented buffet server, which housed boiling water in the base of a dish to ensure that food remained hot.

What’s in the buffet that keeps us coming back for seconds (and thirds and quarters)?

But the buffet we know today wouldn’t be what it was without Las Vegas. According to the story, El Rancho Vegas, the first casino resort on what would become the Vegas Strip, was trying to figure out how to keep visitors from leaving after the evening’s headliner finished his set. The answer was the Chuck Wagon buffet (later renamed Buckaroo), which debuted in 1946 and charged $1 for “every possible variety of hot and cold entrees to appease the howling coyote in your innards.” It was a success. Other casinos rushed to match the all-you-can-eat midnight supper – and by the 1950s the Vegas buffet concept wasn’t just for late-night patrons with Dunes and Last Frontier resorts introducing ” morning hunting breakfasts, which took its name from a precursor to the brunch, often served with champagne, popular among the British elite.

This rise of buffet culture has spread beyond Vegas, to chains like Sizzler and among mom and pop Chinese restaurants (the first Chinese buffet dates back at least as far as an advertisement for Chang’s Restaurant published in 1949 Citizens of Los Angeles Evening News). My dad, for his part, swears by Shakey’s lunch buffet. He describes the wonder he felt when he first sat down in the 1970s to endless amounts of pizza, garlic bread, chicken. For him, the appeal was not just the value – although the value, he points out, was incredible – nor the quality (which was good!). It was about freedom – almost anyone could afford to sit at Shakey’s and eat like a king.

It was that feeling of admiration that he passed on to me as a kid in the 90s, just when buffet culture in the United States was arguably reaching its peak. Digging into my memories of that moment (to this day, that’s when the term “Super Buffet” hit the American collective vocabulary), they almost feel like they walked out of that scene in Mad Men where the Draper family picnics in the park and leaves all their containers behind on the grass on their way out. Just as litter was not recognized as a global problem until the 1970s, I never questioned the exuberance and post-Cold War hyperconsumption of which Peak Buffet was an example back then. I just remember the thrill of coming back to plate after plate of food. It was the cheap abundance that the times seemed to promise.

But like many of this decade, the prize was there, even if I wasn’t ready to see it yet. Buffet food waste can be nothing short of shameful – a 2017 report found that just over half of the food served at hotel breakfast buffets was actually consumed. And then there are the health concerns (a food safety trade publication charmingly dubbed it the “unlimited illness”), which had curtailed the buffet’s ubiquity even before COVID hit.

But the buffet can evolve. Take the stand of Food Unfolded, a platform funded by the European Union to reconsider the future of food. He proposes that we can redesign the buffet coming out of COVID in a way that paves the way for them to serve sustainable and fairly produced food and minimize waste and germs.

The potential to recreate better, after all, is in the buffet’s very DNA. Its first iteration, the feast, is a tradition that dates back centuries, in eating habits around the world. Cultures have long used these all-you-can-eat affairs to promote feelings of brotherhood, to reuse leftovers, and even as a source of culinary innovation, as the need to differentiate dishes demands new ways to mix ingredients.

I admit it: I miss the buffet. With the upsurge in COVID cases, I won’t be going back anytime soon. But I look forward to the day when I will be back to fill my plate again. One truth about the buffet is that it makes you want more.

It makes me think back to my family’s favorite buffet story, fittingly set a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip at the now-closed “Great Buffet” in Sam’s Town. As we neared the end of the night, a family friend opened her purse, placed a napkin over its contents and took a serving of trifle – a dessert with thin layers of cake soaked in sherry or wine. , fruit and cream – straight inside. I remember the jolt when she subsided before she carefully closed the bag around him.

When she caught us seasoned buffet veterans staring at them, she looked at the purse, looked at us again, and said, “In case I get hungry later.”

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