If brunch represents humanity at its best, then the buffet line represents the nadir of modern civilization. With rubbery chicken breasts, spoonfuls of salmonella, and shameless gluttony, it’s difficult to believe it took a global pandemic to sound the death knell on the world’s saddest meal option.
I recently returned from a two-week staycation at the seaside. We spent several nights at a lovely little B&B, or Romanian pensiunea, a few hundred meters from the Black Sea. The rooms were big and clean, the terrace provided wonderful views, and they included a breakfast buffet. Standing in line the morning of our first breakfast, I gazed upon the abomination before me and realized we had to end this travesty of dining.
I’ve eaten many buffets in many places, from the wanton offerings of champagne brunches in Dubai to a lunch buffet at a software convention in Minneapolis, and never have I raved about the experience. It fills a need, most often with an arrangement of counter pans supplying gustatory mediocrity. If a great dining experience is akin to sex, the buffet is dry humping for your tastebuds.
The options are predictable. For breakfast, try the scrambled eggs, which are likely from a powder mix. Move on to the next chafing dish and pry apart the greasy bacon from the congealed mass of griddled pork. Not even complimentary prosecco washes away the taste of regret in every bite. If it’s lunch or dinner, sample one of the three pasta offerings along with some kind of meat in a sauce. You must read the label on the container to determine the meat, but the good news is saucy stuff holds up well in a counter pan. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and discover overdone egg rolls or something fried to brick consistency. Sure, it’s probably edible, but so is shoe leather.
If you’re okay with less-than-gourmet, then consider your digestive tract. A buffet is reasonably safe when everyone conducts themselves to the highest standards of cleanliness, and food prep is closely monitored. As a man who worked in a professional kitchen, I know the staff sometimes lets things slide, literally, onto the floor before putting it back into the steam table pans. That tasty little sausage you’re eating rolled around the floor for five seconds, gathering more germs than the VIP section of a Nickelback concert, before making its way to your lips. Furthermore, the staff should replace service pans when they bring new food out, but you’ll often see them simply refilling the ones on the table. If you’re considering anything with mayonnaise, skip the middleman and lock yourself in the bathroom for five hours.
Under normal circumstances, experts such as Dr. Allison Agwu, professor of infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, called the buffet a ‘cesspool of bacteria and viruses,’ which is far less catchy than ‘Breakfast Bonanza!’ She made that assessment in 2018 when a dry cough didn’t elicit accusatory stares from strangers.
This brings us to the biggest problem with buffets — patrons. People are unhygienic and greedy, and the buffet bears witness to it. The staff attempts to mitigate the risk of foodborne illnesses, but the guy ahead of you in line wearing the ‘Co-ed Naked Volleyball’ t-shirt just reached into his shorts and scratched himself. Then, he picked up the serving spoon for the spaghetti you were eyeing and suddenly meatballs don’t sound all that appetizing.
Our Romanian buffet covered all the serving dishes, including plates and flatware. However, people go through the line and forget to replace the covers once they load up. Some guests wear masks, but the young maskless woman in the blue sundress just sneezed into the tray of assorted deli meats and cheeses! Children also wreak havoc in a buffet, picking up at least two things that mom instructs them to put back. Where have that child’s fingers been? Probably up another kid’s nose. Moreover, unless you’re first in line, everyone has touched everything you’re touching. You’re putting your welfare in the hands of strangers who don’t always wash their hands.
Say you’re fine with moribund cuisine served with a dollop of communicable disease. The final nail in the buffet table’s coffin should be the abject lack of shame it elicits from us, turning people with reasonable dietary standards into unabashed gluttons. Many diners attempt to squeeze every penny out of the phrase ‘breakfast included.’ Ala carte gives people a modicum of reserve, but the buffet is a sanctioned period of unfettered anarchy, like The Purge with casseroles and rice pilaf. I watched an older gentleman brazenly take five boiled eggs, several sausages, and a plateful of pancakes to a lonely corner of the terrace and inhale them. People cram handfuls of bread into their pockets for later. One guy in a floral bucket hat nudged me with his elbow and said he planned to eat enough for the entire day. Is this who we’ve become?
If it sounds like I’m buffet shaming vacationers and conference attendees, it’s because I am. This all-you-can-eat institution once posed risks only to our tummies and our dignity, but now other viruses lurk in soup ladles and serving spoons. Is room temperature macaroni worth the risk? We put a man on the moon. We will put other people on Mars. And we should put an end to this savagery and close the lid on the buffet for good.