Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Buffeted to Death

Mind you, I myself am a fat, stupid jerk. But on my last visit to a Chinese buffet in my neighborhood, I was appalled by the behavior of the fat, stupid jerks around me. It's one of the reasons I so rarely visit buffet-style restaurants. I don't like being pressured to act according to my lowest instincts. It's bad for the body, bad for the soul, bad for society.

The fat-stupid-jerk thing to do at a buffet restaurant is to pile food on your plate until it becomes seriously difficult not to spill, then rush back to your table and inhale it (God forbid you should actually taste it), then squeeze back into the line and start over with a clean plate. Why is this bad for the body? That's obvious. If you don't chew your food, it will give you heartburn, gas, constipation, and bad breath (partly from unchewed bits sticking to your tonsils) - everything but the nutritional benefit that a properly digested meal can provide.

Why do people gorge like this? Clearly, so that they can cram as much food as possible down their throat before their stomach sends a "full" signal to the brain. Thus they can squeeze "their money's worth" out of the management of the restaurant. The going rate for many buffet restaurants is so high, these days, that it takes a real pig-out to attain to that satisfying sense that the restaurant, rather than you, has got the short end of the stick. As a result, you end up eating yourself sick. Make a habit of it, and it will take a toll on your health - obesity, heart disease, diabetes - you even may lose the ability to feel full, and spend the rest of your life caught between bingeing and dieting.

So maybe the root problem here, or part of it, is stinginess. Too often one goes to a restaurant and scrutinizes the menu in search of the best deal, the item that provides the most tucker for one's buck. Maybe we all need to re-tool our thinking on the economics of dining out. If the sticker price is too high, don't buy. If that means never eating at a buffet restaurant, all the better. You don't need that kind of temptation, nay, the sense of obligation to a twisted idea of stewardship or fiscal responsibility, driving you to unhealthy extremes.

But if you have a stronger will, perhaps buffets can stay on the menu. Again, it means rethinking your ideas about value when it comes to food and money. Instead of thinking about how to get the most food for your dollar, think about getting the most delicious meal, the most all-around satisfying dining experience. This economic re-education isn't just for your body. It's also for your soul. Gluttony is a sin, you know. And trying to get as much food as possible isn't the only form of gluttony. Perhaps it is just as gluttonous always to order the cheapest thing on the menu, regardless of quantity, and regardless of whether it's a dish you really want or even like. If you're going to dine out, go whole hog - order the dish that makes you salivate, whatever it costs, and enjoy it. If you're dining at a buffet, think the same way: not about how much food you can eat, but about what you want the most. Don't look at it as an invitation to have some of everything; think of it as a different kind of menu from which you can choose.

And finally, adjusting your food-money values is good for society. Why? Partly because dining in a restaurant is an inherently social act. Pretending that you're the only party in the restaurant is unhealthy for society. You know this by experience, because I am sure there have been times when other people's bad manners spoiled your visit to a public eating place. This isn't because we all want to mind our own business, and it upsets us when a disruptive guest at a nearby table breaks the illusion that we are dining in private. It's because everyone in a given restaurant is essentially eating at the same table, and their table-manners affect us just like the manners of our loved ones around the family table. Bad table manners is disrespectful to the person across the table - even if the table happens to be across the room.

Gluttonous buffet behavior also shows bad manners to the host(s) or hostess(es). The swine who loads his plate with General Tso's chicken (but no rice) is behaving like the ne'er-do-well brother-in-law or uncle-by-marriage who carves off a pound of pot roast, or half a baked chicken, while refusing to take any of the potatoes or veggies. Actually, it's worse. The rationale for doing this is simple: you want to eat the "real stuff," and not fill up on the "fillers." But filling up on the fillers is part of the social contract of eating somebody else's food. Refusing to eat the fillers and taking only the meat dishes is tantamount to stealing from them. It makes your meal that much more costly, lowers the profit margin, and (ultimately) drives prices up. And it also shows a profound lack of appreciation for the food itself.

In Asian cuisine, rice is the meal and the other stuff is a side dish to spice it up. So what should your plate look like when you get back to your table after each trip to the buffet? About half of it should be covered with rice. The rest can be divided up between small helpings of 2, 3, or 4 other things - or these can be placed on top of the rice. Eat a little rice with each bite of whatever. Or go back and forth between the rice and whatever. The rice may help you feel full sooner - but this is good. It helps you fight off the monster of gluttony.

It doesn't have to be piled up very high. You are allowed to go back for more helpings, you know. Why pile it up? Saving yourself a bit of exercise? Worrying about the food being gone when you go back? Get real! Make your plate look like something that your Mom would serve to you, or like something you would expect to be served in a decent restaurant. Enjoy it. Go back, if you feel like it, and set up a similar plate, perhaps trying another couple-three dishes you feel a jones for. Are you still hungry? Really? Have some fruit, a bowl of pudding or a piece of fruit cobbler. You don't have to have a large helping of each, especially if you're already in pain from your first 2 (3?) trips to the buffet.

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