I know I JUST wrote about how the buffet is my favourite, yet most reviled food attainment method, but I need to share one more buffet moment with you. Both to prove I am seriously fascinated with buffets, and that I still consider them the best worst things in existence.
Last night my husband and I had my parents over for dinner. It was lovely evening as usual, peppered with hilarious conversations and palpable examples of the growing generation-gap between us. No task will ever be more fulfilling or soothing as explaining Snapchat to a 77 year old.
My husband was enjoying the conversations and waxing nostalgic about the time I tried to kill him with an expired yogurt in his lunch. My rebuttal was, in hind sight, weak and poorly played. I reminded HIM about the time I tried to kill him and the whole family at a buffet. Don’t think you’re so special that you’re the only one I try to kill.
My husband and I took our 4 teens to The States two years ago for a little summer holiday fun. We rented a mini-van as our mass transport because we still have some dignity left and don’t own one. We were going to Valley Fair Amusement and Motion Sickness Park for a week to allow the kids to experience a little bit of Americana combined with the soothing effects of Pepto Bismol.
At the end of one of the gruelling days of rides, line-ups and $6 bottles of water, we were back in the hotel wondering what to do for dinner. 4 teens and 2 adults will create a fast food bill of $100 in no time and much higher for a real dining experience. Hoping to get more bang for our devalued Canadian dollar, we considered a buffet. The kids could eat until they burst for a set price and we would not be in town long enough to be blacklisted in the all-you-can-eat market.
I was set on the buffet idea while my husband was leaning more towards a Chinese meal with 7 or 8 different plates to suit everyone’s needs. My experiences dining with this family have shown that each and every dish must be portioned and controlled at the time of serving, or the quickest of the diners will enjoy the lions share of everything. I pushed for the buffet so the bigger eaters would not be held hostage to the portion whims of the slower eaters. My husband was still not convinced, but I had taken the planning ball and was running with it…directly into a health code violation with booth seating.
We arrived at the restaurant and were greeted at the door not by a hostess, rather a curtain of smell. The smell of old cooking oil mixed with fish food and burnt caramel spread over us like a thick East Coast fog. Urged on by my own stubbornness and overwhelming need to be right, I did not turn the group around. We were instead whisked to a table and poured 6 glasses of tepid water to enjoy. As I gulped back the first few sips of water, I held eye contact with my husband for an uncomfortable length of time, hoping to mask my concern that this might be the last table we would ever sit at.
The buffet was 3 rows of gleaming steam tables offering tray after tray of meal time dishes, curiously portioned for snack time at a daycare. 10 shrimp, 2 cups of vegetables. 3 chicken breasts, 12 ounces of wonton soup. In the harsh fluorescent light, you could clearly make out the dried edges of sauce around each item. It was like looking at the tide slowly pull away from the shore, leaving a ring of ocean waste behind as it receded. Had the shrimp been on display for 2 days? 5? Neither of those numbers were the right answer for me, so I decided on the stir-fry station, where, after choosing your own ingredients, the stir fry master taking a break from day parole and dish duties would cook your food as you watched. I picked my ingredients carefully, choosing only the least wilted vegetables and pinkest of chicken.
Known for my skills at the roulette wheel and continuing to hunt for the best possible parking spot, I gambled and handed my plate to the stir-fry cook and analyzed his every move for his ‘tell’. Something to indicate my probability towards salmonella, trichinosis, or Dengue fever. Like not being a Vegas ringer, I am also not a CDC expert but I’m pretty sure a neck tattoo is indicative of something…
When my plate was handed back to me, I noted the lack of obvious infectious bits, however this did not negate my theories about the PRE cooked quality. It did make me rethink my fossilized, sanctimonious ideas about tattoo placement though. Walking back to the table with my steaming petrie dish of as-of-yet-unclassified pandemic stir fry, I passed two members of my dining party, gleefully piling un-peeled, heads-on prawns on their plates like they were hoping to initiate a game of Jenga.
Shrimp are well known as the prima donnas of the food world when it comes to how little effort it takes to make them go bad. Not bad like smoking behind the shed and skipping classes. Bad like get a pillow, because you’re not leaving the bathroom floor for the next three days. In the right conditions, the transition time between good prawns and bad prawns is about 7 minutes. In the dank surroundings of this buffet, we would be lucky if at the 5 minute mark they weren’t already using fraudulent credit cards and boosting a getaway car. My boys smiles, ignorant to the nightmare of food borne illness, were bright and wide as they scurried back to the table. Their full plates a sign of having accomplished that which was normally frowned upon – filling up at your discretion on only one item. Never had they had such a quantity of shrimp on their plate. Their joy eased my fears momentarily as we all sat down together to what could have been our last meal as a living family.
I had to look away from the prawn massacre happening at the far end of the table. The synchronized lip smacking, slurping and shell cracking became both the soundtrack of the group and a death knell, heralding the vengeful return of the prawns in a few short hours. The kids were unaware of the fear we adults held as we watched in horror and ate our own freshly cooked meals. I mouthed ‘I love you’ across the table to my husband as I got up to get some soy sauce to dampen the taste of death. He smiled flatly at me as he pushed his plate away, laying his napkin over the remains like he was some sort of CSI level David Caruso or something. He, however, had no intention of solving why this crime of restaurant choice happened. It happened because his wife was stubborn. No sassy soundtrack and prime time slot on Thursdays was required to figure that out.
At the end of our meal, we herded the children into the rental van, thankful again it was not ours to potentially have to power wash, and returned to the hotel. We lingered together as a family for as long as we could muster, then headed off to our separate rooms for the night. My sleep was fraught with wakeful moments of bionic hearing, when what sounded like a substantial heave would turn out to be just the ice machine down the hall, retching cubes into it’s own frozen lap.
Before long, morning broke into our room through the opening between the curtains and forced its way into my eyes.
We were alive.
At least I thought we were. And if we weren’t, I would have written a none too favourable Trip Advisor review for the bedding choices in Hell, but I suppose that’s exactly what Hell wants. Damn you, eternal lumpy mattress…damn you.
I reached towards the phone on the nightstand and called the boys room. When my oldest answered I knew we were going to be OK, as the first question out of his mouth was “when are we eating?”
All was good in the world, and if I ever forget the horrors of the day, my husband is always eager to remind me.