All-you-can eat or à la carte?

Evidently, I've not inherited the 'separate the wheat from the chaff' gene from my uncle.


Sushmita Bose

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Published: Thu 29 Oct 2015, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Sun 1 Nov 2015, 8:00 AM

While I was growing up in India, buffets were still evolving. I was far more well-versed in the meaning of the word bouffant - which meant a rather weird hair-do, and a hallmark of all stylish women who hung out at members-only clubs. If someone went out for a restaurant meal, there was (usually) never any buffet table; you were always served, after you'd scanned the menu (while the waiter hovered around like a helicopter), placed your order and waited out the mandatory waiting-out period. Ordering food at a restaurant was like packing for travel: stressful yet fun. Everyone around the table had an opinion on what the day's special should be, so it was a real task collating a list of dishes everyone was okay with. But fun because there were egos at play, little culinary victories to be won and all of that.
A few years later, the all-you-can-eat buffet emerged. If I remember correctly, in my day and age, it started at weddings, doing away with the personalised "serving" of guests. Back then, I quite welcomed it, because I was never comfortable being seated in a long line of famished wedding guests (I don't know why I could never whip up an appetite at wedding receptions) and coerced into taking double and triple helpings of stuff I didn't want to eat ("You must have at least four pieces of this fish, it's by special order" and then huge chunks of it being plonked on my already-full plate, while I looked on helplessly).
When I asked around why meals were now being buffet-ised, I was told there were two reasons. One, as the world was getting increasingly egalitarian, it was uncouth to be waited upon. I got that totally. And two, buffets were also economical ("economies of scale" was the phrase bandied about). I didn't get that. "There is so much food on display, people get distracted and start stuffing themselves up with seductive, colourful-looking starters - whose primary job it is to fill you up so that by the time you attack the mains [the expensive options: seafood, meats etc], you are almost ready to call it a day," one of my maternal uncles - who used to be, and still is, a savage at wedding feasts - had explained to me.
The word 'appetisers', he added, was the world's most misleading misnomer - because all they did was kill your food spirit - but, alas, everyone, in their zeal to tuck in more bang for the buck would be queuing up in the hope their appetites would be magically enhanced.
Speaking for myself, give me à la carte any day. I can be picky, fussy, take my time, but I will finally get what I can really enjoy. I hate buffets (I like going for brunches, which are mostly buffets, for the company and the sense of time coming to a standstill for at least four hours). The sight of so much food, together, is a real bummer. God help me if there are 'live kitchens' doling out 'a variety of cuisines'; I can never make up my mind about which one I should concentrate on, and when I do, it's a usually a disastrous decision. Since there's also some kind of (mental) pressure on me that I have to "do justice" to a buffet (therefore the term 'all-you-can-eat'), I am never at ease.
Evidently, I've not inherited the 'separate the wheat from the chaff' gene from my uncle. My uncle, you see, had a strategy at buffet spreads. He would ignore everything else, go straight to the mains section and concentrate only on meats and seafood. "No, not even bread or rice - I can have those at home." A few weeks ago, my brother called to say said uncle was spotted with a plate full of lobsters at a 'buffet' dinner my family had been invited to; he kept refilling his plate every 10 minutes, reportedly; and yes, the rest of my lame family was "sipping" coffee. "Coffee?" I asked. "Yes," my bro said. "You know, coffee and cookies were being served alongside. nice touch it was. so we were already quite full when we went to the lobster section. couldn't do justice to the great lobsters." My uncle clearly did.

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