Monday, December 31, 2007

boofay eatin' places

When I was a little kid, we went out to dinner quite a lot. Nine times out of ten, if we went out, we went to a buffet.

Two reasons for this: first, my mother was not the worlds greatest cook. Nor was she the neighborhoods' greatest cook. Or even strictly speaking a cook, unless you also count 'laundry' as it was done in the Victorian era as cooking. Mom boiled EVERYTHING. It may not have been tasty, but it was clean, and it probably included lye soap.

Second, buffet restaurants were extremely popular back then. All you could eat for one low price? Hell yes!

Oregon had been hit very, very hard by the Depression. Everyone had a clear and living memory of it. Hell, I had a clear and living memory of it - even though it happened before I was born. I'd grown up hearing so much more than I'd ever, ever cared to hear about the stupid goddamn fucking Depression that I figured that I counted as a survivor too.  The impression I'd been left with was that it was a time in American history when everyone had been really depressed because there was a war, so they were too bummed out to work, so nobody had any money which of course meant that nobody could buy enough to eat. *

Anyway, right around the end of WWII some creative individual introduced the 'classy' buffet restaurant concept to Oregon. Institutional-style service presented with 'tony' atmosphere...or at least a 'Ladies' Home Journal' interpretation of that -in the Wild West! Like a perpetual 'high society' event, only open to the public! And looking back you can see that nothing probably appealed to the ordinary people of that time like the promise 'All You Can Eat'. Throw in some real linen, a bunch of plastic flowers and one of those whirly shoeshine things by the front door and success was assured.  I remember waiting in line for AN HOUR IN THE RAIN to get into the place and not whining because I was so excited the closer we inched to the door!  Not only any boofay, noooooo Paco.  This was the king of the Oregon boofay eatin' places...Obies' on McLaughlin Boulevard.

The first thing you saw as soon as you entered the place on the red wool carpet was the buffet line *cue angelic choir*.  Surrounded with plastic flower arrangements, gleaming with stainless steel, brass, nickel and glass...the brontosaurus-sized roasts, the servers in gleaming whites bustling by with huge hotel pans filled with gravy-topped cholesterol, backed by red velvet curtains against which the clouds of fragrant steam was pure Burlesque!  It was The Food Capades!  Oh, and the lighting...!  Dark and moody punctuated with bold and dynamic! Heavenly glory piercing through the darkness to illuminate the Miracle of Beets!

In addition to the track spots, Obies' had one of those revolving colored Christmas tree lights that shone down on the line of people ahead of you. If  you were there long enough, you could watch everyone turn from blue to red to lemon yellow to green and back. And as if this weren't enough, the salad line - your first stop - was filled with clear Lucite bowls nestled in ice, and the station had a hidden lexan base that was lit from beneath so that the ice in it twinkled like blue diamonds. For a little kid this was just about the pinnacle of class.

First came the salads. This was the mid- Sixties, so a lot of what was on offer bore little resemblance to salad as we know it now, much less Earth food.

 First, an obligiaory bowl of browning vegetation with oil and vinegar. Obligation having been served, next came the "GOOD" stuff. Macaroni salad (barf.) Three bean salad (barf.) Egg salad (barf.) Potato salad jaundiced with Frenchs' mustard (barf.) Jumbled bergs of multicolored jello on silver platters wreathed with savoyed cabbage leaves (barf), celery boats (barf), radish roses (barf), carrot curls (barely acceptable), cucumbers fanned like winning hands(barf.) Sheer fantasy and Jello took over at this point.  Since I was too short at the time to read the identifying tags, I've come up with my own names.  There was Glazed Caldera of Grated Carrot Studded With Flies,  Mausoleum of Green Jello With Sheep Eyeballs, the fearsome Aztec Death Pyramid Of Red Stuff With Red Chunks...Pink Toothpaste Shaped Like a Fish For No Good Reason...Weeping Cucumbers With Chopped Fescue and Crud Sauce...Pink Christmas Wreath of This Little Piggie Went Wee Wee Wee All The Way Home, Disgusting Fruit With Sheep Eyeballs In Disgusting Sauce, and  Mayonnaisey Mystery Situation with Paprika Dumped All Over The Top. For some reason this preparation was always tastefully garnished by jabbing a dolly into one corner. Yes really. She had cream cheese piped around her in ripples, forming a dress, with a sprig of parsley at her waist for a corsage. I have no idea to this day what the point was, but I still feel sorry for her.*

Next came the sides. Piles of rolls...clovers, dinners, soft, hard, butter, Parkerhouse, and plain Wonder sandwich bread. Bowls full of icy butter pats stacked in pyramids. Mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise and tartar sauce (and you better have tartar sauce if you run a restaurant in the Northwest, bucko.) After that, the hot vegetables...corn swimming in cream or butter, carrots the same, baked beans so heavy with molasses and brown sugar they trailed strands when a spoonful was lifted, green beans, oceans of bobbing peas, Matterhorns of mashed potatoes.

As you inched along you slowly approached the carving station, a small island of drama detached from the rest of the food. The carver wore chefs whites. He presided over the giant mountains of smoking protein beneath the infrared lamps, glowing eerily in the hot orange light.

The carving station was raised up a step, so that the 'chef' looked down at you. He was equipped with a Viking longsword and a long, needle-tipped meat fork straight from Hell. Despite which it reminded me of nothing so much as taking communion a Catholic church, complete with gleaming brass rail, candles, and mysterious shadows. We all took our turns, offering our plates, as the chef murmured "One slice or two?" and we replied 'One please'. In no more than three graceful strokes the dripping slice was removed, pressed between the fork and knife and deposited on your plate with a stylish half-turn that left it bunched up like a breaking wave of deliciousness. Body of Christ? Amen.

Three steps took you from the sanctuary to the dining room beyond, separated by a half wall. The transition was a little jarring...from darkness and steam and low voices and gleaming mood-lit food to a bright and noisy auditorium filled with Formica tables, bustling waitresses, men in brown suits and women in pillbox hats.

This was the era of the huge black purse, and they lay out in the aisles beside madams' chair like huge floating mines. I could be counted on to take out a couple as we sidled along between the tables searching for an empty place.

Now oddly enough I have no memories from this time of people actually putting food into their mouths and eating it. But eat they did. The usual stay was at least an hour, and during that hour you could count on seeing the same faces surrounding you and the same people standing next to you as you filed back in towards the line for another round, simply circulating, stopping long enough to empty a plate and then rejoining the line again.

I always seemed to get stuck in line between two old ladies, and old ladies always appalled me. Not because they were old or ladies, but because of the sheer amount of food they could pack away. The smaller they were, the higher they stacked the chow, and then crammed the bare spots full of rolls. Most of them had two dinner plates on their for whatever, and another strictly for salad. In fact the salad line was perpetually two-deep in old ladies staggering beneath the weight of their trays, circling like little sharks in baggy hose. I secretly guessed it was because most of the salady things didn't really look like food so much as they simply looked pretty. Pretty food doesn't count. And thus you don't look like a pig, and it doesn't get you fat.

People had a lot of odd notions in regards to food back then. I know, I know, it had to do with the Depression and everyone not having enough so you only took a small bit of what was offered and nice people didn't gorge and wasting food was a sin and a lady only nibbled...still, that didn't stop them from loading up on the groceries. They just did it sneaky.

One person would go back to the line, but that one person had to bear in mind all the specific requests from everyone else at that table. Once they returned everyone would take a fast look around, like meerkats. Reassured that nobody was paying undue attention they then swiftly portioned out the food and made it disappear.

My parents weren't quite that goofy, but I never did leave the table for seconds without someone giving me an 'as long as you're headed back...' request. Sometimes this was used as a tactic to trick me into trying new things-'Ha! Now you eat every bit of that before you touch the rest of your plate!' but I got wise and learned to let the bottom of the serving spoon merely dab a spot on my plate, then return and exclaim 'but you didn't say how much!' It was always the same thing, too. What, I have no idea. I only remember it as being some sort of godhorrid pink crap with chunks in it. I still have no idea what it was. It could have been just about anything back then; suburban Oregon was a (sinkhole) backwater, and food coloring was used with a very liberal and 'creative' hand.

Now the only places you see food presented with anything like that kind of homespun elan are a casino, or occasionally a wedding reception. Buffet restaurants are different places these days. It's more like eating in the school cafeteria now-the only thing even slightly different is the lack of announcements over the public address system, the kind prefaced with three 'dings' on a toy xylophone. The food is the same. Exactly the same.

Our high school cafeteria was supplied by SAGA Food Services Inc. The same truck that made those deliveries also pulled up to unload Christ knows what into the kitchens of every North's Chuckwagon Buffet in town. I think the only difference was the quality of the deep-fry grease. And I could be wrong about that.

Here in Whatcom county the flagship restaurant in the Izzy's buffet chain just went stern up. An era has come to an end. What began as a dutchified 80's version of buffet dining turned quickly into a blackened, greasy free-for all complete with women crying in the restroom. See? Just like high school. And this pretty much describes any buffet place these days, at least the ones serving 'Merican food...filthy fat kids running around butt wild, half-inflated balloons stuck against the ceiling ventilation grilles, plates stacked twelve high at the end of the tables loaded with uneaten food. Desperate waitresses who come by every 2 minutes scavenging for tips, offering you beverages and asking if everything's all right. Heavily pierced meth addicts, their checkered pants held in a bunch at the waist with a shoelace, wheeling bus tubs down the aisle. People greeting friends from across the room by shouting 'hey NIGGA!'**, or throwing rolls.

Still, no place offers the kind of "FEED ME NOW DAMMIT' gratification that you get at a buffet. And this is why the casino buffet is the biker's friend.

If you're in the middle of nowhere, you're probably near a casino. And all casinos have a buffet. Oh yes....come innnnnnnnn, hungry public, but first walk through the entiiiiiire length of our colorful flashing fun gamblinnnnnnnnnnnng parlooooooooor...and waaaaaaalk....and waaaaaaaaaalk...lookee at the freeeee's fuuuuun......
This ploy probably works on rich elderly people with low blood sugar much better than it works on sunburnt fat people who've just left all their cash parked out in the 'motorcycles only' space, though.

The only thing you want around noon after a morning spent motorcycle touring is to take a whiz, offload some leather and poke some groceries down your neck NOW. Add a nice booth to sprawl out in, someone unobtrusive to keep your coffee topped up, and, most importantly, an endless supply of saturated fat, and that's called copacetic. You can get all that plus a pleasant background of hypnotic, coruscating jangling noises in a casino buffet. You also get a flashing display along one wall that enables you to play Keno at the same time you're putting away the macaroni salad, if that sounds like fun.

Is the food good? Strictly speaking? No. The food is edible for the most part, often delicious, but very, very rarely is it good. This is stuff supplied by factories, dumped out of plastic bags and cans into hotel pans, and sat over some hot water. If you want 'calories', rejoice. If you want 'good' you've come to the wrong place.

Only once have we run into anything that could be described as 'quality' food at a buffet, and it so happens that it was a casino buffet. It was a small place, somewhere smack dab in the middle of Absolutely Nothing Whatsoever, Idaho, just past...near...Idaho. Somewhere. I don't recall it's having been actually near anything. At all. Except wheat. Oh my yes, there was wheat. Lots of wheat. There had been wheat for quite some few hours by that point.


And then suddenly plop in the midst of all this fricken' wheat, there's a casino with 500 Escalades parked all around it.

We parked the Dyna and trudged through the gaming floor, past the zombies plugged into their penny slots, pulling off our leather as we went. Nobody gave us a glance. We ran our credit card, found a booth, dropped our helmets and slouched up to the line.
And it was FANTASTIC.
Huge, broiled New York steaks. Bearnaise sauce! Lobster. Wild cedar-planked salmon. Eggs Benedict! CHILLED BLUE POINT OYSTERS ON THE HALF SHELL. An omelet bar! The coffee was Starbucks and the sides were glorious. Everything was glorious.
We just sat and looked across the table at one another in silence, completely amazed. Grateful. Unbelieving. Then we fell on it like rabid javelinas.

We did the same thing later on that day in Pullman, where, after a VERY, very very, veryveryvery, very very, extremely incredibly indescribably enormous motherfucking amount of time spent traveling through what must have been the source of wheat for the entire goddamn Earth, AND Jupiter, we happened across an all-pizza buffet.
One price, all you can eat.
Free refills on the pop.

The carnage was indescribable. I think the State police took our picture .

I don't think Idaho wants us back.

* For years I thought that the 'Great Depression' was simply a time in the past when everyone was just really, really sad. I had no idea it had anything to do with economics.

*Think I'm exaggerating? Were you American in the early 60's? Then you know I'm not. I know you remember this crap. You're probably just repressing it. And who can blame you?

**Yes, I'm sorry, this is true. Hereabouts the apple-cheeked offspring of two Nederlandischer parents frequently address each other with 'Yo nigga' ...and yes, it is terribly, terribly sad.


  1. Yo Nigga Lynden kids. Oh man. Goooood stuff.
    Also...oysters in Idaho...ouch. I make it a rule to not touch any sort of aquatic meat once I am past the cascades / 150 miles out from a body of water. Hence me not leaving the West coast often.
    Did you go to the new casino??

  2. We used to go to buffets all the time too. But what I remember most about restaurants was the fact that back in college, my friends and I would smuggle Little Debbie cakes in our purses and just order a coffee and die for hours on end. You shoulda seen the look on one waitresses face when she saw a dang choco cupcake on the coffee saucer.

  3. My large depression era family would hit the buffets in Boise, the Chinese restaraunts and the only Mcdonalds for miles. Finish what you eat dammit and no you can't play on the playground. Get back in the car!!! I loved your blog entry - took me back to my childhood.
    We would like for you to come back to Idaho - it is not all wheat.

  4. I was suffering from heat stroke and stumbled into the Stardust buffet in Vegas shortly before they demolished it.

    That is all the buffet story you'll get from me as I've been into the sauce that was leftover from last night.

    How am I doing so far?

  5. I've been to the seafood buffet at the..... dang, what was the name of that casino in Las Vegas? Oh yeah, The Rio. Excellent stuff.

    No, really.

    I mean it.

  6. Oh your back then!
    And what a feast you have for us. I shall sureptisiously read it at work and be back to the comments lounge laters.

  7. we have buffet cars on trains where you can purchase a 10 year old sandwich if you're extremely rich, or desperate. Similar.

  8. WWII got the US out of the great/fantastic depression and everyone calls Hitler a cunt, whats that about?

  9. Vegas casino buffets - still going strong. And yes, the Rio, best in town. Except my son likes crawfish Tuesdays at the Orleans. The one at the Bellagio is crap, our big hotel next door (soon to be biggest in the world) doesn't have one.
    But yes, I like to pick stuff myself. And no pink crap either.

  10. ssa: i was only brave enough to try one oysterlet. it was benign.//you mean the new one up on halverstick? nope, not yet. we have a coupon for it, but you have to gamble. bleah.

    awa: used to do the same thing in perkins cake-n-steak! bring in a sack of jolly rancher candies and drink coffee all night!

    gale: idaho was beautiful, actually. the forests and small towns we went through were great. we took secondary roads down the panhandle and they all headed straight through the wheat, though. and you have to admit, y'all have a LOT of damn wheat.

    mj: i don't know...what are you doing and who else is there with you?

    PAM!!!!! WHERE YOU BEEN CHICKIE?? i've heard that too...simply 'a lot' doesn't cut it anymore in vegas. now i'm hungry!

    beast: *snif* you say that now....

    ziggi: i gotta tell ya, the train food here is catered by starbucks. it's pretty dang good. expensive as're a captive audience after all.

    knudie: you have a point-kicking his ass did cheer us up as a nation. a few sandwiches on his part would have been a nice gesture, though. but no, he tops himself like a little pussy. would it have been so much trouble to make a tray of sandwiches for general McArthur first, i ask you?

    joe in vegas: reaaaaaaaaly. you know i'm taking this all down. the Biker has been trying to talk me into a weekend in vegas for the past year now.

  11. I think you've just described the food and patrons' behaviour in the Great Australian tradition known as "sporting clubs." They abound.The "food" is relatively cheap as it's subsidised by the gaming macines (CALLED POKIES.REALLY)
    And thanks for geography lesson...I thought Idaho was mining and potatoes!

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