Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

I love a good buffet. I even love a bad buffet. There's something about the myriad of choices that I find irresistible, even if the food itself often is less than appealing. But by far the best part of the buffet is all-you-can-eat psychology that's served up each and every time I saunter up to those steaming stainless steel tables.

I know I'm a weirdo who thinks about irrelevant stuff too much, but I can't help but put myself in the shoes of the guy who decides which items go on the buffet. Whose job is that, and, more importantly, how do I get it? There are some fascinating mind games at work.

As we know, each buffet has its own theme — Chinese, pizza, Italian, Mexican, American, Indian, seafood, breakfast, whatever — but it's the subtle variations within the contexts of those frameworks that I find interesting.

Take the Chinese buffet as an example. Most are fairly predictable. You have soups, egg rolls, General Tao's chicken, beef and broccoli, and all of the standards you've come to expect from Chinese food served in America (in other words, loads of meat, limp veggies cooked to within an inch of their lives and lots and lots of salt). If you're lucky, you might score some sushi.

The primary variations among Chinese buffets is evident at the dessert table. Unlike other ethnic foods, Chinese isn't known for any particular dessert other than fortune cookies, and fortune cookies are decidedly more "fortune" than "cookie." Therefore, the desserts vary wildly from buffet to buffet. In fact, it's the dessert table that effectively distinguishes one Chinese buffet from another. The entrees are all pretty much the same, but it's the dessert that makes or breaks the experience. If you find a Chinese buffet restaurant that serves key lime pie and snickerdoodle cake, I guarantee you'll go back again and again. Conversely, a Chinese buffet that slops out a bowl of instant Jell-O chocolate pudding with some Nilla Wafers floating around just isn't trying anymore.

I also take special note of what's being served on an American buffet, although the adjective "American" certainly leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Sure, you'll find Yankee standards like hamburgers and hot dogs and double-fried chicken parts, but since when is a baked potato considered American? Were we the first ones so innovative that we — gasp! — cooked a potato without boiling it? I doubt it. The Irish were sucking down potatoes long before Columbus set sail to evict North America's inhabitants.

I've noticed that American buffets tend to emphasize the desserts more than other buffets. I know, I know — big shocker, right? We Americans love our desserts. Just ask the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture insulin. Someone has to rebuild Pfizer's stock price, so pass me another slice of carrot cake.

Years ago one of my favorite things about going to the beach was the seafood buffet where I could gorge myself on crab legs, peel-and-eat shrimp, stuffed scallops and all of the other goodies that we landlubbers in Tennessee don't see nearly enough of. However, something unfortunate has happened. In the last 15 years or so, beach-town seafood buffets have decided to deep fry everything and anything they can get their hands on — shrimp, fish, clams, scallops, seagulls. A little fried food is OK, but when everything is fried, it ceases to be a seafood buffet and becomes a breading buffet. Blech. Everything tastes the same when it's fried anyway. If I wanted fried shoe leather, I'd go to a fast-food joint. Come on! I'm at the ocean! Just bring me a big plate of steamed crab legs, some drawn butter, a frosty beverage or two and leave me to my own devices.

Some things are universal across all buffets of any ethnicity or flavor. There are always one or two items on the buffet that everyone in the restaurant wants, but since those items are in such high demand there isn't enough to go around. Therefore, each table designates a person to conduct reconnaissance, and it's that person's job to periodically check the status of the buffet.

Oh sure, the recon guy tries to look casual, like he's just out for a Sunday stroll and doing a little window shopping, but we all know what's going on — he's waiting for a a tray of ribs or steak or crab to emerge from the kitchen. When it does, it's the recon guy's job to discreetly signal his table so they can load up on the in-demand items.

The recon guy's signal is the key. Say you're on recon and you're dining with great-aunt Ethel and great-uncle Norman, and you boldly announce over a crowded dining room, "They have more crab!" By the time Norman and Ethel shuffle over to the buffet, that crab is long gone because everyone within earshot who's younger, quicker and hungrier beat them to it. When I do recon, I go with a subtle signal like the eyebrow scratch or the tie adjustment. Just be sure Norman and Ethel are wearing their bifocals and can see your signal.

All this talk about buffets is making me hungry. See you at the steam tables. I'll be the one adjusting his tie, so back off.

David Spates is a Knoxville resident and Crossville Chronicle contributor whose column is published each Tuesday. He can be reached at davespates@tds.net.

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