Some things just sound All-American, whether they are or not. Take the All-You-Can-Eat buffet. This cornucopia of food was once commonplace, here in the land of plenty. That's less true today. And maybe that's why Commentator Rex Buchanan swells with excitement whenever he encounters such a large and varied display of food.
Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer and director emeritus at the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas. The Lawrence resident is also coauthor of the book Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills.
The original version of this essay will be published in the November edition of 105 Meadowlark Reader, a journal of creative nonfiction by and for writers who live, or have lived, in Kansas. Discover more at 105MeadowlarkReader.com.
I love a good buffet.
Unfortunately, they’re harder to find these days.
I’m talking about smorgasbords, places that advertise themselves as “all you can eat”. Since you pay a single price no matter how much you eat, it seems like the more you poke down, the cheaper the food is. In fact, I always thought that if I made enough trips through the buffet line, I was somehow making money.
I love these places. I love the brown gravy that’s seemingly omnipresent on buffet lines. I like the metallic, artificial taste, sometimes with a slight skin on the surface. Having grown up with home-made gravy, this brown gravy seems somehow exotic and attractive to me, like an Italian movie star.
But here’s the beauty part: You can go back as many times as you want. Nobody cares, though over the years signs began to appear that demanded that you eat all that you take, which, to be honest, was never really a problem for me.
And it doesn’t matter how full you get, you can still eat more. My wife and I were at a buffet one time. I was the epitome of steely self-discipline, making only three passes at the buffet line. We decided to leave, but she wanted to go to the restroom first, so I had some more fried chicken. When she came back, she said, “Are you still hungry?” I said, with my mouth full, “Hey, I’m making money here.”
When I first started doing field work for the Kansas Geological Survey in the late 1970s, buffets were everywhere. Places like Alloway’s Buffet in the little town of Ellis, just west of Hays. Or the nearby Gorham Café, which sometimes served a German buffet. I’m not much of a fan of German food, but I always managed to have just a little something.
Oakley had a good buffet restaurant on the north edge of town. I’d go in swearing that I was gonna confine myself to the salad bar, but the sight of all that other food swept away my inhibitions, like so much wheat chaff.
The Spring River Inn down in Cherokee County in far southeastern Kansas had a 35-foot-long buffet. I don’t remember the food as much as the parking lot, which was paved with shredded, recycled shingles. I felt good about eating in such an environmentally enlightened place.
Buffets are good places to take people on geology field trips. For one thing, many buffets are big and can handle 30 or 40 people who show up unannounced. That doesn’t throw buffet places for a loop, the way a bus full of high school kids seems to completely disable a McDonald’s. At buffets, just about everybody on the field trip could find something they like, so that I didn’t have to listen to people complain (except for those picky eaters who whine about something like “the gravy from out of a package,” as if that was a bad thing).
And I don’t just like buffets that feature standard Midwestern fare. I love pizza buffets and Chinese buffets, which are still fairly common around the state. I’m not a church-goer, but somehow I think unlimited crab Rangoon (fake crab and all) may just be my idea of heaven. Like they say, I may not be religious but I am spiritual.
It could be that, in Kansas at least, some buffets are getting replaced. Just about every little town, especially in western Kansas, has a pretty good Mexican place now. Mexican buffets are rare but they do exist, and I like them too. I went to one in eastern Colorado that usually offered a buffet but they shut down the steam table during the COVID pandemic and I was forced to order off the menu (which ain’t easy when you’ve got tears in your eyes).
Not long ago I had supper in Mankato, up close to the Nebraska line, and the café had a really good buffet. The folks who ran the place were proud of it, and rightfully so. The chefs replenished the offerings and bragged about the food to anybody ambling by. People were going back again and again. People were eating as if they’d never eat again.
These people, I thought... these are my people.
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