For Memorial Day weekend, I accompanied the Man of La Muncha to Boise to visit his family. On Monday, before taking me to the airport to head back to Seattle (Man of La Muncha had driven down, and was planning to drive back later in the week), we all went to the Chuck-a-Rama.
What is the Chuck-a-Rama, you might ask? Well, the Chuck-a-Rama (apart from being a really funny name) is one of those all-you-can-eat buffet places where you pay a set amount and chow down on all sorts of food. Everything from chicken parts to lasagna to a salad bar, plus dessert. Definitely not shiny, architectural, artistic-swirls-of-pesto nouveau cuisine. This is industrial dining at its most extreme. Vats of food, people. VATS. The Chuck-a-Rama supports, nay encourages, overeating. People want to feel like they're getting a good deal, like they're getting their money's worth. And if you pay $7.99 and only have a small salad, well, what kind of a deal is that? So people pretty much pile on as much food as they can carry, carefully balancing their heaping plates, and then going back for seconds. And, of course, dessert. Possibly more than one.
Why were we at the Chuck-a-Rama? Let's just say that it's nearly impossible to eat out organically, or to be a locavore, in Boise. The Chuck-o-Rama represented a compromise that accommodated the disparate eating habits of MoLM's family.
So, we all belly up to the (food) bar, make our selections, and return to our table. Across from us was a woman in a booth who was making her way through a plate of Chuck-a-Rama's finest. She dropped a bit of food on the floor then leaned over, picked it up off the floor, and POPPED IT IN HER MOUTH. I sat there, thinking to myself, "I did NOT just see that" when the Man of La Muncha's uncle leaned over and said, "Did you just see what I saw?". There are MOUNTAINS of food in this place. Seconds, thirds, fourths--that's the whole point of going to the Chuck-a-Rama. Yet, instead of leaving whatever morsel had fallen to its fate, this woman felt compelled to lean over and rescue the fallen food and return it to its proper place in her mouth.
I thought about this incident on the way home that afternoon. We really are creatures that are built to withstand scarcity and famine, and as a result, we load up when food is plentiful. There's also something of a competitive nature about these buffet places--what if someone else gets the last roll? The last slice of pie?--that lends itself to piling mounds of food on the plate, even if there's no way you will ever finish it. And, I suppose, by extension, the reaction of the woman to the fallen bit of food makes evolutionary sense. But what was once advantageous now results in an epidemic of obesity (probably 60% of the patrons of the Chuck-a-Rama were obese). Buffet restaurants also encapsulate the dilemma of cheap food in the United States. There are few places in the world where a person could eat as much as they wanted for $7.99 (or the equivalent in local currency), and the only reason it's possible is because of the industrial food chain. I hesitate to say that food should cost more, but ultimately...I kind of think it should. Especially if the results included a healthier population and food that is grown in a more responsible, ethical manner.
Update: Man of La Muncha provided a link to an AP story on the FDA's recommendation that restaurants reduce the size of their portions. Though it wouldn't be possible to implement in a buffet-style restaurant, it is a step in the right direction.
Humans aren't the only animals to gorge themselves if given the opportunity. The May 22 New Yorker has an article (not available online) about artificial sweeteners titled "The Search for Sweet", in which a researcher mentions that lab mice will continue to drink sugar water until they become sick. Restaurants and buffets give humans the opportunity to do the same.