News and Tribune


October 11, 2013

STAWAR: Rules for the buffet

— Last weekend, I was searching the Internet to try to find a Sunday jazz brunch that I thought I heard about on the radio.

My wife Diane and I used to go to Masterson’s in Louisville, but like the Jazz Factory, it’s now long gone. Having a meal between breakfast and lunch has always seemed like a good idea to me and add a buffet with little jazz and you have a definite winner.

In medieval times the term “buffet” referred to the shelving in dining areas where the family’s silverware, and later the food to be served, was displayed. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, the word “buffet,” in its modern sense, first appears in France in the 18th century, referring to the refreshment room in French railway stations, where food was laid out and people served themselves. Historians believe that the “brunch” tradition evolved from early 19th century hunting luncheons prepared for the British upper crust in their country estates, perhaps accounting for its perceived elegance. Brunches like most British manor house breakfasts were served buffet style.

Paying a fixed price for all that you can eat has been around for a while, in various settings, such as colonial taverns, Victorian men’s clubs, cruise ships, college dining halls, military bases, factories and prisons. Home buffet-style dining, which requires little or no maid service, became especially popular during the Great Depression.

Many sources, however, credit Las Vegas entrepreneur Herb McDonald with launching the modern American “all-you-can-eat” buffet in 1946. While working late one night at the El Rancho Hotel, McDonald put some cheese and lunch meat out on the bar to make a sandwich. Several patrons, who had been gambling all night, walked by saying how hungry they were, giving McDonald the idea for the midnight “chuckwagon” buffet.

Las Vegas is now the acknowledged “Buffet Capital” of the world with establishments such as The Carnival World Buffet at the Rio Hotel and Casino, arguably the world’s biggest buffet, with more than 400 items stretching out on tables over 340 feet long.

Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to buffets. For example, I never was impressed by the huge calabash seafood buffets in South Carolina’s grand strand. In Myrtle Beach, these places are enormous and compete with each other as to the number of items they offer.

The brunch-buffet has evolved into an American staple for eating out after church, as well as on special occasions such as Mother’s Day. Buffets are the ultimate test of carbohydrate self-control and dieters are usually advised to avoid them at all costs.

As a child, the first buffet I can remember was in Bloomington, Ill. I can’t recall the name of the place, but it was housed in an old drive-in theater. We always stopped there whenever we’d drop my older sister off at Illinois State University.

The place featured, what my father thought was the ultimate in haute cuisine, that bold new dining experience from Sweden — the “smorgasbord.” In 1950s, we were pretty impressed by the tables covered with dishes of food, but I think it was the pickled herring that captured my father’s imagination. He thought the smorgasbord was the greatest thing since “broasted chicken.”

When I went away to college in the 1970s, every day was buffet day at the food commons. Individual dorm room refrigerators weren’t quite as pervasive back then, so we were grateful that the food services made up in quantity what it lacked in quality.

I had been advised by a high school teacher to take a popcorn popper with me to college. He said you could make literally anything in it, from soup to, well, popcorn and he was right. We would often snatch food from the buffet to take to our room to heat up later in the popper. Unfortunately the first time I used it, I sat the hot pan down on the floor and burned a perfectly round hole in the wall-to-wall carpeting, forfeiting my room damage deposit.

As an adult I can recall a few buffet misadventures. Once on a trip up North and everyone in the family was just getting over the stomach flu. When we arrived with our delicate stomachs where we were spending the night, the only place to eat was the lodge’s seafood buffet. Even the smell was off putting.

In general, we’ve had pretty good experiences at Chinese buffets, where despite MSG fears and the wife’s suspicions I’ve often enjoyed the shrimp. I also like Amish buffets, where we’ve enjoyed potato pancakes and rhubarb custard pie, like Diane’s grandmother use to make.

College students and others with limited incomes often see buffets as a cost effective way of eating. Some people I’ve known have routinely saved up both their money and their appetite and have tried to squeeze the maximum out of a buffet by staying there as long as possible and eating as much as they could. Often they have an eating strategy to help them get the most for their money such as: 1. no bread or rolls, 2. focus on the carved meats, and 3. no drinks.  

Public buffets tend to be a very social activity and despite good intentions and sneeze guards, they can lead to an unintended degree of intimacy with strangers, sort of like sharing that good spinach dip at a party.

To help counteract this, “Buffet Etiquette” tends to be rather rigid, often with posted rules such as: always use a clean plate, no eating at the serving table, always use the correct serving utensil and no putting food items back.

Besides, these rules governing buffet cost-effectiveness and etiquette, there are other guidelines that every buffet-goer should also keep in mind.

1. Children can never be trusted at a buffet. While kids generally like them because they can choose what they want and there are a lot of desserts, The truth is they are like barbarians. Children like to touch things a lot, including food they have no intention of ever eating. Next to grabbiness, greediness is second nature to them. Despite all your best efforts, you can bet they will find a way to embarrass you at the buffet.

2. Stick with a single theme. I think the biggest danger in buffet eating is the tendency to just start piling food on your plate based on what you think will taste good, with no regard to the idea of harmony. If on the way back from the serving table you notice that your plate basically resembles a pile of garbage, that is a subtle hint that you have gone too far. Resist that temptation to pile on that slice of pepperoni pizza and throw a handful of shrimp on top of your nice chicken dinner plate.

3. A person’s appetite is a limited commodity, so at buffets you especially have to budget how you spend it. You just can’t afford to fill up on salad or yeasty rolls, no matter how good they might smell. Hold back and conserve your appetite for those things that really matter.

4. Go ahead, however, and try the soup. Like pie, one should always at least taste the soup.

5. As for desserts, my wife Diane strongly recommends, “Eat as many of them as you can.” The addition of chocolate fountains in buffets has added a whole new dimension in sticky, but delicious, messiness. Macaroons are probably the best chocolate vehicle, but don’t neglect marshmallows, brownies or strawberries. This is why you can’t waste your appetite on salads, there’s a whole world of sugary goodness out there to explore.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at

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