Most food connoisseurs know that we owe many of our gourmet food practices to French influence. Equaled in ubiquitousness only by cuss words, fancy French words fly around American prep kitchens in reference to simple things like the combination of carrots, onion and celery (mirepoix).
But what most foodies don't know is that we also owe the French (and the English, in part) credit for another American food staple that tends to be viewed quite differently than haute cuisine: the modern buffet.
That's right. Next time Frenchie wants to talk to you about Bordeaux, you thank him for sneeze guards, too.
What some say began in the 17th century as a quick response by kitchen staffs to male suitors' sudden house calls on high society ladies, eventually led to what we now know as the all-you-can-eat, gut-busting gustatory pigout.
Nowadays, when people head to a buffet, such as the locally beloved Golden Corral, they use action verbs like "punish" to prognosticate how they're going to treat rows and rows of various food products. Diners wear loose-fitting pants, enact game plans and enter states of catatonic deep breathing to attempt inhuman super-digestion all to get their money's worth.
I am not alone in having been greeted by a puddle of vomit near the bushes in a buffet destination's parking lot. Such scenes recall a time 2,000 years ago, documented by Roman philosopher Seneca, when feasters at extravagant banquets would wretch into bowls or on the floor, only to resume gorging.
To gain perspective on how we've revisited this gluttonous practice, I call David Torres-Rouff, former Indy food writer and assistant professor in the Colorado College history department.
Not only does the history-Ph.D.-holding Torres-Rouff know a great deal about food in relation to human civilizations, but he's also crafted a masterful buffet strategy (see "Strategy, unwrapped").
Citing groundbreaking, 20th-century anthropologist Claude Lvi-Strauss, Torres-Rouff deftly launches into some smart-guy theorizing, relating modern buffet gorging back to the topic of feasting, "a locus of analysis in cultural anthropology, ethnography and archeology."
In non-accumulative societies, says Torres-Rouff, "it was the obligation of the wealthy to redistribute in the form of feasting." We're talking special occasions, like harvest festivals heavily ceremonial, ritualized feasts to share with the community, polar opposite to today's displays of gross capitalist consumerism.
In our own history, the first Thanksgiving might come to mind. And it certainly was a feast; the American Indians and Europeans shared a meal that included various vegetables, seafood, birds and land game in one sitting.
Which brings us to a central question: At this, or any other time, in human history, would a person have had so many different foods floating around in his/her gut as people do today after a typical buffet?
"Today's buffet: pasta, breakfast items, a chocolate fountain ... is an assemblage that just doesn't exist in a single location in a pre-transportation world.
"Is it the ability to have so many things that makes the buffet possible," wonders Torres-Rouff, "or is the desire to have the buffet that makes us get all that crap?"
Though it sports a commendable smorgasbord, Golden Corral is not a special-occasion buffet destination like The Broadmoor, which arguably still aligns with the feasting-as-ritual concept.
"In terms of the feast itself," says Torres-Rouff, "the ornateness is part of the hallmark of the goodness and success of the feast. The gaudiness of it is part of the feast. I still only go to brunch on special occasions. My feasts are still tied."
But it doesn't take a social psychologist to tell you (and the one I tried never called me back) that the average visit to Golden Corral speaks more to obtaining diverse food choices at an affordable price ($7.19 to $9.99) than engaging in ceremony. Take it from Colorado College folklorist and cultural anthropologist Mario Montao:
"People like good deals."
Always get dessert first. You never know if it's going to be replaced, so go look and put one on your table for later. Then go for cold seafood items and salads, followed by warm breakfast items. Next, eat more salad for spatial clearance as in roughage and fiber in between protein-laden courses. Hit the carving station last before dessert.
Take walks and never eat pasta or potatoes (they fill you up), and don't eat bread unless it's a great croissant or something. Eat bacon every round, no matter what (because, hey, bacon tastes good).
If you're the ultimate cheapskate and want to maximize your value, eat high-ticket items like shrimp and crab.