Apple pie, baby back ribs, marinara sauce: each congeals on its own time. The smell is overwhelming—a seething mix of the foods sitting out, steaming into their plastic sneeze guards, all topped with a tannic hint of the industrial-grade cleaners they use on the linoleum. I hesitate, but there’s a line behind me and lines for the food, and my parents are already diving in.
The floors and booths and tables are sticky. I clear three heaped plates over the course of the meal. My parents and I are the only non-white people here. People stare as my mom and dad gab loudly in Chinese under a picture of John Wayne, one of the many retro-Americana tchotchkes unrelated to either the buffet’s theme (Italian) or history (opened in 2002).
Every buffet my parents and I frequented when I was in elementary school was littered with similar faux memorabilia. Each gave its own vision of a cornucopic America where less than $20 could buy the whole dazzling, vulgar, all-you-can-eat experience; where we balanced quivering Jenga stacks of steak and pancakes back to our table; where no one went hungry.
Not that we went hungry at home—almost every night, we’d shovel white rice and stir-fry into our mouths in that silent kitchen, yellow fluorescence sallowing our cheeks.
Good news from school or the office meant a special home-cooked meal, maybe a tray of dumplings. Buffet visits didn’t celebrate anything in particular. Rather, my dad would get a far-off look in his eyes, or my mom would grin mischievously and ask, “Who’s hungry?” on an unremarkable Tuesday night. Off we would go.
We went out for a treat at our local Cici’s Pizza or Golden Corral every month or two. After every visit, on the long drive home—we lived on the fringes of the suburbs then—I lay bloated in the back seat, having abused the soft-serve machine again, wondering whether my (nearly all white) classmates ate like this every night.
This was a constant mystery to me back then: What did white people have for dinner? What was American food? It certainly wasn’t what I was eating, judging by my classmates’ grimaces at the leftovers my mom packed me for lunch. Did they tuck into pizza and pasta every night? Did their houses have that distant familiarity I tasted at the buffet, where families joked and laughed around the table? Where you knew where everything was?
The habit died after we moved, and those buffet institutions became another aspect of the passing suburban landscape to stare at, dully, through a car window.
These days, I eat every meal at a buffet.
Despite Harvard University Dining Services’s best efforts, I end up eating pretty much the same meal every day: chicken, rice, vegetables, maybe eggs for breakfast. The routine is broken only by the occasional late-night treat at Noch’s or Felipe’s.
It’s past my bedtime. Some friends and I reach the inevitable 2 a.m. Chinese food decision. At the behest of my (non-Chinese) friends, I negotiate with the server in clumsy Mandarin for more broccoli, less beef, extra rice. Chicharron-shaped pieces of beef and pork swim in mysterious, dark-brown sludge, the broccoli is worryingly mushy, and everything stings with an alkaline aftertaste.
But still. I clean my plate. I crack jokes with the waitress. I ask for more tea. I remember where I am.