Not very long ago, I visited my ‘mind palace’, to steal a term from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, and burrowed deep in order to determine where and when it was that I first encountered the world of buffet dining. The culprits, as it happens, turned out to be a hotel in Wales, UK, and the year 2010. For a Pardesi, the idea of unlimited servings from a varied offering of dishes at a fixed price at all Middle-eastern and Desi restaurants was intriguing, to say the least. My parents painstakingly explained to me the etiquette of buffet dining, i.e., using a fresh plate every time one goes for more food, not breaking the line just because one wants to skip a dish in favour of another further down the spread, and not using the serving utensil of one dish in another, to mention a few. Thus, armed with these etiquette I joined the multitude of millions who had come to believe buffet dining was the epitome of epicurean delight, and for years eschewed the ala carte when choice so permitted.
Fortunately, with the passage of time, one learns to appreciate the finer things in life, and to discriminate between the crass and the sophisticated. Hence, it was only inevitable that buffet dining would one day lose its place on my pedestal of all things fine. For the buffet, stripped of all its facade, is essentially an exercise in mediocrity and an ode to gluttony.
For the restaurateur, the buffet is a chance to dispense with the logistics a complex ala carte requires (not to mention the opportunity to serve leftovers that otherwise may have to be disposed of); given that the generally acceptable quality of buffet meals ranks below that of ala carte, the restaurant owner may cut costs by selecting second rate ingredients. For the chef, the buffet allows him or her to prepare dishes en masse without dedicating time and effort to monitor the outcome of each dish or to avoid less than flattering feedback from an irate diner in case a particular dish turns out less than desirable. Truly, when was the last time one saw a buffet diner complain to the chef?
For the diner, this format grants the excuse for gluttony. We Pakistanis are at close to our worst when it comes to food; the sight of food, and that too in abundance, triggers some primordial chord in us, and our dining manners at a buffet, in general, are not too far removed from those one may see on a farm. People clamour around the serving tables jostling one another for leverage, if you haven’t experienced such a sight, serve yourself a sight by visiting a chamkeeli manicured wedding at some banquet hall in Rawalpindi, and the serving ladles and spoons will fly thick and fast as the entrees are whipped into plates that soon become roving mounds of food, the fear being the food will run out before the second serving! The food is devoured in haste and with sloppiness, interjected with bouts of eructation. Norms of dietary intake are ignored; meats, poultry, seafood, vegetables, fried food and barbecued preparations are all devoured in one sitting, At the end, after the desserts have been washed down, the diner is likely to have a stupefied and glass-eyed look as the ill-effects of over-eating and indigestion start to register.
Gluttony has existed in many forms throughout history but has attained its perfect manifestation in the form of the buffet meal. One can only thank age for imparting a sense of discretion and understanding of what things in life are worth valuing and continuing with, and as such the passing of the buffet meal from my culinary preferences is no more a loss to me than would be the loss of Hamilton from Formula 1