I’ve always had a conflicted relationship with buffets.
When I grew up, they were called “smorgasbords.” An exotic name when you’re young and hungry and living in Brisbane in the early 60’s. Then again, “spaghetti bolognaise” was also exotic in Brisbane in those days, as was “french fries.”
There’s something deliciously gluttonous about the name: smorg-as-bord. Just the sound of it rolling off your tongue gives you the anticipation of gagging excess. It sounds like it should be a verb rather than a noun. “I’m going to smorgasbord these desserts until I’m sick.”
Perhaps that’s why, somewhere between 1964 and now, the word transmogrified from “smorgasbord” into “buffet.” The word “buffet” is more restrained. It’s more dignified. The word “buffet” can be used in polite company. The word “smorgasbord” somehow has a touch of Nordic pornography about it. It’s as though a smorgasbord should have an R rating, whereas a buffet is a G rating – like a Disney movie.
A smorgasbord is like a Lars von Trier movie.
For me, when I was young, going to an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord was a challenge. A challenge to my manhood. Okay, I was a kid, but it was still a challenge. In fact it was a dare. A shot across my bows. A gauntlet slapped across my pimpled face by the smug restauranteur. It was a duel at lunchtime. Him versus me. His tables of gloriously prepared food versus my rabid rapacious hunger.
The rules of engagement were clear: Let’s say the smorgasbord cost $12.50. Then the challenge was – could I eat more than $12.50 worth of food? Could I be a loss-leader for the restaurant?
In fact, it went deeper than that. The challenge was greater. How much food could I eat before I puked? Before the sight of one more chocolate mouse sent me scrambling to the bathroom, or hurling into a potplant.
Implicit in the challenge for me was: Could I send this restaurant broke? Could I eat so much food, and would the restaurant take such a big hit from me, that it would have trouble paying next month’s power bill?
It was life and death. Survival of the thinnest. I used to go into training when I knew I was going to a smorgasbord. I wouldn’t eat for days beforehand. That’s how seriously I took the challenge.
By the time the doors opened for lunch or dinner on the appointed day, I’d be wild eyed and ravenous. I’d be delirious with hunger. I’d barge in, pushing other patrons out of my way, and head straight for the seafood.
You see, I was like a CIA operative taking out the high value targets first. Seafood were high value targets. Prawns? Tick. Oysters? Tick. Crab claws and Moreton Bay bugs? Tick tick. The seafood table was the Bin Laden of smorgasbords.
I knew the cost of each prawn, each oyster, all the seafood. From my first frenzied mouthful I was adding up how much I was taking the restaurant down. I had to blow that twelve buck fifty threshold out of the water. I was aiming for twenty five bucks minimum. Maybe fifty bucks…
After the seafood came the pork chops, the roast beef, the racks of lamb. I left the salads. They weren’t high value enough. Same with the pastas. Who eats salads and pasta at a smorgasbord?
Then came the desserts. Yes, the desserts! I had no shame. I was not one of those people who delicately placed a few things on their plate, took it back to their table, ate leisurely, then returned graciously for a second plate.
Nup, waste of time. Pile everything on high. Who cares if people stare at you? I stared back, while wolfing down my lemon meringue pie as I walked back to my table, juggling a plate carrying a small hillock of sugared treats.
At this stage I should say that when I ate at smorgasbords, I used to place one stipulation on myself – I had to be able to walk out on my own two legs.
On one occasion I was helped out by a couple of mates who half carried me like a wounded soldier, wiping my brow and talking to me soothingly to keep me lucid. Afterwards I couldn’t eat for a week. I begrudgingly marked that one down as a win for the restaurant.
From the restaurant’s perspective, they wanted to make money out of me. Fair enough. It’s a free market economy. However, I regarded this as a mark of disrespect. Did they seriously think I couldn’t eat more than $12.50 worth of food? Were they questioning the magnificence of my testicular sac? Did I not look malnourished? Had they not seen me eat?
Some had, and they barred me from entry. Or they tried to charge me double. One threatened to call the police. They evidently had my photo up on the wall of their office. I’d started a food fight there several months earlier, and they’d asked me to leave. I recall they had no sense of humour.
Here’s my rationale – in an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, you get to a point where that’s all you can eat. You can’t eat anything more. You’re stuffed full. But there’s still food on the table, which you’ve paid for, and it’s going to waste. It’s YOUR food. So why not put it to good use? Why not throw it around?
Some people like coffee at the end of a meal. Some people like a glass of port. I like throwing food.
I’ve had some memorable food fights over the years in smorgasbords – I still retain images of my brother peeling off a slice of smoked salmon from his nose. And a surfing mate trying to get three-bean salad out of his blonde hair.
One of the most vigorous food fights I ever had was at Weis’s Restaurant, at Toowoomba. My mum had driven us up from Brisbane to have lunch. She loved Weis’s.
It was a while ago now, and I don’t remember the lunch as vividly as my mother, who recalls it regularly with mock wide-eyed horror. What I remember is a crab claw imbedding into a wall. I remember a cone of Weis ice cream sticking out of my sister’s forehead, like a unicorn. I remember laughing so hard I emitted sounds from my rear end, which made me laugh even harder. And I remember my mother trying to slap me, while trying to stop from laughing herself. Thank God she didn’t fart!
Cut to quite a few decades later –
I was driving up to Brisbane from Mudgee (about 8hrs drive) and I suggested to my mum that we meet at Weis’s for lunch. Toowoomba is about 90 minute’s drive from Brisbane, where my mum lives. I knew she still loved Weis’s. She loved the seafood buffet. And if she was totally honest with herself, she’d admit that like me, she relished the prospect of food larceny. That after all these years we could smash a loss on them. That we could win.
But I was concerned. Would they remember me? And refuse me entry?
Toowoomba is a small city, sitting up high at the top of a range, about 130km to the west of Brisbane, capital of Queensland. It’s nicknamed The Garden City, and has a large flower festival each year. It caters for the rural district further west on the Darling Downs. It’s rich productive land, and the city reflects the relative prosperity of its surrounding population.
Toowoomba made world news in 2011 when it was hit by massive floods. Several people died, and the cost to the local economy was estimated at tens of millions of dollars.
Weis Restaurant, perched on high ground at the top of the range, was spared flood damage. It’s been an institution in the city since the family established a frozen ice-cream company in 1957. Weis bars – frozen fruit with a band of icecream – are favourites in southern Queensland.
If you look up the Weis Seafood Smorgasbord Restaurant on Trip Advisor, you get headlines like:
Awful. Don’t go there.
Left with bad taste.
Overpriced and scabby smorgasbord
Don’t waste your money.
Out of five stars it struggles to get two and a half.
I couldn’t wait to get back!
The seafood was as fresh and delicious as I remembered it.
The hot foods were pub standard.
The desserts were home made, and yummy.
There were two soups, a machine which dispensed molten chocolate onto marshmallows on sticks, and some desultory cheeses. All in the ambiance of faded rural grandeur.
At $49.50 a head, I’d say it was a no-contest. Weis won, absolutely.
As the meal came to an end, my mother looked at me quizzically. “What, no food fight?” she asked, teasingly.
My mother is 86 years old. She’s archly conservative, a former dentist, now a published author specializing in solving true crime murders that were committed in Queensland in the 1800s. Recently the ABC’s prestigious documentary series Australian Stories did a half hour documentary on her. She’s a highly intelligent woman.
And now she wanted me to throw a lemon meringue pie at her?
I’d always thought my behavioural problems were a consequence of my misspent youth. It suddenly hit me that it’s genetic.