What Cruise Buffets Can Learn from a Pack of Wolves
Day 78: A shout out to my man Francis, that rare breed of waiter who knows how to call a spade a spade. Francis demonstrated this exceptional ability last night at dinner. I was flummoxed, unable to decide what to choose as an appetizer, and so I put the following question to Francis: "How about the Atlantic seafood tian? Is it any good?"
His answer: "Not really."
Boom. An honest answer from an honest man.
What good is a waiter if he or she can't give you plainspoken advice about the food? The waiter works at the restaurant, after all. Is it so unreasonable to expect him to know what the food is like? And yet too often--way, way too often--waiters deliver the limpest, most half-hearted recommendations. Ask for guidance between the lamb and the steak and you might hear, "They're both good," or "I guess it depends what you're in the mood for," or, my favorite "I don't know. I'm a vegetarian."
But a bad waiter is still better than no waiter at all, a form of dining known as the buffet. The problems of the buffet are numerous. The food sits around too long. The spectacle of variety is contrary to the best interests of the eater--it's just not a good idea to eat lamb curry, a hot dog, shrimp cocktail, enchiladas and chow mein all in the same lunch. And no matter how unappetizing the food, overeating is nevertheless inevitable.
The greatest failing of the buffet, however, doesn't have to do with the food. The problem is the other diners. No matter how high the stacks of food on the warming tables, a quiet sense of panic pervades. The root motivation of all buffet-grazers is the fear that the food could at any moment run out. Diners jockey for position. They load as much food onto their plates as possible, sometimes more. You have to wait as the guy in front of you, the one in the crepe tracksuit with the white sweatband across his forehead, digs through the bacon tray with the tongs, removing the best pieces and leaving the more carbonized ones for you. Seconds later, you discover that some idiot has soiled the hash browns spoon by dipping it into the scrambled eggs. When you get to the sausages, there is only one left, the runt of the litter, soaking in the grease of its brethren.
This provokes a universal response, a feeling that has welled up in man since the first chafing dish was set out above a steaming pan of hot water, and it has a name: buffet rage. I have experienced buffet rage at hotels, at weddings and suburban restaurants, but the most acute case of buffet rage occurred not three months ago, onboard the Crystal Symphony. Lunch was in its twilight. I had dined on prime rib, chicken in cream sauce, beef bourguignon, Caesar salad, seafood cocktail, coleslaw and smoked salmon. Now it was time for cheese. The cheese table was not only plentiful--a fantasy of wheels and wedges--but empty. I stepped up. The cheese server said, "What can I get for you, sir?" I scanned the offerings, a decision took shape in my mind and just as the first syllable of an order began to form in my throat, this old guy swoops in and says, "I'm looking for something stinky."
He was the kind of lean and impish retiree who holds his tray with both hands--forearms flexed--and looked as though he spends Saturday afternoons flipping through back issues of Fine Woodworking saying, "These idiots don't know what they're talking about." He took his time, too. He would ask the cheese server about, say, the gouda, then pause for a small eternity. Eventually, he got round to asking about the époisse--the sole cheese on the table with even a suggestion of stinkiness--but he went for the marble cheddar instead. I relive the experience often in my head, and each time it concludes with some new and violent ending, usually involving the cheese knife or the submerging of his head into the chocolate fountain.
To truly comprehend the fundamental problem with buffets, we must turn to Mother Nature. Specifically, we will look to the example set by wolves. If you think about it, a wolf kill is a buffet. It may have been a moose a few minutes earlier, but now that its tendons have been bitten through and its throat torn open, it is a buffet. Now ask yourself this: Will a pack of wolves all set upon a kill at the same time? No, they will not. Wolves have something called manners. The first to eat are the alpha male and the alpha bitch, and as they do so the others wait. If one of the adolescent pups steps out of line and takes a bite of moose kidney out of turn, the alpha male won't repress his buffet rage and relive it for the next six months. He'll express it by growling and gnashing his teeth and by doing this the wolf pup will learn an important lesson about dining etiquette.
We may subscribe to the principle of equality when it comes to abstract notions such as democracy and human rights. But for an act as primitive as eating, buffets run contrary to human nature. Of course, on a cruise ship of more than 2,500, determining the alpha male and the alpha bitch just isn't feasible. That may explain why this ship hardly subscribes to the buffet model. Of the ten restaurants onboard, only one is self-serve. The rest employ waiters and some of them, like Francis, can even tell you what you should and should not order. It's what separates us from the animals.
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