We are buffet people — at least my dad's side of the family. Having grown up with little money and seemingly never quite enough to eat, my dad considers buffets the only kind of dining experience that makes any real sense.
"Why spend $9 on one plate of food when you could go to a buffet and spend $7.99 on six plates of food?" my dad would say. And then, as if to challenge himself, he would get no fewer than eight plates.
The Langrocks are not a particularly close family. My cousins and I are rediscovering each other in our adulthood. Jobs and parenthood and access to our own dreams, our own vehicles and our own phones are chipping away at the distance from our youth. One thing, however, always connected us: buffets.
When my dad and his brothers get together, the restaurant loses money. When we Langrock kids (and our kids) are in tow, a ship going on a weeklong cruise could find itself having run out of the fish and the chicken and the steak before the second night. For over a decade, the communication the brothers had — and consequently my cousins and I had — consisted of little more than texting photos of the mountains of plates at a smorgasbord.
In my youth, growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, I saw buffets as an introduction to world culture. Chinese buffets were surely the staple, but Indian buffets and Argentinian buffets were among the other favorites. Who needed travel or world history class when your stomach could get a trip around the world for $7.99?
When I was a college student, my dad would spend hours poring over online maps, figuring out the best exits for me to use during my 10-hour drive home. These calculations were determined by how far my car could go between fill-ups and the number of stars the buffet closest to an exit's gas station received.
Since moving to the wild, I have seen my buffet options almost entirely vanish. My dad's superpower of locating food by the trough almost came to a full stop. I hadn't really noticed the lack of buffets. With two young kids, needing to get up to fill a plate just means extra opportunity for a child to take off running, engage in a game of tag and hide under a stranger's feet so as not to be found and scolded. The only time we risk a buffet is when we are with the cousins. And then, I pretend that it's not my kids tripping the servers but one of the other half-dozen rogue rug rats and school-age monsters running amok. Denial in these situations is key. If you're busy tending to your children, you won't have enough time to get to your fourth or fifth plate — which means you won't get your money's worth. So why bother? Buffeting is a contact sport. The food needs to make contact with your mouth, or it's all for naught.
My dad did, however, find one buffet in my new hometown. It's an old Southern slop spot. The restaurant is made from cinder blocks, and once inside, you have the distinct feeling you are in the basement of a church. Every day of the week has a different specialty. Mondays are pork tenderloin. Fridays are catfish. When my family walks in, we are stared at. We don't belong. We are not regulars.
Above the buffet line, hanging centered on the wall, is a rifle. Underneath it are the words, "If ya don't like the cookin', come see the chef."
I hate guns. This veiled threat meant to be a joke makes me uneasy.
The first time we went, the man ahead of us in line told my dad that he comes to this worn-out building for a half-dozen helpings "every daggone day." My dad thought he had found paradise.
My dad asked for another scoop of green beans and put a third helping of banana pudding on my plate.
We sat down to eat. It was the most delicious food I had ever tasted. The server poured a glass of sweet tea, with the kindest smile I'd ever seen.
I used to find it absurd that I'd once thought of buffets as a gateway to cultural experiences, but in this moment, I wasn't so sure that was completely off.
My dad snapped a picture and sent it to his brothers. "Home is where the buffet is."
Katiedid Langrock is author of the book "Stop Farting in the Pyramids," available at http://www.creators.com/books/stop-farting-in-the-pyramids. Like Katiedid Langrock on Facebook, at http://www.facebook.com/katiedidhumor. To find out more about her and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.