I have never eaten at the Golden Corral before. There are no Golden Corrals in my state. I can be forgiven for thinking as I stand outside the entrance that I am merely about to have dinner at a buffet restaurant. I do not know. I have not been told. I am more than virginal. I am naked, newborn, a Tabula Rasa. I do not understand as I place my drink order; receive my tray, that I am an initiate.
The setting is designed to deceive. There is a seating area, large, but in no way unusual. Several buffet stations; for carved meats, for main courses, for side dishes, for salads and deserts. The aromas are pleasant, the food looks good enough. It’s a little noisy, but if the food is even palatable the price is bargain. And there’s a great deal of variety. There are many, many choices. I take some rice and bourbon chicken, a couple of ribs, a little salmon. I ignore the salad bar, even though it stretches away from me like train tracks, converging to a point at the horizon. I have been to salad bars. I did not come for salad. My plate is full and so I move to select a table. For a moment I think they are taken, there are huge stacks of dishes on each table; But no, I see seated diners push aside soiled plates, soiled plates immediately and unobtrusively removed by the wait staff even as the patron pulls a clean, new plate and proceeds toward the nearly endless buffets. I sit.
The ribs, the bourbon chicken are satisfactory, but nothing to write home about. There is a basket of very pretty rolls at my table. They glisten. They have been lightly glazed with something highly reflective, perhaps honey. I try a roll, and it’s good. It’s very good. It’s very good the way the second time you ever had sex is good. Not the first, fumbling panicky time, but the time right afterward. And the basket of rolls is empty. Surely I only had one, maybe the rest of my party has been greedy, and I brim with sadness for the absence of rolls for only a moment before in a subtle flashing of obsequious hands, it is full again! It has been refilled! And there is no one there now to even thank! How could I have thought the ambience of the Golden Coral was non descript, when now I see it is so clearly lovely? And these ribs, this chicken! Not the best I’ve ever had by any means, but it isn’t trying to be the best. It is only trying to be the good, honest food. The kind of food you can trust. And my God, the Salmon! I hadn’t even tried it!
My ice tea has been nearly empty on three occasions, but every time I want a drink it’s full again. But my plate is empty so soon! Why did I eat so quickly? I was so much hungrier than I’d realized, starving really, and I’m still hungry, as if I hadn’t eaten yet at all! Well, why not? It’s not as if I eat here every day, and they are grilling these huge steaks and you can have as much as you want! The smell of them reaches out toward me physically, like a cartoon where the smell of food becomes an arm, a hand, a beckoning finger! I haven’t tried the shrimp, or the mashed potatoes, or most of what they have on offer. How could I? I’d have needed a plate the size of Cleveland!
This steak is so god damned good it makes the ribs I started with seem like something I tore off a rotting possum carcass I found by the roadside. It’s tender and juicy and when I swallow it seems to go as much up into my brain as it does down into my stomach, and it’s warm and good in both places and it says ‘This is what meat is, this is what man has eaten since the dawn of time, consume me, devour me, only when you eat you are you alive!’
I am easily the most slender person here. Outside the Golden Corral I was slightly overweight, a little paunchy, but it’s all a matter of comparison, isn’t it? In here I am wasting away, I am frail, I am perhaps even dying. To be sure, many of my fellow patrons outweigh me by a mere sixty or seventy pounds, but there are also quite a few “big and tall” folks here as well. Some of them are, to be unkind, a little bit disgusting. Thank God I am so very, very thin and can justify this third plate.
Witnessing the birth of my first child is still the single most sublime moment of my life, but this applewood smoked chicken breast wrapped in bacon is a very close second.
They don’t seem to be hurrying anyone out of here. You could easily come in for lunch at around noon, eat your fill, slow down a bit, linger over a few pastries and coffee, sneak into the bathroom for a little nap on the john. Before you know it you could start an early dinner. Screw lunch, you could come for breakfast.
I was a fool to skip the salad bar! How could I have compared it to other salad bars, how could the me that existed before this meal have been so blind? Everything, everything you could ever imagine stacking on top of lettuce is here and several things I have NEVER imagined stacking on lettuce, even in my most fevered, forbidden dreams, dreams that I could not recall on waking for fear they would DRIVE ME MAD! And somehow the Golden Corral has infused each item with a near magical ability to align itself with others on a salad plate! Like some edible game of Tetris my salad leaps upward off the plate, not a cone, not a pyramid, but an immense, utterly stable COLUMN OF SALAD! Surely I am overcome, I am only imagining a distant hazy waitperson atop a golden ladder reaching into the clouds, ladling huge, gooey splashes of Italian dressing on my salad column… I come to at my table, chewing, chewing, chewing…
I am undersea. Everywhere gargantuan Human Sea Lions, Elephant Seals, Manatee, Hippopotami, Whales of every species vacuum creamed corn and butterbeans through their baleen, at any moment I’ll be crushed to death between the rolling flanks of ravenous dinners! But no, it is all too choreographed, a miraculous synchronized swim from table to buffet and back again, beautiful, graceful, they are delicate hot air balloon people, hot air balloons all belly and mouth! Do these blissful giants even see a man as tiny as I, a bare milkweed seed of a man between the manicotti and the salt Virginia ham?
Surely this is Rome; surely there are braised Lark’s Tongues and roasted hearts of Albino Lions on that steam table. Any moment the staff will gently lead me aside into some quiet alcove vomitorium where I may discreetly disgorge so I can return to feeding unencumbered. I have no doubt there are portable defibrillators hidden everywhere, that with the same casual assurance they refill your Dr. Pepper, the staff of the Golden Corral can apply the paddles, call down the lightings and return you from the dead to stand and eat again.
I am one with the bread pudding.
I see now that we are eating the world. Here within the Golden Corral, we chosen few open our cavernous maws, tumble in steam shovels of coal and iron ore, vast helpings of forests from all over the globe, steaming waves of arable land, we chase it with vast, overflowing flagons of crude oil and slave’s blood, while through the windows we can see the people outside the Golden Coral, the poor, the powerless, the sick, the starving! Now and then we shove vast tentacles out the door and scoop them up and eat them too, like handfuls of dry Chinese noodles, or croutons, and it’s good, they stick to our ribs, and eating the world hollow is just what God wants us to do, for who could run the Golden Corral but God? Who could keep the steam tables furnished in the presence of our foes, our cups overflowing, all under the full assault of our massive, desperate, yearning bellies? Who could afford to feed us such bounty for about ten dollars a person, how can there be a penny of profit in it, who could make a demonstrably ridiculous business plan like this not only work but prosper?
God. God. Only God. And God is good. Really good. God is delicious.