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Ed Winstead: More Than You Can Chew

September 10, 2012

What the all-you-can-eat buffet tells us about misguided nostalgia, overcoming privation, and the RNC.

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Image courtesy of Ed Winstead

By Ed Winstead

There was something about the lard. I don’t know for a certainty that it was lard they were frying with, not with scientific precision, but the pronouncements of my heart are good about such things more often than they are not. The first time was striking—salty, tangy, fresh, fried. Not that I remember it, but I’d be surprised if it had gone differently. Excellent fried green tomatoes have always been a revelation. Even bad ones are not truly unsatisfying. Fortunately, there are a few things left that even the most committed of fuck-ups can’t totally ruin.

The fried green tomatoes at Brown’s Country Store & Restaurant, just outside of Little Rock, aren’t revelatory, though neither are they inedible. The problem was that they weren’t cooked in a skillet. To call a tomato that’s been prepared in any other way a fried green tomato is a kind of culinary noncognitivism, and is not to be tolerated. A good tomato should be coated in cornmeal and fried one side at a time in about an eighth of an inch of bacon fat or lard. Brown’s tomatoes are advertised as being the best in the state, so woe unto Arkansas if my inkling is correct. That any deep-fried tomato should receive such recognition is a blasphemy. What is said, however, in Brown’s tomatoes’ defense is this: They’re obliged to let you eat as many of them as you physically can. That’s got to count for something.

This is the new American Dream: the buffet, the mega-church. Both purport to embody how it should be, how it always was, that the deep-fried tomatoes and the arena-league sermon hearken back to better times. This is nonsense.

The buffet is, and has in its current incarnation always been, defined primarily by the “all-you-can-eat” mantra. That’s the big draw at Brown’s, and it is a very big draw. Their buffet is a hundred feet long, from salad bar to dessert table, which, for reference, is a shade less than the combined length of two train cars. The more natural comparison of function, though, is to the assembly line. Odd, because rare is the buffet, Americanized Chinese iterations notwithstanding, that does not in some way identify with “down-home cookin’,” in décor, marketing, and selection of the food being served. Yet the mechanistic nature of the buffet as a means of doling out food is fundamentally at odds with the purported nature of the food itself. That is the great paradox of the buffet—it both is and isn’t what it appears to be. That there is a lot of food is evident enough. That there is something earnest and domestic about it, something, as is often the claim, country, is another question entirely.

Recalling the recent Republican National Convention, I cannot help but think of buffets, and of Brown’s. The buffet principle is very simple. Pay a flat fee, usually in the range of six to twelve dollars, and in exchange you may eat anything that you want in whatever quantity you desire. In this way it approximates what has come to be identified as the American Dream: get in the door and everything can be yours. You will, of course, have to work up a sweat. This is the same American Dream that was peddled in Tampa.

If the South, which is so central to modern Republicanism, can be defined in some sense by its food and its religion, then lines can be drawn between the buffet and the mega-church, the pig pickin’ and the tent revival, home cooking and the old-fashioned community congregation (though in the buffet it is the grease, and not the Holy Spirit, that sends you writhing to the floor). The mega-church, marketing as slick as the preacher’s hair, is a pale and commercialized approximation of a traditional church (which, whatever you think of Southern Protestantism theologically, draws a great deal from and contributes a great deal to its communities). In much the same way, a buffet fails, deliberately fails, necessarily fails, to recreate a home-cooked meal.

This is the new American Dream: the buffet, the mega-church. Both purport to embody how it should be, how it always was, that the deep-fried tomatoes and the arena-league sermonizers hearken back to better times. This is nonsense.

Southern food is so much a part of the culture, so revered by its adherents, because of what it signifies. It is a living testament to what we have in us to overcome, our ability to take a bad situation and wring something from it.

There was, in Tampa, a lot of nostalgia for the earlier, the simpler; for the purity of a misremembered past. To draw the analogy plain: Republicans are building a buffet, something that provides a corporate approximation of the old fashioned and the wholesome. But what exactly is it that they’re serving?

This question evokes the other great irony of the country buffet. Buffets can never be Southern cooking, in any real sense, because you can’t run out of food in one. The Southern culinary tradition is, first and foremost, one of hardship and privation. Southern food is beloved not because of what it is, but in spite of what it is; it’s a cuisine of necessity, a way of getting by with very little. Pigs’ feet, okra, chitlins, pork belly, grits, and cornbread. The expression “high on the hog” means literally that: the choice cuts of meat, the loin and the ribs, the high-end parts absent from traditional country fare. Consider the Great Depression. It hit agriculture hard, but in the South things were already bad to start with. As New Orleans bluesman Lonnie Johnson put it in 1937, “Hard times don’t worry me, I was broke when it first started out.” The poor stayed poor, got poorer. But they survived, as they had survived, on the back of this cuisine—cheap but inventive, cobbled together from whatever was at hand, a greater whole.

Southern food is so much a part of the culture, so revered by its adherents, because of what it signifies. It is a living testament to what we have in us to overcome. It embodies our ability to take a bad situation and wring something from it. And that is where the buffet goes wrong. It is the process running in reverse—taking that cuisine and cheapening it again.

What makes Southern cooking great is its emphasis on the future. Let us take what we have and make something better from it. What made the RNC absurd, what makes buffets absurd, is the emphasis on the past, not as something from which to learn, not as a platform from which to reach higher, but as something to settle for. A plate of soggy tomatoes, but heaped high. Look what we have done, they say. Here, have a slice. Have two. We’ve worked the numbers, the economies of scale. It’ll never be as good, but keep on eating. We can always make more. Just don’t ask us how to make it better.

Ed Winstead is fiction editor of the Washington Square Review and an editorial assistant for Guernica Daily. His work has appeared in Guernica Daily, The Rumpus, and The American Reader. He lives in Brooklyn.

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