Who can resist the unmistakable flavours of mince pie and salsa?
This year, we had family over on Boxing Day for lunch. It’s always hard to know what to make for people the day after Christmas Day, as they’re either still bulging and nauseous from the previous day’s feasting, or their bodies have become accustomed to seasonal gluttony and as such, they require a triple portion of everything. I took the sensible option: buffet.
It was a fancy buffet and I did quite a lot of cooking and faffing for it. I’ll write about what exactly I made tomorrow. But before then, I thought I would do my first ‘homage to…’. There are lots of things in the world of food that we take for granted/ignore/under analyse. And I would like to highlight and celebrate those things. The buffet is to be the first of these homages. Undervalued yet overused, I give you: the buffet.
Who doesn’t like a buffet? The answer is no-one. No-one doesn’t like a buffet, which is a double negative. That means it’s a positive. That means EVERYONE likes a buffet. I think the true beauty of buffets lies in that nearly all conventional eating rules are out of the window.
They’re great for the host (if there is one)
If you’re hosting a buffet, you can spend time being a host, rather than sweating by the cooker. You can do all your prep well in advance and once it is laid out, your work is pretty much done.
The only time when this isn’t applicable is when you have collaborative workplace buffets, which for some reason are called ‘fuddles’ where I live. You know the kind of thing: it’s Christmas/Jim from IT’s birthday/Sarah’s last day before she goes on maternity… and so someone organised has asked everyone to bring something in for the buffet. More often than not, these buffets consist of;
- 6 GIANT tupperware bowls of pasta salad, which clearly took people hours to prepare, but no-one even makes a dent in. They fester, untouched, for the rest of the week until the cleaner gets frustrated and bins the lot. The bowls then mysteriously go missing and Jane from reception (whose bowl was one of the casualties) tells Sue from accounts that making the pasta salad was a waste of bloody time and next time she’s bringing crisps, as that’s all that Steve brought and everyone seemed to appreciate them. The bowls turn up 6 months later behind a filing cabinet. Mark from HR is blamed.
- Lots of bags of crisps, like the ones Steve brought. Always go down well. Usually purchased a petrol station in state of mild panic at 8:55am.
- Something in a small, square tupperware that looks like couscous, which Anna from reception brought in. No-one is sure if it’s something especially for her (as she’s gluten intolerant) or whether it’s for the collective. Mark from HR decides to try some and declares that it’s ‘actually really nice’, and so everyone digs in. Anna turns up late to the party; it was for her. Anna doesn’t eat and has to go to Pret a Manger at 2pm to buy something, complaining as she leaves of feeling faint from hunger. Mark from HR is blamed. Irene the admin says that he should have offered to pay for her replacement lunch. Mark says Anna should have done more to keep it separate. Jane from reception blames Sue from accounts for mixing it in with all the rest of the food. Sue says Anna should have told her it was special. The incident is brought up on a 6 monthly basis for the next 4 years. Everyone has an opinion (I’m on Mark’s side – he always gets blamed for things).
- A tiny victoria sponge from the co-op, 79p. No-one knows who brought it, but everyone judges them. It still gets eaten.
There is a fascinating etiquette to it all
Everyone knows that there is always someone keeping covert tabs on how many times you’ve gone to the table. This is usually your great auntie or Irene the admin. Your performance will be commended (‘so THAT’s how she keeps her figure’) or criticised (‘did you SEE how many plates of food she had?’) in private, later that afternoon. You will never know how you fared. You can respond in one of two ways to this:
1) Take one triangle of sandwich and three grapes, whilst congratulating the creator of the buffet on ‘an amazing spread’. If you’re British, you are more likely to be this person. By 3 o’clock, you’re shoving Dairy Milks into any orifice which will take them.
2) On your seventh proud stride to the table, whilst coming up on your sugar induced high, congratulate the the creator of the buffet: ‘Well, I won’t be needing any dinner this evening! I LOVE this potato salad – how did you make it? Oh, I couldn’t possibly… well, if there’s some going spare? I’d LOVE to take the rest home! Thank you SO much!’
Both of these attitudes seem to stem from the very public nature of buffets and our subsequent self-awareness. You’re on display; your eating habits are being laid bare. Whether or not you care about what people think, determines whether or not you pass the test.
Will you pass? What actually IS the test? And why does Irene the admin get to be judge, jury and executioner?
10 years ago I taught abroad in Vanuatu, South Pacific, which has since been voted the happiest country on earth (I don’t know how this was judged, but it is what it is). One weekend, I went on a day trip with some of my students. I’d brought along a picnic, part of which was a very esteemed and rare bag of crisps that I’d brought with me from Australia. With only having two shops on the island and crisps being prohibitively expensive (£5 for a large bag – I kid you not), both myself and the children were VERY excited by the crisps. At lunch, I opened the bag and gave it to one of the students, asking him to pass it on to the others when he’d taken some. He took the bag from me, dug both his hands in, took out about 9/10ths of the bag and plonked the crisps on his lap, beaming with delight. He then passed the bag on to the next kid, who emptied the rest of the bag onto his lap. The second kid then announced to the rest of the class that there were no more crisps left. To my astonishment, the rest of the students just shrugged their shoulders and carried on eating what they had, despite the fact that only 5 minutes previously we had all been excitedly discussing the impending treat. There was a little pause and then everyone burst into screaming laughter and we were rolling around on the floor in hysterics for the next 10 minutes. Happiest place on earth, see? This isn’t meant to be some sort of fable… but the incident really highlighted to me just how many conventions and hang ups we have about food in the West. The attitude of the first kid was ‘nice one, crisps!’ and he took as many as he could. The other kids didn’t even bat an eyelid, instead just eating what they had. Not for one minute did they feel any sense of injustice. No-one cared! It was brilliant!
If the same thing had happened here in the UK, internal and external outrage would swell the room. In food sharing situations we should apparently be reserved, diplomatic, humble. We absorb these subconscious ways of working from a very young age, and I find them absolutely fascinating. Buffets are heaving with them – it’s great to just sit back and watch the psychology textbooks write themselves.
You can mix things in ungodly ways
One of my favourite things about buffets… it is perfectly normal to have a pork pie and some chicken satay on a plate together. Does it mean they complement one another? No, of course not, but the choice is in your hands. You are the master of your own buffet-based destiny. It’s up to you to create your own taste combinations and sensations. The provider of the buffet simply presents the options.
I’m not a massive fan of fusion food, but sometimes, just sometimes, magic can happen at buffets. Here are some of my favourite flavour combos that you’ll only ever encounter at a buffet:
- Mango chutney and (insert anything you wish here). Buffets have taught me that the indestructible flavour of mango chutney can pretty much withstand anything. It’s so strong, that you could spread it on a bird’s eye chilli and have no reaction whatsoever. Awful buffet with bland, soggy, quiche lorraines? Look for the mango chutney and spread it over everything you’ve got. It’ll obliterate the most offensive of flavours. If I come to your buffet and there’s mango chutney all over my plate, I’m sorry, but I’m in gastronomic pain.
- Milk chocolate in any form, followed by salt and vinegar Kettle Chips (obtained when you thought you were full and had had your final mini chocolate brownie, but it turns out you weren’t and went up for fourths). It’s wrong, it shouldn’t work, but it really does. Sugar meets salt. Sugar meets grease. Arteries meet saturated fat.
- Salted peanuts and sour cream dip. You’re perched on the arm of the sofa, your side plate at a diagonal on your lap. Your paper hat slips over your eyes, forming a limp, hazy shield to the frivolities. You glance downwards forlornly. Eight peanuts roll slowly across your plate and rest in a glut of sour cream dip. In a normal world, nuts and cream shouldn’t generally mix in a savoury sense. In buffet land, provided you have a pringle to scoop it all up with, it actually works. So much so, that you’ll actively seek the pairing when you go up for seconds.
Everyone (that’s everyone, not no-one) knows that two-day-old buffet food is king. If you play it right, you’ll be dining on the remnants for days to come. Baked ham will become the basis of lunchtime sandwiches that you actually look forward to. A late night hunger-run to the fridge will reward you with a quarter of pork pie, smothered with tangy pickle. A pinch of mildly stale, yet still salty crisps will comfort you, as you wait for the kettle to boil. Dinner the following evening will be half a scotch egg, some stilton on hovis crackers and a spoonful of potato salad. Again, defying conventions. Continuing the party.
If you like food, being at home in the wake of a buffet is akin to nirvana.
When else do you eat them? And when you do eat them, how happy do you feel? Very, that’s what. I feel a future homage coming on…
And this was my homage to the humble buffet. We’ve all been there, as both host and guest. We’ve all loved them, we’ve all despised them. They never age, they never evolve. A glistening reflection of society and what it is to be a human, I give you: the buffet.
There will be things I have overlooked. Of course there will. Buffets mean lots of different things to lots of different people. I’d love to hear about your favourite things to do with buffets. Any funny stories? Or do you despise them? Tell me why!