#170 Inventing new foods at the buffet

Buffets are chemistry labs.

You’ve got every element on the Foodiodic Table sitting in front of you in tiny black plastic containers. There’s smeared clumps of feta and pickled beets in the salad bar, greasy cheese pizza congealing under table lamps, and mini chocolate eclairs sitting pretty in paper wraps.

My favorite buffet was back at my old college dining hall. It was fun eating in a roomful of scraggly-beard-and-pajama-pant teens buzzing over late Saturday breakfast, getting ready for Friday night, or just hogging out over the lunchtime trough.

And whether your buffet is the cruise ship, clinking casino, or Chinese restaurant, I’m hoping you always find tipsy piles of heavy ceramic plates, chocolate milk on tap, and screaming kids scrambling to invent beautiful buffet hybrids amidst all the mayhem.

Let’s count down five of the best:

5. Curry French Fries. Since big plates of fries are pretty standard at most cafeteria buffets, it’s all about figuring out new ways to color them up. Farty squirts of ketchup, cheese and gravy, or if you’re really adventurous, grabbing a ladle of curry sauce from the spicy chicken soaking in the metal tin next door.

4. Apple pie in a waffle cone. Hey, who says only ice cream gets to enjoy the sugary home of the waffle cone? Not us! Nope, throw some apple pie in there for good measure or a couple brownies and some whipped cream if you’re feeling crazy. Feel free to try the “food in another food’s home” technique elsewhere, too. Spaghetti on a hot-dog bun, pita pockets filled with meatballs, chicken nuggets on an English muffin, yes, yes, yes.

3. Chicken finger fried rice. Most cafeterias are home to boring bland trays of rice or noodles. And even when you’re given some yellow rice with peas or fried rice with tiny cubes of pork, it’s still time to upgrade. Chopping chicken fingers in fried rice is a good start. For those with arteries to spare, you can also try the classic Fried Chicken Fried Rice, which is fun to whip out in a food court.

2. AllĀ  Won Ton, No Broth Soup. Back when our ancestors were tearing apart buffalo on open plains, I bet there was this one jerk in the tribe who would swing by just after the slaughter to swipe a big juicy leg. He’d let everyone else peel meat off feet and ears and suck marrow from bones while he sat by the fire and chomped away at the juiciest piece on the beast. Well, that’s kind of what the All Won Ton, No Broth Guy is doing to the soup. We don’t like them unless they’re us. Same goes for Taking-All-The-Shrimp-In-This-Shrimp-Pasta Guy and Stealing-That-Extra-Pepperoni-That’s-Technically-On-The-Other-Slice Guy.

1. Creating a fake version of something you can’t find. No pizza? No problem! Just smear spaghetti sauce on a piece of bread and sprinkle it with cheese from the salad bar before tossing it in the toaster oven. No tacos? No worries! Fold a pita around some roast beef cold cuts and cover it with sliced cheese, shredded lettuce, and barbecue sauce. It’s not always pretty but creating fake versions of something you can’t find can help satisfy strong urges.

People, inventing foods at buffet is just part of who we are. It makes meals sparkle with new taste sensations and breathes life into old flavors. Just think about the first time the Earl of Sandwich invented the sandwich. Dude was merging meat, cheese, and bread into a gem and he didn’t even know it. Flash forward a few hundred years and inventing new foods is now part of our DNA.

It’s in our blood.

It’s in our genes.

It’s in our cheap plastic bowls still wet from the dishwasher.


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Photos from: here, here, and here