Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 8, 2008

All-you-can-eat buffet bans diner; could mark beginning of fat tax

 “Buffet Bans Fat People” was the headline I came across while surfing the Internet. O.K., I’ll bite.

 According to a story on a man in Houma, La was charged double for making too many trips to the buffet line. Ricky Labit, a 265-pound offshore worker, said he had been frequenting the Manchuria Restaurant in Houma for several months when, on his most recent visit, a waitress charged him double for taking too many trips to the buffet. The waitress told him, “Y’all fat, and y’all eat too much!”

 The story is filled with all manner of juicy quotes such as Labit responding, “I ain’t that fat, I only weigh 277.”

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 Labit might have one of those wavy carnival midway mirrors in his bathroom because the waitress said he looked as if he had a “baby in the belly.”

 Have you looked around an all-you-can-eat buffet, lately? They’re everywhere. You can’t throw a rock without hitting one in South Mississippi. If they start banning fat people, they’ll lose 75% of their business, including me.

 “All-you-can-eat” was invented for fat people. I am chief among the sinners. Skinny people aren’t interested in eating all of the food that they can cram into their gut. That’s why they’re skinny. They want healthy food, and small amounts of it. There are a few skinny people at the all-you-can-eat buffet, but they’re usually sitting with a group of people wearing XXL shirts who talked them out of eating a salad at another restaurant.

 Again, I am chief among the sinners. I weigh 247. I wear XXL shirts, and I feel like Ricky Labit— I ain’t that fat (at least not too fat to go back for seconds, or thirds).

 The name itself, “all-you-can-eat” is a challenge. “I’ll show them just how much I can eat,” I think to myself. It’s a psychological thing. I want to win. I want to beat the system. I always think that I can eat more than the amount I paid. It’s the buffet-owners hook. Keep bringing it out, I’ll show you how many hushpuppies I can swallow in one sitting.

 There is a mood that permeates through approximately 20% of all-you-can-eat buffet customers. One can see it in their eyes. It’s in my eyes when I eat at an all-you-can-eat buffet. It’s a look of panic. It’s the frenzied fear that the kitchen might run out of food so I need to pile my plate so high that I can’t easily walk back to the table without spilling half of the food that I was worried was going to be gone in the first place.

 Last spring my publisher sent a photographer from New York to photograph food for my new grilling cookbook. He was interested in the dining customs of our neck of the woods so I took him to a few of my favorite local “joints.”

 While looking at the menu in a fried catfish restaurant I noticed him staring at the menu and speaking softly—  to no one in particular— “All you can eat, all you can eat.” The diminutive New Yorker looked up and asked, “You mean they’ll keep bringing me food as long as I sit here?”

 “Yep,” I said. “But they’re not too worried about you.” He ate mostly cole slaw that night, further proving my point that skinny people eat too much green stuff. That goes double for skinny New Yorkers.

 When I was in high school I worked for a man who weighed over 500 pounds. At the time, my hometown of Hattiesburg had one restaurant which served all-you-can-eat catfish.

 The second Thursday of every month, my boss would take us to the all-you-can-eat catfish restaurant. After the first few months, I started to notice the look of dread on the faces of the servers as we walked through the doors of the restaurant. My boss was a bottomless pit and could keep eating until he got bored. As long as the servers brought more catfish, he could keep eating it. He didn’t look as if he had a baby in the belly; he was carrying an entire litter.

 That look of dread was probably the same one that was displayed by the waitress in Houma. Bottom line: If you’re going to offer all-you-can-eat, you have to deliver on that promise (or challenge). Otherwise, skinny 247-pound people like me are going to be offended.

 A sign in the Houma restaurant reads: “Food is for eating, not toys for your child.” A handwritten addition is added to the bottom of the sign “Or 20% added.” It looks as though the fat tax they’ve been warning us about for years is finally here. Quick, pass the hushpuppies.

 For this week’s recipe, Hushpuppies, go to the blog on <> .

 Robert St.John is an author, chef, restaurateur, and world-class eater. He is the author of six books including the newly released Southern Seasons. He can be reached at <> .