Saturday, June 23, 2007

Horrors of Eating: ALL YOU CAN EAT!

Last night me and a friend found ourselves on Pearl Street, the very hip, even more gentrified center of Boulder’s commerce, surrounded by so many dining choices we didn't exactly know what to do. There were cheap Kebabs, expensive plates of spaghetti, sushi, pizza, cafés, burritos, thai, anything, everything within the normal universe of American food options. For two kids from Iowa, it was pretty overwhelming. We did our part as well as we could gazing about ourselves wide-eyed like dull provincials.

I have this thing about over-eating. Back in Iowa my friends would watch grimly in the sad light of our local truckstop as I’d eat double-decker bacon burgers, pancakes soaked in butter and fake maple syrup, strawberry milkshakes, chicken-dumpling soups with so much oil it looks like an Exxon disaster and I'd end up semi-conscious and drooling, the object of trucker derision. I had heard of this all-you-can-eat Indian restaurant just off Pearl Street. It seemed like it might hit the spot.

We went in, and I filled my plate with some salad and a sampling of appetizers: there was some raita – a yoghurt-cucumber sauce – some coriander chutney, and some Indian version of potato salad, along with some dumplings whose dough was transluscent and over cooked and deep fried chicken pieces, both served with a sweet red sauce. Everything was pretty mediocre, which was fine, because at that point I was just interested in sampling as many different things as I possibly could.

I rushed to start on my second plate, but was surprised because – what’s this? – my dining buddy was taking his time eating. It’s like how a bunch of frat boys invited someone over to play drinking games and found him sipping on the Natty Ice. I felt a little embarrassed, and slowed down a bit, until he encouraged me to go off and start my second plate without him.

I took a scoop of everything they had. I passed through the buffet, making tiny, colorful piles of Indian food on my plate like I was an artist applying up plops of paint to an easel. Each dish was barely distinguishable from the next. And this wasn’t just because I was, by now, almost zealously shoving food into my mouth, no. The flavors were simply indistinct and flat. The tandoori chicken, for instance, was barely spicy – it simply tasted orange – and the meat dry to boot. They had lamb vinadloo, which I took a double serving of, because lamb is wonderful and vindaloo, which is notoriously spicy, is also wonderful. But the lamb was fatty and the vindaloo sauce tame. So everything, being nondescript, blurred into everything else. And all I had was a huge pile of food.

Not that I was complaining. At an all-you-can-eat place, what you lose in subtly you make up for in sheer weight. And the food, after the third plateful, even if it’s bad, somehow gains a certain sublimity. It’s no longer about an interesting taste, or taste at all. It’s about the basic, animal act of raising the food up to your mouth, masticating it, swallowing it, and hopefully digesting it as best you can.

“So,” I asked my companion, who was, by now, a little put off, “I think we could do twenty plates, easy.”

He did not think so.

“Well. We should at least aim for ten,” I said. “That’s just three more plates for us both.”

He disagreed with me – politely.

“I mean,” I kept on going, “we could do fifteen plates if we really wanted to. But I think ten is good enough for us for now.”

As I stood up to get my third plate, my companion pointed to a pile of meat on his plate. “You can have this,” he said.

He was giving up! Only mid-way through his second plate! What were we? Weaklings?

Nonplussed, I returned to the buffet to pile my third plate with a sort of ‘best of’ program. I took a couple dumplings, a lot of the lamb vinadloo, and a couple heap-fuls of a chili chicken dish I found to be pretty edible.

Midway through plate three, I became, shall we say, stupid with fullness. My dining buddy, who didn’t really know much about me before we dined, expect having had a crush on one of my crush’s roommates - found me the sort of worst conversation buddy imaginable: I was rambling on and on about whatever came into my head, like a drunk person.

I got to the end of plate three, and decided to take a break with a quick trip to the desert line. I took two of these wonderful little doughnut-holes, which were the high point of the meal for me. They were soaked in a thin syrup flavored with cardamom. The outside was soggy and squishy, but towards the center the doughnut-holes were dry, and the contrast was really fun. I also took a couple slices of Indian style cake, which just basically felt like I was eating sugar. Which was fine.

I was going to try to return to the main buffet after that, but once we had finished desert, I felt like it was all over. My stomach was blown up like a balloon and hurt; it looked – and this is funny, because I’m as thin as a rail – it looked like I had a bit of a potbelly. I showed it off to my friend, lifting up my T-shirt to nipple height as we were paying for our bill, because, you know, I deserved to feel proud about eating that much, and he suggested we just leave and pretended not to know me.

I ended up laying in bed, absolutely insensible, grasping my newly-pudgy stomach, wishing, wanting, hoping – that I could eat some more. Even though pretty much every cell in my midsection hurt and for a while I was worried that I might have over-inflated the bag of my stomach, I just felt disappointed. Surely, if I were a better diner – I would’ve eaten more.

Feasting, true feasting, the sort of decadence-of-the-Roman-Empire dining I would love to emulate, takes practice.

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