On lunches, free and otherwise

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When did “all you can eat” become “all you care to eat”? And is there a difference?

The idea of buffets has caught on big time. You pay once, serve yourself, and help yourself to as much as you can eat – or “as much as you care to eat” – in a single meal. Sorry, no doggy bags at the buffet!

I wonder where the idea of such feasts started. When I was a kid, I often heard my mom talk about “smorgasbords,” but we didn’t go out to eat very often, so I never saw such a thing until I was much older – out of college probably. I looked it up and found out that the smörgåsbord (which literally means table of sandwiches) is a traditional form of buffet in Sweden.

I kind of think that the whole idea just mushroomed out of the ever-popular salad bars that restaurants installed many years ago. I think restaurants found out that they could cut a little staff if they allowed patrons to be their own waiters and salad chefs! The idea grew from there – and some buffets became very elaborate and extensive.

I started to think about this topic when we drove past an all-you-care-to-eat restaurant on our way to a Costco store, and the idea grew as we walked around the store and saw an array of food sample stations. I’m not much of a shopper, so I watched people for a while. It was amazing how many people made the rounds of the samples several times – a sort of smorgasbord or all-you-can-eat-for-free. I had a friend once whose idea of going out for dinner was to go to Sam’s and Costco for the free samples. He was even willing to argue the question of whose samples were better – a real connoisseur!

That got me thinking about the old saying: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Well, obviously, whoever said that wasn’t aware of Sam’s and Costco! And it’s pretty clear that he never heard of a group in London who call themselves “freegans.” These are people who eat food they scavenge from supermarket dumpsters. They are driven by conscience, not financial need.

They eat only food they can scavenge for free. Most of it is just past its sell-by date; some is still within its sell date, but the packaging has been damaged. The freegan philosophy of “ethical eating” is a reaction against a wasteful society and a way of highlighting how supermarkets dump tons of food every year that is still edible. All-you-can-eat buffets must also dump a lot of good food, don’t you think?

In America, these “urban foragers” are called “dumpster divers,” and when the stores close for the day, that’s what they do. All the food they forage is washed before eating, so they’re not eating garbage. For these people, it is a lifestyle choice. They have money and could buy food if they wanted, but as a protest against supermarket waste they choose to live a freegan life. No such thing as a free lunch?

I can remember when my grandpa, who lived with us, would ask for a ride to town – he never drove – so he could go for a “free lunch” at Schmidt’s bar on Main Street. The free lunch wasn’t used to describe handouts of food to the poor and hungry; it denoted the free food that the saloon-keeper used to attract drinkers.

The free lunch, usually sandwiches but sometimes quite elaborate affairs, were provided for anyone who bought drinks. The idea of “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” came about when temperance groups tried to convince saloon customers that they ended up paying for the food in the price of the drinks they were obliged to consume.

One last thing and then I’ll end this smorgasbord of topics. I recently read an article about Major League Baseball teams offering “all-you-can-eat-seats” at their games. The article said there are at least 13 clubs that offer deals with ticket prices ranging from $30 to $200. Most teams include pre-cooked, easy-to-prepare ballpark fare such as hot dogs, nachos, peanuts and soft drinks but don’t include beer, burgers, pizzas and desserts. In Oakland, they reserve 990 seats for the all-you-can-eaters in a section behind home plate. Good seats – and good eats!

OK. All this talk about food is making me hungry.

Roger VanHaren can be contacted at rjmavh@gmail. com.