Monday, March 4, 2013

My First Trip to Golden Corral!

Or, how a routine buffet stop turned into the most revealing socioeconomic experience of my life…

“Hey Jimbo, we’re all heading out to Golden Corral tonight, wanna’ join us?”

The above inquiry I’ve heard no less than 966 times over the last six months. When 98 percent of your daily contacts are cash-strapped media studies majors, I guess it’s sorta’ understandable why the local buffet is such a popular haunt among my acquaintances. The thing I couldn’t understand, however, is why that particular eatery had earned such a vaunted place in their hearts.

In a two mile radius, I think I live next to no less than a dozen restaurants that have at least part-time all you can eat buffet menus. That said, no one’s ever invited me to go eat out with them at that one seafood place next to Wal-Mart or the vegetarian-friendly soup-and-salad super-store right off the Interstate. It was always Golden Corral…breakfast, lunch, dinner, it made no difference. This place, for whatever reason, was the designated place for my geographical cohorts to get their fat on. Needless to say, that piqued my curiosity quite a bit.

But first; a quasi-political sidestep, which I promise while make contextual sense in about two or three paragraphs.

Back in my university days, I recall watching this frustratingly difficult to now-locate documentary on YouTube about a kid living in South Korea that was a refugee from one of Kim Jong-Il’s most hellish concentration camps. His family, his girlfriend, his neighbors, all of his friends…killed right before his very eyes. The North Korean regime stripped him of his political rights, his religious convictions and the very people he loved. But even after all of that was taken away from him, that’s not what prompted him to flee from the gulag -- an escape that almost assuredly would have cost him his life. No, this refugee decided to risk his very life because he was half-starved to death, and some dude in prison told him that there was food to the south. That was it. Political freedom, social rights, religion, even the love of friends and family - that’s not worth tempting virtually guaranteed existential catastrophe, but for this guy, being able to eat shrimp and noodles was. Not a lot of Americans can understand that. It’s a shame, too, because when you look at history -- from the Paleolithic era to right friggin’ now -- hunger has been the foremost driver for all of humanity. If there’s a social movement/epidemic going on somewhere, it’s almost certainly routed in starvation, somehow -- from the Arab uprisings of two years ago to increases in rural criminality right here in the U.S. of A.

I know a lot about food insecurity, because I lived in a perpetual state of it for about three years. With an aggregate income of about $11,000 for a better part of the last five years (of which an easy $9,000 went DIRECTLY to college tuition prices), I had to learn to live off infinitesimal food supplies. On a good weekday, I may have consumed about a third of the calories an actual human being needed to intake, and things got so financially dire for me at one point that I decided to save money by simply not eating at all for three days a week. Once college and the massive financial hemorrhaging associated with it came to an end, I was finally able to engage in eating habits that somewhat considered normal human patterns of consumption again, and in the three months after I earned my bachelor’s degree, I put on about 25 extra pounds.

So, all of that to say, I KNOW what hunger really feels like. Or at the very least, I KNOW what it feels like a whole lot better than most folks in these United States.

Now, that brings us back to Golden Corral, don’t it?

Architecturally, there’s not much to write about. If you’ve seen one steakhouse, you’ve pretty much seem them all. As soon as you walk in, there’s this huge queue, where people snake through the line like cows being ushered through a slaughterhouse. The processing here is rather quick, and completely impersonal. You throw down your 15 bucks, and they give you your first soda right at the cash register. After a guard waves you off, you get to pick your place to munch and crunch, and a god-goddamn, is the interior of the place simply massive.

There’s no wonder why my friends are always going on and on about hanging out there for hours. Simply put, the place has so many nooks, crannies, and cranooks that a human being could feasibly hide out there for half a day without anyone being able to find him. If you’re wondering why it took almost a decade for the FBI to find Eric Rudolph, it’s probably because he was hanging out at the local Golden Corral the entire time.

FACT: 98 percent of armed forces members enlist just so they can get reduced buffet prices. 

I thought my college buds were joking when they said they gathered there for 12 hours at a time, but trust me, it’s a feat that’s more than feasible. Last I checked, there’s no protocol in place that would kick you out after a set time limit, so you could very much stroll in there at eight on a Saturday morning, stuff your face until the menu shifts over at noon and the continue your all day glut-a-thon until the evening truckload of food gets there around 4 PM.

I visited the local Golden Corral at a time I thought would be fairly uncrowned - a Monday, at about 5 PM. And holy shit, was I wrong and then some. Even then, the place was just PACKED with human beings of EVERY single ethnicity and body type imaginable. Egyptians, Afro-Caribbeans, Hmongs, Guatemalans, you name it, they were there. I even saw an entire family…I shit you not, an entire family, for real…of albinos, wedged between your stereotypical NASCAR-loving Red-State Pure-D whiter-than-mayonnaise family of rat-tailed “trash” and a suspiciously Tyler Perry-esque family of seemingly richer-than-the-norm middle class Afro-Americans. It was if every single socioeconomically-repressed  peoples in America had been huddled under one roof. If there’s ever a true social democratic uprising in America, it’s almost 100 percent guaranteed to eminent from a Golden Corral somewhere in the country.

To be honest with you, the place felt more like a Nazi concentration camp than a family restaurant. For one thing, most of the infrastructure was cold metal; forget “friendly” looking tiles or other decorum, when it comes to Corralling, you’re dealing almost exclusively with steel, aluminum, or some other reflective service that would probably hurt like hell if someone slammed you face first into it.

I suppose the absolute best way to describe Golden Corral would be a “post-apocalyptic” food hole. I’m not sure if it’s a socialist negative utopia - the world’s largest, most diverse soup kitchen, ostensibly - or some sort of hyper-capitalistic nightmare made flesh. Watching waiters coordinate their moves like SWAT team members, I’m more inclined to the latter as opposed to the former. Forget service with a smile; at the Corral, you’re getting service with a firm boot up your guacamole and chili-engorged ass.

Suck on that, Huddle House Vidalia Onion Sauce!

When you’ve been in the buffet game as long as I have, you know when you’re dealing with a serious bidder and a low-rent, smorgasbord wannabe. Seeing as how they had their own proprietary steak house on tap, I knew right then and there that I was dealing with the illest and the realest at the Corral.

What happens when New Orleans, Beijing, Tuscany and Guadalajara fuse food cultures.

I recall having a conversation with my girlfriend recently, on why exactly buffet diners in our hometown seem to be the only kinds of restaurants that can stay in business for more than a few weeks at a time. At Golden Corral, that little enigma solved itself right before my very eyes; in today’s Sequestered, post(?)-recession society, what we want out of an eatin’ experience is one part Roman orgy, and one part “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.” You give some girl wearing too much eye shadow twenty American dollars, you grab your always-vibrantly-colored ceramic plate, and you proceed to jam at least 13 different ethnic foods down your throat hole over the course of ten minutes. It’s a nightmare/dream-land where you CAN have pizza, egg rolls, burritos and Cajun battered shrimp impaled on ONE fork, and nobody in the building thinks anything peculiar about it. There could probably be a dude puke-eating his food like Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly” at the Corral, and I doubt anyone would take note of it.

I guess you folks want a walking tour, no? Well, I guess we could start with the salad bar, because it’s the most genteel (and not surprisingly, least occupied) food station in the restaurant.

I suppose there’s not too much to discuss here. You have a picture of the world’s largest mound of iceberg lettuce, a few cubby holes filled with spinach leafs, some uncooked mushrooms, and a few slivers of fruit -- blueberries, mangos, cantaloupes, etc. -- occupying the split side of the armament. Everything is either metallic or plastic-tong shaped; as side weaponry, you can load your salad with pepperonis and sugar-cured ham, because let’s face it -- too many antioxidants in one meal, and you could wind up in a body bag, Johnny.

If you are into grains and stuff, there was a rather small assortment of breaded stuff available -- mostly, some truly Italian-sounding junk, like buttered Garlic rolls and cheese knots. For whatever reason, these food items are extremely well-protected, buffered by at thick sheet of acrylic glass that means it’s kinda’ impossible for most people to yank a biscuit or two out of the control panels. I guess you just gotta’ protect those bread sticks, sometimes.

Hot pecan sauce goes with everything, apparently. EVERYTHING.

The dessert section -- which I didn’t partake of, because I enjoy having two legs -- was sheer, diabetic phantasmagoria. It’s pretty rare to encounter cotton candy machines at a buffet restaurant, but the Corral, clearly, ain’t your everyday mega-food-stuffin’ locale. You also had your usual stuff at arms’ length -- ice cream, cookies, sugary baked goods, etc. Nothing too fancy, really, until you stumble upon THIS behemoth…

No, that isn’t Lord Stanley’s Cup in pudding form; it’s actually a gigantic hot chocolate fondue fountain. You know those afore-mentioned baked goods I was talking about a paragraph ago? Well, here, you can hand your cookies over on a ka-bob, and one of the bakery-people will poke it into the geyser of cocoa, and you can have an instant-flash-congealed choco-stick right then and there. I gained thirty pounds just looking at this contraption, honestly.

At a certain point in my pit stop, I realized that I may have been living in some sort of dystopian, political-sci-fi fan-fiction story. There I was, standing in line, with about three dozen morbidly obese people, all anxiously clutching their periwinkle plates, with a dead-eyed stare that you usually only encounter in photographs of shell-shocked World War I veterans. I look to my side, and some dude is just sitting there, reading a Clive Cussler book, while a gaggle of Middle-Eastern children in Guadalajara Chivas youth soccer jerseys ran around him, playing tag. And as before? Nobody in the building seems to be smiling. Not even a smug smirk or a faint twinkle. Buffets, apparently, are serious business, and there is no patience for jokesters of any delineation here. For a minute there, I had to keep pinching myself, just to make sure what was happening before my very eyes was real, and not just some disjointed recollections of watching “Rollerball” and “Soylent Green” back-to-back when I was 13.

This sight here was probably my favorite vision from the entire trip. You see, there’s actually two or three guys hanging out inside this metal and bullet-proof glass aviary, constantly re-stocking the food terminals with fries and meatloaf. Inside, a hairy-armed dude in a pink shirt, with an FFA headset on, barked orders through a thick Athenian brogue while helming literally a HUNDRED steaks on this massive, industrial grill, like he was a DJ spinning records or something.

I kept wondering if there was something akin to a Dewey Decimal system going on here, but I don’t think I could really pinpoint a thorough arrangement of systemized foodstuffs. On one side of the aviary, you had some sorta’ Italian stuff like pizza and ravioli which was stuffed side-by-side with a ton of fish and fried mollusks. Once you ambled past the steak container, you were greeted by a collection of super-greasy fries, onion rings and popcorn shrimp. From there, it seemed to transition to a “soul food” kind of itinerary (mashed potatoes, fried green stuff, etc.) before culminating with the taco bar.

The taco bar -- not that I have any traceable inclinations toward burritos and pseudo-authentic Tex-Mex or anything -- was probably my favorite thing about the entire trip. You had tortillas, shells, nacho cheese, fried rice, corn chips, several different kinds of beans and even some throwing-star shaped quesadillas, if you needed ‘em. I’ve always secretly fantasized about owning my own all-you-can-eat Taco Bar, so this sight was a mini-vision of paradise to me.

So, back to that North Korean refugee I mentioned about three years ago, when this article originally began. As I sat there in a state of sublime food satiation -- you know, that feeling you get when you are literally in a food-induced stupor, with your intestines so overloaded with fried gunk that you can only communicate in utterances that sound like Frankenstein noises -- I realized that, holy shit, this is EXACTLY what this dude was willing to get killed for. In a world where about one-sixth of the planet is in some phase of starvation, I live in a social system where even the poorest people in the country can still partake of food-overdoses on a semi-regular basis; if you’re wondering why America is the greatest empire in history, that’s it. Forget your constitutional safeguards and laissez faire economics, the fact that people in this nation can be both impoverished AND obese at the same time is a feat never accomplished by any peoples in history, and in my humble opinion, our greatest contribution to humanity as a whole. Thanks to hyper-food production and mass-urban commercialization, there will never, EVER have to be a hungry, tired or poor mass contingency in the U.S. -- just really tired, really poor people, that are even more tired and more poor because they just spent half their paycheck on an all-you-can-absorb-into-your-colon-lining mashed potato feast.

Introducing my OWN take on the Taco Bell Loaded Griller! Warning: Requires Pepto-Bismol Immediately After Consuming. 

I think my first trip to the Corral lasted for about three hours. Around the two hour mark, you go into this altered state of existence where all of the surrounding noises and lights coalesce with the food chemicals being oxygenated in your blood stream, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say the ultimate result is a temporary coma. After awhile, time stops, and all you can do is stare vacantly at the ocean of people stumbling to and fro while holding their plates and mugs filled with various food and beverage bric-a-brac. Your spirit seems to momentarily leave your body, while your liver goes into quadruple overtime to process all of the salsa, jumbo shrimp and refried beans assailing your lower extremities like the intestinal version of Pearl Harbor. All of a sudden, you’ll swear you begin to hear Twisted Sister’s “Burn in Hell” start playing, and all you can think about then is finding the nearest abyss with a diameter wide enough for you to cram your head into and start vomiting. If you don’t feel like you’re about to give birth to a metal pineapple after your stay at GC, I think they owe you a free meal next time around.

At the Corral, even the vending machines are considerably overweight...

The exit anteroom is pretty low key, but then again, all you can probably think about after stuffing your stomach with all seven continents’ worth of comestibles is finding a cool place to lay down for awhile…not whether or not you can win a stuffed animal via claw machine. Some of the capsule toy dispensers were sorta’ peculiar; there was one that offered patrons Spongebob-themed Nintendo DS screen wiping cloths, which has to be a new cottage industry if there ever was one. I think there may have been a gumball machine or two as well, but let’s get real; after leaving the Corral, you don’t want to think about chewing anything for at least six or seven days afterward.

...and that's JUST the appetizer!

Leaving Golden Corral was sort of like escaping from a Black Hole, or flying a plane safely out of the Bermuda triangle. You just as feel as if you’ve survived some sort of supernatural phenomenon that you probably shouldn’t have, not so much a dude that just had a meal as you are someone that survived driving into the Grand Canyon in a forklift. To be honest, I’m not really sure if I enjoyed the experience, in the traditional sense of the term; yeah, I may have left the place cradling my belly like an eighth month pregnant walrus, and it left me in a good post-food stupor, but I don’t think anything I ate was really “good” using any sort of qualitative measurement. If you want a LOT of food, however, and you really want to see what the neighborhood proletariat class actually looks like, and you don’t mind waiting in line for corn bread like some sort of Ukrainian prisoner in the 1940s, then a visit to the nearest Golden Corral is an absolute necessity.

Just don’t be surprised if you do not emerge from the place a good two or three days after entering it, though…

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