While I love to use my tendency toward compulsion as a self-deprecating attempt to make light of situational anxieties that plague me in not-so-funny ways, I am not a germ-o-phobe. My compulsive traits do not involve excessive hand-washing, cans of Lysol stuffed into trendy hobo bags, or containers of hand sanitizer stashed in every drawer of my house. When it comes to exposure paranoia, I am much more likely to be afraid of chemical toxins than germs — for example, I love to swim but think chlorine is toxic. I therefore only swim laps once every two weeks (for the love of natural germ-killers, could someone in Indianapolis install a salt-water lap pool? Trust me, they are all the rage, so very Portland).
Some of my idiosyncrasies have developed in the past decade — it’s like I grew up, had kids, and realized that a behavior I once complied with naively was finally seen as the death trap it always was. Rides at the State Fair, for instance. I might let my kids ride the carousel, but you will not see me willingly climb aboard a car that is merely a
shoddily temporarily-bolted experiment in airborne centrifugal force. As thrilling as that was in 1987.
One of my late-blooming fear-factors is the buffet. It’s not the fact that the food just sits out, exposed to every wandering hand or spray of untamed sneeze — though that’s undoubtedly part of it, from an ick standpoint — it’s more the quality of the food. I just can’t believe that food being sold out of a large bin, made in massive quantity and replaced as-needed, is of good quality. Add to this the fact that they are often priced per-pound, and it all adds up to one big exercise in controlled anxiety.
Call me a snob, an elitist, a paranoid freak. Make me a t-shirt, I’ll wear it.
Last weekend I was in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with three of my BFFs. One evening, freshly-pedicured (because that’s what you do at Girls’ Weekends, right?), we found ourselves hungry, driving in downtown Chattanooga during a rainstorm and River Fest, an outdoor festival that left hundreds of people wet and searching for cover. We had a 6-month old baby along for the trip, and none of us had raincoats or umbrellas. We needed to find an inexpensive place to eat that was easy to access. Cassia suggested a Mongolian grill — a place where you “get to pick a protein and vegetables and spices and they stir-fry everything for you.” It seemed inexpensive and quick, but a step up from fast food.
But then we walked in, and they handed me a stainless bowl, and guided me to a buffet. And in the buffet were giant vats of raw meat. Chicken, beef, just sitting their, in all of their bacteria-growing glory. And a few steps down, I was to pick out various chopped veggies and top it all of with a spoon of my spice blend of choice, then hand it to the guy with the giant grill and hope all that bacteria got cooked off and that I blindly seasoned it enough (but not too much!) to taste decent.
I stood and looked, and observed my friends, and hemmed and hawed, and found myself on the verge of minor hyperventilation. As much as I talked myself down from the ledge, I just couldn’t do it — couldn’t stick a serving spoon into the Bucket O’ Uncooked Poultry and start filling my bowl. I won’t say I’m proud of the fact, but in essence, continued hunger won out over vats of raw buffet meat. And the longer I stood, the more I wondered how this concept of restaurant ever made it past the VC stage. I envisioned the presentation payoff:
And so, the concept is that people who want to eat out really want to prepare their own meal. We know they really want to make all their own decisions, only not at their house, at a place they must get into their car and drive to. So we give them all the ingredients, and let them exercise their right of choice by choosing things to put into their bowl. And then — this is where the brilliance is blinding — we cook it for them, so they don’t have to put it in a pan in their own house. We cook it, while they sit at a formica table with a number on it. And then we deliver a bowl to them — tell them it’s what they came up with, and THEY WILL LOVE IT. Because they didn’t have to put it into their OWN pan.
And after that, I just obsessed over the state of America. While we sat at our table and watched the rest of the restaurant fill with people. People who wanted to put their own food into a bowl, but not cook it.
My three girlfriends love me, and graciously put up with my horror, albeit laughingly. And when their bowls came, I tasted them all — and truth be told, they weren’t bad. Maybe needed a touch more salt here or there (my fault entirely, as I was the one who seasoned the tofu bowl — but how was I to know, just dumping in spoonfuls of spice?), but edible. And no one died.
But they did choke a bit, when the “server” brought the bill. At this Mongolian grill, it costs about $13 to fill a small bowl with raw ingredients and let someone else cook it.
Only in America. Or, as they would have us believe, Mongolia.