Battle Of The Buffets

I’ve written before about Indian Oven, one of my very favorite restaurants in Columbus.  It’s a great place that serves top-notch Indian food, and I always get the same order when I go there for lunch — lamb korma, medium plus on the spice level — because it’s just so darned good.

imag0415Recently, however, I deviated from the time-honored norm.  The Jersey Girl, who also tends to get precisely the same order at IO, and I decided to break out of our ruts and issue each other the IO Buffet Challenge.  After all, most of the people who go to Indian Oven for lunch tend to have the buffet.  It’s not like it’s that big of a deal.

But for me, it kind of was a big deal.  To be blunt, I really detest buffets on general principle.  Perhaps it’s because I have an instinctive aversion to sneeze guards, or because I think food should be served hot, or cold, but not sit there at or near room temperature.  Maybe it’s because, at many buffets, the food has a distinctly pawed over look, or it has turned crusty under the beating glare of the warming lamps.  And then there’s the lingering issue of buffet gluttony, which causes otherwise normal people to load their plates with absurd quantities of food to make the buffet bargain an even better deal.  I’ll take the portion control of a regular entree any day.

Actually, the ability to eat obscene quantities of food mightily influenced the last two times I remember actually enjoying a buffet.  Both happened during the college years.  One time my friend Snow and I were starving and went to the Swedish Buffet near campus, where I recall eating approximately four dozen Swedish meatballs and drinking a gallon of milk to compensate for the resulting salt intake before leaving with a satisfied groan.  The other incident occurred when I was working at Alpine Village, a resort in Lake George, New York, and my fellow co-workers and I learned that an establishment across the border in Vermont was offering an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet with real lobster.  We didn’t eat anything one day, then drove over en masse and gorged ourselves on lobster, crab, oysters and steamed clams while the proprietor glared at us in hopes we would leave before his profits vanished in a flurry of cracked lobster shells.

But the days of going somewhere specifically to cram myself with food are long gone, and with them went any desire to make a pig of myself at a buffet . . . or for that matter, to eat any buffet food, period.  Not surprisingly, then, I approached the IO buffet with some natural trepidation born of prior buffet unpleasantness — but a challenge, once issued, cannot be retracted.

So the Jersey Girl and I tried the IO buffet, sampling the different options while attempting to maintain some semblance of consumption decorum.  And you know what?  It was good.  In fact, it was great.  The offerings were hot and fresh, and I got a chance to sample some things I hadn’t tried before.  I shouldn’t be surprised, because the food at Indian Oven is always of excellent quality — but then I was going against decades of contrary experiences.

Since the day of the Buffet Challenge, though, I’ve gone back to the lamb korma lunch order.  Old anti-buffet instincts die hard.

Advertisements

My Only (Somewhat) Ghostly Encounter

It was the summer of 1976.  I had just finished my freshman year of college and was working at the Alpine Village resort in Lake George, New York with a bunch of other high school and college kids — along with one 30-something guy named Jerry, a Vietnam War vet who captained the Alpine Village boat and who was focused with laser-like intensity on achieving meaningful dalliances with every unescorted mother bringing her two kids up for a week-long stay at the resort.

Jerry’s family owned a house that was located nearby.  It was the old family homestead, a sprawling, century-old house back in the woods that was still fully furnished, although no one lived there.  It was a convenient place for Jerry to take those lonely young mothers.

IMG_0859One night Jerry invited the lot of us to the house for a clambake and sleepover.  The house was like a scene from Arsenic and Old Lace or a Vincent Price movie, complete with creaky floorboards, odd family memorabilia, portraits of long-dead relatives whose eyes seemed to follow you when you moved, dusty drapery, and unexpected alcoves where you might be startled by your reflection in a mirror as you passed by or the sight of a stuffed raccoon.  It was a creepy place, and Jerry told us without much elaboration that family lore had it that the place was haunted by at least two ghosts — a weeping woman who had died during childbirth in one of the upstairs bedrooms, and a boy who had been killed by a fall into a well out back.

We chuckled at the story, gobbled our clams and burgers, and drank more beer than a responsible person should.

That night, I awoke after I thought I heard an odd noise.  It was black as pitch, and the wind was blowing.  I stuck my out of the bedroom door and out of the corner of my eye noticed some movement down at the end of the upstairs hallway.  I didn’t have my glasses on, but something seemed to be moving down there.  The floorboards creaked, I suddenly felt cold, and the hairs on my arms stood on end — then I retreated to the room, shut the door, and got back into bed, soon to fall into alcohol-assisted slumber without further incident.

The next morning I explored the other end of the hallway.  There was a mirror and window, and a table with some old framed photographs.  Perhaps I saw myself in the mirror, or curtains blowing in the early morning breeze?  I’m not sure.

Alpine Village Revisited

When Kish and I were in upstate New York in June, we decided to visit Alpine Village, the memorable Lake George resort where I worked during the summer of 1976.  I’m glad we visited, because it brought back some memories — but it made me sad at the same time.

I’m happy to report that Alpine Village is still there, ready to provide a great vacation to anyone who visits Lake George.  The resort is owned and operated by an energetic man who refurbished the main lobby pictured here, gave us a tour, and filled us in on fires, new buildings, and other developments in the 35 years since I’d last been there.

A lot has changed,and two changes in particular saddened me.  First, the long tables where guests used to sit for communal meals are gone.  Today’s guests simply will not sit with strangers; they insist on dining at their own tables — and, I think, living in their own, imperturbable worlds.  To me, the elimination of communal meals on the “American plan” eliminates some of the adventure in an Alpine Village vacation, and also reaffirms how Americans continue to withdraw from socializing with their fellow citizens.  This retreat is part of a fundamental change in a people who used to routinely join every imaginable social organization.  (Read de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America if you don’t believe me.)  I don’t think this is a good development.

Second, when I told the proprietor how much I loved working in the dishwashing room, he shook his head sadly and said that he couldn’t find any American kids who were willing to do that job anymore.  The only applicants were immigrants who wanted to wash dishes as a second job.  Have our kids really gotten to the point where they won’t take jobs that are hot and dirty, but yield a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work?  If so, I am sorry for them, for they are missing out on an experience that could help them grow and learn — and have some fun, besides.

My Alpine Village Summer of 1976 (Part II)

The grounds at Alpine Village

After a few weeks of washing dishes I got promoted to waiter.

Alpine Village operated on the “American plan,” so guests got breakfast and dinner served at specified times and ate whatever our cook decided to prepare.  The wait staff would carry in platters of scrambled eggs, meat loaf, pancakes, and Swiss steak and put them on the long, communal tables for everyone to share.  The dining room usually was filled with lively chatter as the wait staff weaved in and out, dropping off fresh, hot plates of food and clearing the dirty dishes.

The dining room at Alpine Village

I also worked as a lunch-time short order cook, flipping burgers and making grilled cheese sandwiches and milkshakes at the “Rathskeller” in the basement of the main lodge, and as back-up bartender at that same location in the evening hours.  For that summer, at least, I could make a tolerable Tom Collins or Harvey Wallbanger.

The workday stretched from 6:30 a.m. sharp to 9 p.m. or so.  When the day was over, the staff would party in the common area on the second floor of the barn, playing the Eagles and Jackson Browne albums on a battered communal stereo and drinking cases of beer, or take the Alpine Village speedboat across the lake to a local establishment that served ice-cold pitchers of beer and buckets of steamed clams.  Few things taste quite so good after a long, hot workday as a cold beer in a frosted glass and a hot steamed clam dipped in drawn butter.

I roomed with Jerry, the speedboat captain.  He was a fun-loving, 30ish Vietnam War veteran who was primarily interested in testing the virtue of the bored mothers who spent the long weeks at Alpine Village with their spoiled kids, waiting for their husbands to come up from the City on weekends.  My other great friends that wonderful summer were Sharon, the hilarious and acerbic bartender, and sharp-tongued Kate and good-hearted Ceal, who worked as waitresses and chambermaids.  Our bosses were Marilyn and Peter, the chain-smoking, highball-guzzling married couple who owned the resort.

There was no individual tipping at Alpine Village.  Instead, guests would leave envelopes for the staff as a whole, and if they wanted to reward a particular employee they could designate part of the money for that person.  We got the accumulated tips at the end of the summer.  Peter and Marilyn did it that way to prevent reckless staffers from irresponsibly blowing their pay as the summer progressed — and they were right.  I received several thousand dollars on my way out the door, which was a huge amount of money in those days.

When I left Alpine Village at the end of that summer, with money in my pocket and a sense of self-confidence from having succeeded, on my own, in that faraway job, I felt like I had taken a long step toward becoming an adult.

My Alpine Village Summer Of 1976 (Part I)

It was the summer of 1976.  It was the year of the Bicentennial, the year after I graduated from high school, when the tall ships came to New York harbor and the Fourth of July was celebrated with a special, round-number, multiple-century vigor.  I spent that summer working at the Alpine Village resort in Lake George, New York.  It was one of the best jobs I ever had.

The entrance to Alpine Village

I wanted to get away from Columbus.  I was looking for work at a resort-style place, where the position would include room and board so I wouldn’t have to pay for an apartment.  Alpine Village was perfect.  It was a small resort located right on Lake George that employed about 15 staffers who performed every imaginable job.  Most of us — men and women, teenagers and twenty-somethings, clerks and blue-collar types — shared small rooms on the second floor of a barn-like structure on the grounds.  We were supervised by Peter and Marilyn, the chain-smoking, highball-drinking, often feuding married couple that ran the place.

The dishwasher room at Alpine Village

I started the summer as the dishwasher, working in a small room with a huge steel dishwashing machine and a nozzle that fired superheated water.  You rinsed the dirty plates with the nozzle, filled plastic racks with the rinsed dishes, slid the racks into the machine, closed the metal sheathing, and started the washing cycle.  While the machine hummed away, you worked on the next stack of dirty dishes and glasses.  When the machine was done you removed the cleaned rack amidst billowing clouds of scalding steam, slid in the next rack, started the process over again, and stacked the cleaned dishes, still hot to the touch, on the shelves.

I loved working in that little room, managing things myself.  During slack time, I cleaned and polished the steel counter where the dirty dishes were stacked and — best of all — practiced my skill at squirting streams of superheated water at doomed ants who couldn’t resist the scent of the leftover food.  I worked with lightning speed in that steamy room, keeping the metal surfaces bright and gleaming, trying to keep ahead of the waitresses who dropped off the dirty plates and cutlery.

Sure, I was working in a small room in a little-known resort in a small resort town — but what did I care?  I was 19 years old, and on my own.