Buffets are American individualism in restaurant form

American individualism is a foundational part of US culture. Buffets are a dwindling expression of that individualism. Here's to hoping one flourishes and the other subsides.

“Individualism has been the primary force of American civilization for three centuries. It is our sort of individualism that has supplied the motivation of America’s political, economic, and spiritual institutions in all these years. It has proved its ability to develop its institutions with the changing scene. Our very form of government is the product of the individualism of our people, the demand for an equal opportunity, for a fair chance.” - Herbert Hoover, 31st POTUS

A collective of individuals

This quote, delivered just two years after women’s right to vote was granted (1920) and in the midst of vast legal disenfranchisement of blacks and other minorities, not only requires a mountain of cognitive dissonance to write, it is also stupid. That individualism in this context continues to be such a foundational aspect of American culture is a perpetuation of that same stupidity. 

Dating back to the formation of the country, American’s have generally preferred individual choice over collective identities and group action. Likening ourselves to ‘rugged individuals’ who find strength in the assertion and pursuit of our own individual needs, we place a premium on self-reliance and the government’s facilitation of such. The thinking goes, the freer people are to pursue their individual achievements, the freer, and thus better, society is.   

Are we still doing this? We are.

Modern examples of our unique individualism present themselves in:

  • Our private healthcare system: It’s important to have a choice between Blue Cross and Aetna, after all. Can’t afford to pay? That’s on you.

  • At-will employment: Employers can fire us without cause or warning on the basis that we can leave whenever they’d like without warning as well.

  • And of course, wearing a mask to prevent the spread of Covid.  

Pictured: Ineffective mask for preventing the spread of Covid-19

The irony of the examples above is that rather than increasing our freedoms, they expose us to greater financial risk (eg: medical bankruptcy), leave us exposed to the capricious whims of our employers, and increase our odds of catching Covid.

Our (White) house, is a very, very, very fine house

The American ‘bootstraps’ mentality urges us to be as self-reliant as possible, to deal with our issues ourselves, and that if we encounter failure, it’s the result of poor choices or personal shortcomings. Last week, despite Covid running roughshod in the White House, deputy press secretary Brian Morganstern informed NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly that “everyone needs to take personal responsibility,” and that the White House still does not require masks. 

Morganstern’s quote represents the logical end of ‘every person for themselves’. In the scenario he describes, each is responsible for their own luck with Covid. This path ignores what’s obvious to most - that working together to all wear masks would drastically improve everyone’s luck. As evidenced by the White House’s super-spreader gathering, as well as other recent senseless events, enough people lack the good sense necessary to stop this line of thinking in advance of willingly spreading a deadly disease.

Food freedom

In their sumptuous displays of endless variety, buffets channel American individualism in a dining-out setting. Whereas traditional restaurants have us submit to eating whatever combination of options are provided in a given day - buffets hand us an empty plate and beckon us to forge our own gastronomical destiny as we navigate from serving station to serving station.  

Standard buffet fare encapsulates the entire nutritional spectrum. Whether you’re keen on raw spinach topped with shredded carrots and fat free vinaigrette, or prime rib with a side of chicken fried steak, finished with pudding, there is a place for you at the smorgasbord. At the buffet, your meal’s nutritional value is only limited by your choices. American individualism imparts a similar lesson, telling us the only lubricants needed to glide between income brackets and states of happiness are good decisions and a generous glob of elbow grease. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true:   

Source: World Economic Forum via Visual Capitalist. The chart tracks the likelihood a 30 year-old has of out-earning their parents (vertical axis), depending on their parents’ income bracket (horizontal axis). For people born in 1970 and after (the bottom two lines), the odds drop below 50 right around the 30% income percentile on the horizontal axis. Basically, many of us have better odds of moving down an income bracket from our parents than up.

“Stay Golden, Corral”

On October 5th, Golden Corral’s largest franchise owner announced the bankruptcy of 33 locations. Buffets, and the freedoms provided therein, are in serious trouble thanks to the pandemic. Covid-related restrictions on foodservice have rendered buffets even worse off than traditional restaurants due to food safety restrictions on food that’s left in the open air. 

Eating four cheeseburgers at the college dining hall capped off with soft-serve for lunch is a drool-inducing memory that I strive to relive every buffet visit. I have no desire for them to vanish. However, until our desire for individualism subsides enough for us to pursue group action against the pandemic, freedom in restaurant form remains in jeopardy.

Pictured: Your author living high on that buffet life.

This paradox isn’t limited to buffets - the same can be said for our healthcare, aspects of the environment, and our tax policy. In all cases, we prioritize individual choice over the greater good, which actually ends up costing us more in the end.

There’s been little upside to the pandemic itself, but if it’s shown us anything, it’s that buffets are worth saving.

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Song of the Week: My love for buffets will never go away. An ode to them despite my prolonged absence. “I Still Love You” by Switch and Andrea Martin.

9 Things You Have to Know About Golden Corral | Taste of Home