Illustration by Jose Santana Firpo

Long Story Short: Food for the Taking

Southerners have long loved a buffet. Not because we are a slovenly, overfed, underserved bunch—heck, no. It’s because we have such sophisticated palates that we want to sample everything that might tickle our fancy when it comes to dining, and buffets are great places to try something new. Fig and Goat Cheese Bruschetta? That sounds interesting. Truffled Macaroni? I can make room on my plate. Sesame Chicken Wonton Cups? Don’t mind if I do.

However, Hollywood movies featuring nuptials have always thrown us off. Invariably, they feature a wedding reception with a formal sit-down dinner that looks about as much fun as Great Aunt Hester’s stuffy, fine-china, Thanksgiving fam jam. Cue the harpist and fall asleep face down in the gravy. How very not-Southern. Instead, down here, we saunter around at weddings with a cocktail in one hand while balancing a plate full of Natchitoches meat pies, a skewer of fresh fruit and a mound of crawfish fettucine in the other. All topped off with a just-sliced piece of prime rib. We mingle, we munch, we dance to a live band when the buffet is down to the last crumbs. We enjoy ourselves, and the accessible food often makes the moments.

Speaking of accessible food: several years ago, I walked in on my hilarious sister-in-law squeezing a vat of grape jelly into a disposable aluminum baking dish filled with miniature sausage links. Heavens to Betsy, I thought, why would those two ingredients ever be thrown together? With little-to-no prying, she announced she was making Lil’ Smokies. (Did you know grape jelly was in Lil’ Smokies?) I think I threw up in my mouth. And then, the kicker: She was making them for a potluck wedding reception in a small town north of Lake Charles. Turns out she wasn’t a big fan of the bride and groom, and she didn’t want to waste a lot of money making a dish.

A potluck wedding reception. If that don’t beat all. Forget BYOB, just Bring Your Own Food. (A beer keg was provided.) Much like potluck Sunday dinners on the lawn after church, this wedding reception might have offered everything from fried chicken to boudin. The newlyweds put themselves at the mercy of the guests, even family members twice removed with some decades-old grudge they’re still carrying. (“That potato salad might look good but Wanda made it, and you know how Phil ticked her off in ’98 over the family farm. Don’t. Eat. It. No tellin’ what she done to it.”) But knowing the Lil’ Smokies contained no grudge ingredients, just economic sense, I’m sure this tailgating favorite was all gone by the end of the night. Grape jelly and all.

Which brings us to the tragic state of affairs we are now living through thanks to a pandemic that came in hard, invaded our personal space, and has stayed too long and worn out its welcome. That’s right: buffets are out. I went to a very small reception after a very small event—which followed Phase 2 guidelines—and instead of placing food out on the table for the guests to sample, we were each given a box filled with food. Basically, anything that would have been served buffet style was in the container. I sat down on a chair, hot heavy box in my hand, and a piece of my soul died. We have been through so much as a community. The tragic loss, the uncertain future, the distance from family and friends. And now this. Our favorite foods have been shoved together and piled high in a disposable box, and we don’t even feel comfortable taking off our masks to eat. It doesn’t feel like fighting anymore. It feels like giving up. It feels like the end of time.

But don’t despair. The Phase that brings back buffets has to be just around the corner, right? We have the uncanny ability to make lemonade out of lemons down here, and put a positive spin on just about anything—hot heavy box full of food included. So hang onto hope of a brighter tomorrow, but dive right into the mélange of meats and pastries in your lap today. That’s what I did. You might even find a small container of Lil’ Smokies to sample. Don’t mind if I do.