Buffet, Piling Up & Table Grace

Would you ever consider a buffet spread, as a place for considering insights into human behaviour? Perhaps not, depending on the occasion! Before I came across the word “buffet”, I knew of lavishly spread tables growing up in a context where people hadn’t much, but when they came together for a social gathering, it would always be a mouth-watering and delightful experience of plenty, where each knew what amount to have so that all can eat, with enough left-overs to come a second time round.

Some researchers have been studying “buffets” and their observation suggests that there is more going on at a buffet table than just diving into the sandwiches, wraps, samosas, sausage rolls, vegetarian quiche, nicely sliced pizzas to fit one’s mouth size, salads, and fruits etc. Buffets are “a microcosm of greed, sexual politics and altruism” (New Scientist December 2011) a site where our journey to the table and the choices we make are dictated by factors we may not even be conscious of.

Will certain choices lead to a delicious plateful when food has to be divided up? Of course that will depend on the sort of food on the “spread”. We would assume that in heading towards the buffet table people will pile up their small plates with their preferred option (meat for instance for the carnivores) rather than going for the vegetarian option. We should not rule out the possibility it may not pay to take your favourite food first. From a mathematical point of view if you are aware that the other diners hate chicken legs or sweet and sour chicken wings, then this is what you may go for lastly as there be more of these, the second time round. In others words if you are aware of the other’s preferences then you may be able to work backwards from your least favourite to maximise you intake and how much you can get on your plate. Of course, there is the small matter of eating more than your money’s worth so why not start with the expensive stuff?

And what about the predictable approaches: those we know who will go for what they always had (the boorish approach) or those who in their selection is mindful of what others delight in (gallant knight approach). What researchers discovered is that if the eaters act “boorish”, everyone ends up with a less satisfying meal, than if every person acts gallantly. Hence, their suggestion that it may be wise to be generous providing that there are not selfish eaters around: wishful thinking perhaps given human inclinations and ways in which we can be original in our transgressing!

We do know from experience though that there are those of us who rush headlong to the buffet table and who see satisfaction not in taste or favourite food but in the art of engineering piles of food on a small plate especially if you can only go only once at the table! The art of piling up food as high as a meter on small plates may serve you well. One software engineer even worked out equations, diagrams and online instructions as how ‘eaters’ can maximise their haul at the buffet table and these special meal deals. The art of such ‘high piling’ calls for creativity. So one may wish, for instance, to build a tower using a base of carrot sticks balanced around the rim of one’s plate in order to extend it and then start the piling. The important thing is that the foundation needs to start with strong and dry stuff. Insights of the parable of the wise and foolish builders may be helpful here!

But what about the patterns of our behaviour when it comes to the buffet? Are you surprise to learn that those of us with a high BMI index may locate ourselves closer to the feeding point than those with an average BMI, and that 71% of the former will face the food in comparison to 26% with an average weight? This is beside the point that the latter may also be back in seconds for a second helping! And what the group size – would this influence how we consume? Indeed, the group size will dramatically affect the number of calories consumed (35 % more than if you dine alone and in a group of eight perhaps a 90% increase). “Where two or three are gathered in my name…” does have a comforting ring!!! You can imagine how gender, ethnicity and other factors of socialization will influence our intake capacity. And try imagining the soul –searching that happens as we head for the dessert! One may have to take Luther at his word here: “sin boldly, grace abounds”!

Our location from or walk/run towards the buffet table is not some value-free exercise. The next time we head for the buffet table and start to “dig into” the offers before us and are faced with the “eat as much as you can” offer we may wish to think otherwise. It may be wise to offer grace before, during and after the “buffet run” as we remember those hungry mouths who cannot even reach a table, the source of our food and contemplate the importance of well-being. Eating faith-fully is quite a challenge!

© February 13, 2012

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