I ate them all.
None for you.
There’s a Gary Soto reference somewhere in that haiku, but I digress.
Asian buffets are interesting places. Twelve hours a day, every day of the year (except Mondays) they set a feast for whomever should happen to shuffle in. A glance at me should be enough to tell you that I frequent these places a bit more often than I should, though I prefer to think of myself as a gourmand with a discriminating palate.
Upon entering any Asian buffet, you can expect two things. There is always either a statue of a laughing Buddha or a lucky cat with a wobbly paw, and sometimes both. Then, of course, there are “The Rules.”
Posted by the faceless culinary superego known only as “The Management,” the rules state what will and will not be tolerated when enjoying your meal. The rules are set out in imposing block text against a white background to deter the weak-willed. To the bold, they are a challenge.
Rule Number One: Thou shalt not have more than one whole plate of seasonal fruit. That is verboten, and all the pains of Gehenna shall afflict you should you break this commandment.
Granted, I took some artistic license with the rule, but it boils down to: fresh fruit is expensive, so don’t eat too much of it.
You cannot imagine my ire when I learned one of my favorite restaurants had enacted this rule. Mind you, I appreciate how hard wait staff and cook staff work. But in my view, to impose consumption limits at an all-you-can-eat restaurant is disingenuous. This is especially true for fresh fruit, as it requires little preparation compared to the cooked foods offered. Fresh fruit also tends to be among the healthiest items offered, but that’s a different discussion altogether.
Thus was the challenge accepted.
I took up battle stations at a table overlooking the serving counter. While my friends were filling their plates with bok choy and teriyaki beef, I bided my time. We had arrived early, and the kitchen staff were only just arraying the prepared food. Then I spied a kitchen lady setting out a tray laden high with oranges.
Target acquired. Green light go.
Now you’re probably thinking: “So what? They’re just oranges.” Not so. These were seedless, cut in four, and refrigerated, which apart from making them more delicious, had the added effect of making them so much easier to peel. All you had to do was stick a fingernail between the flesh and the rind, and you could get the skin right off in one piece, in one pass.
So, plate in hand, I went to the dessert counter and filled my plate with oranges until I’d covered the bottom. Once I couldn’t stack any more on my plate without an elevation permit from the city, I bunched up the oranges still in the tray to assess the damage.
Half the oranges in the serving counter were gone.
Coming back to the table with a plate full of oranges netted me curious looks from my friends, but these paled in comparison to the consternation on the servers’ faces. Even our waitress, normally a polite young lady, had an edge to her tone when she asked me, “More water?”
Her message was clear: “Less oranges?”
I put the oranges down in short order and went for more, returning with a plate that burned orange like a miniature sun. Just as in times gone by when riders from the Asian steppes would storm through a village and leave devastation in their wake, so too did I leave the tray of oranges. My second sortie had left the orange tray barren.
“What the hell, man?” asked one of my friends. “Didn’t you just eat like fourteen oranges?”
“Yeah. So?” I said, wiping some juice off my lips.
“Tell me you didn’t come here just to eat oranges,” said another.
“You’re right, I didn’t.” And he was right. The idea had occurred to me only after I’d arrived.
Eyebrow askew, the first asked, “Are you really going to eat them out of oranges?”
I nodded, then stuck a slice in my mouth with the rind facing out. I smiled, and my teeth were wall-to-wall orange rind like some eco-friendly mouth guard.
The front doors - both of them - to the restaurant swung open. In trudged an entire high school football team, coach staff, parents, second- and third-stringers, and all. Turf was caked onto their uniforms, proof that they’d just finished Saturday morning practice.
Wait staff feverishly cobbled free tables together to accommodate the army of hungry teen athletes. No sooner had they been seated than the teens rose up in unison. Like a biblical plague of locusts, the swarm of bodies descended upon the orange chicken, leaving the serving tray utterly devoid of so much as a droplet of glaze. The press of bodies then shuffled as a unit back to the table, some with chicken, some without, and sat down. There was a clear pecking order here: the star players ate first, the scrubs went hungry.
A serving lady did a double-take as she passed the food counter she knew had been freshly stocked. After all, she herself had stocked it just a moment ago. Arm raised, snapping her fingers, she signaled for another tray to be brought out. A portly man barreled out of the kitchen with a tray piled high in fresh orange chicken. He dropped it into the warmer, and that was when the second-stringers made their move. The chicken was gone even before the tray containing it finished letting up steam.
When the serving lady made her rounds a few moments later, she said some things aloud in her native tongue that have no place in polite society. Arms over her head, she waved a quick S.O.S. The saloon doors to the kitchen hadn’t even stopped swinging from his first visit when the portly kitchen man returned with a third tray. The starting line crowded at his back, plates in hand, waiting expectantly for the man to deposit his tray. The man set the food down and backed away as the press of bodies rushed past him like water bursting a dam. The tray was empty once more. The man sighed and shook his head.
After having watched an army of rowdy teens consume near to forty pounds of orange chicken, a trim man in a shirt and tie marched up to the team’s table. Hands balled into angry white knots lodged squarely on his hips, he hovered over some of the more egregious offenders.
“You eat too much!” he yelled at the crowd. “Get out now!”
One of the coaches stood and sidled over to him, no doubt to attempt to pacify the irate man. The trim man halted him with a glance.
“You can stay,” the trim man said. He rocked on the balls of his feet to get a look at the coach’s plate. “All you eat is bok choy and noodles.”
The trim man threw his hands up and let them coast down before throwing them up again. He did this several times, looking like a weird bird trying some backwards new way of flying.
“Up!” he hollered. “Up! Out!”
Grumbling, the team and its retinue left, leaving scores of dirty plates and uneaten meals in their passing.
My mouth stuffed with oranges, I watched them all file out. The unfairness of this misadventure struck me just then. Here I sat, in plain sight breaking the restaurant’s cardinal rule with wanton abandon by eating all of their oranges. Yet the football team was sent away for eating all the orange chicken, despite the absence of a rule forbidding that. The only rational explanation I could think of was that so many oranges went into the preparation of orange chicken that the chicken may as well be regulated under the rule limiting fresh fruit consumption.
My heart sank when I saw the kitchen staff restock the serving counter with more oranges. I didn’t have it in me to eat another trough of them, and was feeling nauseous at having already put down too many. Apparently, and despite the rule, orange chicken was in shorter supply than oranges themselves. Knowing that I alone could not win this fight against “The Management,” and having gorged on more vitamin C than a typical human needs in a month, I paid my share of the check and left with my friends.
I would bide my time, for now.