Before it turned into an overpriced buffet with significantly watered down food quality, we used to frequent this classy Japanese buffet religiously (maybe that’s why I’m so convinced that we’re Japanese). We went there for the wide spread of Japanese food but as the years went by, the customer profile began to change and eventually so did the menu. Soon they were serving things like porridge and chicken nuggets to people who had no decent manners (think: shoving others or cutting the queue at the buffet line or shouting like they were in their own home or piling their plates and leaving NONE for others or leaving the buffet lines filthy). It came as no surprise when we all jointly agreed to stop going there.
I like food but I also like manners. That’s a buffet story.
Here’s the potluck one: I always used to think that potlucks were gatherings where invited guests would bring batches or trays of homemade food. Because my mom never once showed up to a party with store-bought food and because I had never been to a potluck which had store-bought food, potlucks, to me, were always associated with the words ‘homemade food’. Maybe that’s completely wrong. Maybe it’s simply associated with the words ‘contributed dish’ which can mean either store-bought or homemade.
More than 20 years into my life, it was to my undisguised shock and confusion that I found out people actually bring store-bought food to potlucks. It was a Christmas party. We baked and brought – at the risk of sounding fluffy and clichéd – cupcakes (Mom suggested bringing deviled eggs but that didn’t happen). I feel some need to point out that we were not aboard the Cupcake Mania Express when cupcakes rose to stardom years ago. Anyway, off we went to the party with a box of freshly-frosted cupcakes. I couldn’t help but wonder what the other guests would bring. I happened to be aware that some of them are challenged in the culinary department.
The hosts were still cooking in the kitchen when we arrived. We were told to place our cupcakes on the table. A good idea, too, since oftentimes people forget about the food in the fridge that they meant to bring out for dessert later. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang. Some of the guys had arrived… with KFC meal buckets. And apparently two different groups of guys had run into each other at the same KFC.
I was stumped. I felt cheated. How can this be a potluck party with the Colonel’s mashed potatoes and Original Recipe chicken drumsticks?! That was before the store-bought papaya salad showed up. I began to realize, with a sinking feeling, that my idea of a potluck could have been wrong all this while. WRRRRRRRRRRONG. It’s like when they tell you the tooth fairy isn’t real (I always knew it was my mom slipping money under my pillow). That Christmas party forced me to rethink my idea of a potluck gathering.
I accept it. I accept that people do – and often – bring store-bought food to potlucks but here’s why I think it should be exception rather than the norm. I get that sometimes people don’t have time to prepare food – this 9-to-5 grind has made me rethink how I used to spend my free time since now the only time I get to go out is during the weekends (oh hell no) – and other reasons like not knowing how to cook or whatever. But cooking isn’t hard and there are a bazillion recipes out there that you can whip up in less than 15 minutes and yes, for more than 10 people! Better still, there are recipes you can prepare ahead of time and just bring on the day of the party! Unless it’s a super last minute party and you really can’t be bothered, at least try not to show up with KFC buckets?!
I think homemade food shows effort and sincerity. Not that store-bought food doesn’t (and it’s still way better than showing up empty-handed). Also, I don’t think you should feel pressured about cooking or overthink your kitchen skills. It’s not a Master Chef competition, after all, and hey, if people don’t like the food you made, at least you can say you tried.
Maybe I’m just old-school. Wouldn’t be the first time someone has thought that of me.
Oh, and there wasn’t enough food for everyone at that Christmas party. I think I went home and had ramen. A good potluck party should have just enough food, if not extra, for everyone and everyone, as guests, should take one helping per food and only go back for seconds if they need to.
Okay, you’re thinking, so you like buffets and potlucks, you like manners, and you don’t think someone should show up to a potluck with store-bought food. So what?
Two weeks ago, I received a most delightful email in my work inbox. Potluck gathering in 2 weeks, please post the food item you’ll be bringing. I’m like, yeaaaaaaah fooooooooood yeaaaaaaaah! I only voiced my excitement when I got home, of course.
Over the next two weeks, I diligently opened every email regarding the potluck to read the updated list of foods that each department was bringing. I noted that most of the contributed foods would be store-bought.
On the day of the potluck, I brought a container. Y’know, just in case there was extra at the end and the organizers wanted to dump it (say no to food waste). I didn’t bring a container intending on filling it up to the top with food and gleefully running away with tonight’s dinner. I’m frugal and practical but my mom also taught me manners. I’m not going to, out of greed, deprive a fellow guest of their share of food.
I arrived at work, ready to leave my desk at 11:30 sharp to head upstairs for the party. An email popped up. I read it. I deflated. I had read the date wrong. The potluck wasn’t until three days later. Oh well, it was vegetarian day anyway so it was a good thing after all.
Three days later, it’s today! The day I get to take a 2-hour lunch break to enjoy a free meal at the expense of the generous folks in each department. I left the containers at home after several people warned me against it.
My mom doesn’t have to worry about our behavior when we attend events with food. We know the drill. She knows we won’t dive for the buffet bar before everyone else neither will we pile our plates embarrassingly high. We won’t attack the food as if we’ve been starved for weeks and we most certainly won’t waste food by taking things we know we don’t like. We may go for seconds but third rounds are rare.
I spend the morning on my work and finish it long before my boss graces us with her presence at, I don’t know, 10:30am? I poke around on CNN and New York Times until it’s 11:00am. I don’t want to be sardined in the elevator with the others later so I get up at 11:10 and go upstairs. I use the washroom because it’s the cleanest one out of the other floors and pop inside the office. I find my usual cozy spot and wait.
At 11:20, I crane my head over the row of cubicles to see if everything has been set up. No. Ladies are still bustling about, arranging food and cutlery and chairs. I get up anyway and walk over to inspect. Everything looks about done. I walk back to my seat and think, I’ll go back in 5 minutes.
More than 5 minutes later, I stand up and walk over to the meeting room where the spread is. I am stunned to find that there is a line snaking out the door. When did the horde arrive? In mere minutes too? I join the line. The line crawls. It’s like the city traffic jam at peak hour. The room is filled with people trying to get food. A young woman squeezes past me with a plate piled with meat skewers. It’s clear it’s not for one person.
I think little of it and reach for a plate. In front, someone cuts into the line. Nobody says anything. I am reminded of the article my mom read aloud to me about why Chinese people love cutting lines. I reach for the first dish. It’s a baked pasta dish. I cut a small slice and flop it onto my plate. I ignore the brownies and go for the fruit tarts. I adore fruit tarts.
The line stalls again. I look ahead. A girl steps out of the line – or should I say, clump since there were a few people all crammed up against the table – and I see her plate. It would seem that she emptied the entire container of fried snacks onto her plate. She scurries towards the exit the same way the woman earlier did.
The clump disperses. A guy has, if I’m not mistaken, grabbed dozens of bags of individually-packed fruit. He, too, leaves. I look around the room. There are a few other young men and women piling plates and plates with a single type of food. I begin to see a pattern and I begin to remember where I’ve seen these faces.
I begin to seethe but not that hard.
It’s them. The two rows of young men and women sitting one row behind me that are always screaming and shouting obnoxiously, having loud conversations without a care in the world. The ones whom I have thought many times of saying ‘WILL YOU SHUT THE F**K UP?’ to. The ones who so deeply remind me of all the similar folks that I had the displeasure of going to high school/college with. The ones who belong to a single ever-expanding group that continuously bring shame and a bad name to the decent people of our race and culture. Unprofessional twats. Rude twats.
Oh, will I just say it? The Chinese people whom you read about in the newspapers and snort in disgust at. The uncivilized Chinese people whose horrific behavior and manners bring shame to the rest of the good people of Chinese descent. Yes, there, I said it.
From the corner of my eye, I watch them leave the cramped room with their full plates. I chalk their behavior up to the typical every day behavior of their kind and continue making my way down the buffet line. I take a little bit of this and that. I skip two or three dishes because a new line has formed there. I carry my plates – one with dessert, the other with entrees – and find my cozy spot to enjoy lunch.
I’m eating halfway when it is announced that the meat skewers have finished. It has been barely fifteen minutes since the lunch started. I think to myself, oh, I should go get the rice and chicken that I missed before it’s gone. I abandon my plates and rejoin the line. The line crawls. I look at the other trays. Almost everything is nearly finished. Even the fruits that I didn’t put on my plate earlier are gone.
When I finally reach the rice, I find that there are only three miserable scoops left in the gigantic box. The two men behind me in line are only joining the line for the first time. There’s nothing left for them. I take half a scoop and look at the tray of chicken. Only piddly bits and bones are left. It doesn’t look appetizing. I scoop the sauce but leave the rest. I move down the line. The only dish remaining is stir-fried seafood noodles. I look back with mixed feelings at the men who are scraping whatever is left onto their plates. Next to going out to buy lunch, that’s all they can do.
I go back to my seat, seething for real now. I’m angry and upset. I picture those selfish a**holes/greedy f**ks feasting downstairs while here scraps are all the rest get. I feel a sense of injustice for those who haven’t eaten and those who wanted to wait a little for the lines to clear. I get very upset when I see that people don’t have enough to eat. This could have been easily avoided if everyone could be civilized or considerate enough to take only one helping each. The potluck could have used a little extra food but I’m sure there would have been enough for everyone if people didn’t take a big bunch of everything and leave nothing for the rest.
I am now just hearing from the two rows behind a girl crowing about the fact that her buddy, one of the guys, took five packets of noodles for himself.
I have nothing more to say.
It’s no secret that I enjoy a good buffet/potluck party and loathe selfish and rude partygoers.