Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A mystery that left me stumped

It’s never very easy to find a restaurant that all the kids like, especially when Anya – who takes food-pickiness to levels never before achieved by humankind – is a member of the party. But last Friday I had gotten hung up dealing with pressing work and family matters, and it wasn’t looking like I was going to have time to cook. I rushed home with a Sonic burger for Rusty so that he could get his dinner eaten before his mom came to pick him up; but then after he left I still had the unfed Troika on my hands...and just felt too tired to face the kitchen. So I told the Troika we were going to go out to eat, and the negotiations began.

Anya announced, rather unexpectedly, that she wanted “myáso – ya khochý mnógo myása, Pápa, MNÓGO!” Which is to say basically, “I want meat, and lots of it.” Now, my budgetary constraints have loosened slightly in the last month or so, but I’m still no Bill Gates, and that sounded expensive...until it occurred to me, “Sounds like what we need is a Western Sizzlin’ buffet.” And so we headed out to a restaurant I’ve driven by for three years but never gone into: the “American Buffet,” which sounded like a steakhouse buffet to me.

Well, it turns out to be a HUGE buffet place with lots of different styles of food (hence the “American” part of the name, I suppose). Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Cajun, good ol’ steak-and-potatoes...not even Anya could complain that there was nothing here that she liked. So we collected our food – I started with a nice big plate of some sort of pasta with shrimp – and headed for one of the booths.

Then Kristina pointed out something I hadn’t noticed – having, I am happy to say, the tact to express herself in Russian, in which language we kept the conversation thereafter. It is of course very handy to have available a language that nobody else in the restaurant knows, in order to comment freely upon one’s fellow patrons without fear of giving offense...except that this makes it inevitable that sooner or later you will comment unfavorably in Russian upon the badly dressed, body- and nose- and lip-pierced, loud-mouthed chick at the next table with her Ludacris shirt and skin-tight “honey, my prices are both reasonable AND negotiable” leather pants, only to discover that when she is on duty, rather than enjoying a spot of free time, she is a translator for the United Nations. But that disaster did not befall us this particular night...now, where was I? Oh, yes.

“Papa,” Kinya asked, “pochemý fsye lyúdi zdyes óchen zhírniye?” – “Why is everybody in this restaurant so fat?”

This was something I hadn’t noticed, but now that she mentioned it...holy Plus Sizes, Batman, she was right! Everywhere you looked your eye was assaulted, not just by people who were carrying a bit of extra weight, but by – there is no other word for it – rank obesity.

“I have no idea, Kinya,” I answered in Russian, “but you’re right, there are a lot of very fat people in this restaurant. I don’t know why that should be, but it’s true.”

We went on to other subjects, such as how much Kinya was enjoying the spare ribs she was demolishing, but now that my attention had been caught by what appeared to be a pretty bloody extreme statistical anomaly, I was getting curious. Were we perhaps falling victim to the standard mental illusion of “sharpening” – that is, were we only noticing the outliers and overestimating the actual percentage of people who were overweight in the restaurant? Or was it really true that most of the people in this restaurant had left “pudgy” far back in their rearview mirrors? So when I went back to the buffet to get a chicken-fried steak and several heaping spoonfuls of mashed potatoes and gravy, I did a quick but rigorous survey of the patrons at the tables in the section between us and the buffet.

I don’t remember the specific numbers, I just remember the percentage: more than 75% of the patrons in that section were overweight to the point of medical concern. Really, more than 3 out of every 4. We weren’t talking a mental illusion here; it actually WAS literally true that most of the people in the restaurant were seriously overweight.

Shortly thereafter, on my way back from picking up a plateful of fried catfish, I caught a view of the line of people waiting to get in. There were five people in that line, and a conservative estimate of total poundage would be – I kid you not – twelve or thirteen hundred pounds. I couldn’t believe it...it was like the girls and I were violating some sort of unwritten code by our presence. So when I went back for my chocolate chip cookies and the bowl of ice cream in which to dip them, I, with a carefully casual air, wandered through the entire restaurant, carrying out another survey, this one with a sample size of “everybody in the frickin’ restaurant.” There were nineteen groups. One of them was our table, in which I, at 5’11” and 175, was the pudgiest. Then there was a table where an ordinary-looking guy was eating by himself, and while it’s possible that he had other family members up at the buffet who might have altered his table’s category, I counted him as a healthy table. Other than that...well, here are the complete results:

Tables at which nobody was overweight: 1
Tables at which nobody was more overweight than I am: 1 (that is, ours)
Tables at which there was at least one person (usually a majority but I didn’t track that) who was significantly overweight, as in their doctor tells them every year at their physical, “You really need to lose some weight”: 4
Tables at which there was at least one person (usually more) who I thought could reasonably be termed “obese”: 11

That leaves two tables that I felt had to be in a class of their own, because we’re talking women here...how can I put it? One didn’t feel that these women would have ever agreed to run a twenty-yard dash against Oprah (Big Version) unless Oprah was required to carry a Steadman under each arm to make it fair. One worried that these poor ladies usually have a terrible time finding their cars when they go to Wal-Mart, because the moment they disappear into the building, their long-suffering cars say, “Now’s my chance, I’m making a break for it,” and run around to hide behind the dumpsters.

But why should this particular restaurant specialize in serving the grossly overweight? I puzzled on it all the way back to the dessert bar, and in the end, as I swallowed the last bite of my bowl of bread pudding, I came to the conclusion that this was one mystery I’m just never going to solve.


At 9:26 PM, Anonymous LilMissIndie said...

At dinner with a friend and her son and grandsons one night, the friend asked, "Where did you guys eat lunch today?"

"We ate at Ryan's," son says, then to kids: "And who eats at Ryan's, boys?"

Chorus from kids: "Fat and stupid people eat there."

Silence. Then my friend:

"So how was school last week?"

LilMissIndie (from ATB)

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