Dad hollers out to my currently MIA stepmom, Hey, honey! Let’s take Jill to the Choke-n-Puke.
Twisted Tea dribbles out of my mouth like a Renaissance fountain.
It’s four in the afternoon. I’m supposed to be working but mostly I am bawling. I am trying to focus on the latest episode of Succession. There are Cadbury Creme Egg wrappers on my pillow. There are drool stains. I’m at my dad’s house in Florida. I am depressed for all the reasons you might imagine. The details don’t matter. Just the pain.
Dad guffaws and then explains, It’s what we call the Golden Corral.
I’ve never had the pleasure of eating at a Golden Corral. Sometimes, I pass them on the interstate and think, Ah yes, buffets…those relics of obscene beauty. But I’ve never entertained the idea of loading up my plate inside one. I had a high school boyfriend whose absent father treated him to a random lunch there once or twice. Afterwards, he’d show up at my place, full of disappointment and the things he guessed were vegan from the salad bar. Therefore, my impressions of this establishment are bleak and redolent of bad dads everywhere. Greedy assholes who want the biggest, juiciest bang for their buck no matter what virulent strain of bacteria might befall them and their unhappy families. I pictured everything lit down like dusk except the food sick-glowing under the cook lights.
So, I’m downright mystified when my father suggests this as our only serious dinner option.
The Golden Corral is a roadside beacon chastening the commercial business landscape with its familiar color scheme. Its facade is faux wood siding in egg custard yellow adorned with rooster red trim. It’s a barnyard of bounty but we’re the animals. We’re the ones allowed to roost and graze and frolic. To pretend our own psychic slaughter isn’t happening to us slowly and incrementally, day by day. Golden Corral’s whole shtick is rooted in the American values of faith and tradition, faith that our hearts won’t give out with that one last plate of prime rib and the long-standing American tradition of offering an interminable supply of the wholesome, the sturdy, the family-friendly, the all-you-can-eat.
Entering the Golden Corral, I’m wearing my brand new jeans and a boxy black crop top. I resemble the underdog in a college football drama. Think Rudy but high fashion. I’m hyper conscious of being overdressed. I’m tottering around in strappy 4 inch gold heels. With my bright magenta locks, I resemble a cosmopolitan (re: uppity) version of Strawberry Shortcake.
I want to announce to GC staff and the other diners that I’m like them. I’m from here. I’ve lived this life. I’m no different. New York City has not changed me. I’ve always dressed this way. But I hate public speaking and dramatic overtures and I’m aware that to offer such a preface would render me a condescending snot. Maybe I am one.
Inside, the vibe is off. A teenager who looks like someone’s cool but dubious 80s stepdad (permed mullet, crustache, strange gleam in eye) asks us what we want to drink. I order a Dr. Pepper and focus on the 23 flavorful gifts it offers instead of the 23 versions of weird I’m noticing in front of me. Then we pay for our Choke-n-Puke experience and are released to stuff ourselves into cushy oblivion.
I immediately spot someone wearing a Killer Clowns in Outer Space t-shirt. I yearn to accost them and express my admiration for both their shirt and the stellar film it advertises, but decide to continue onward. Browsing the buffet is a solitary endeavor. It consists of nothing but each of our animal ids and our many feasting choices priming themselves for selection within our sightline.
I wander from station to station in search of answers but find wilted taco fixings and sticky piles of noodles. Everywhere, it smells like mistakes made and then masked in hotel rooms. Like dried urine and the sweat of anxious bodies christened with piney chemicals. Especially near the vicinity of our booth. The one that looks out on the turnpike. All those cars making a run for it while we stay put in our sad people mess hall.
I beeline for the chicken-n-dumplings. In Brooklyn, it’s impossible to get them. Especially when you want them delivered on a Sunday evening. I often crave the ones from Cracker Barrel, the doughy herbiness of their succor. I hope these are a decent substitute and move onto the hot slop area. I scoop up turnip greens as a safe bet. I can submerge them in Texas Pete and convince myself I’m prioritzing my health (re: losing my 40+ pooch-belly thing). I dump some cabbage onto my plate. How awry could one take cabbage? Lastly, I scoop some baked fish onto my remaining sliver of porcelain because it reminds me of what I used to eat at Morrison’s Cafeteria in the mall with my now-deceased grandmother.
I return to our booth to find my dad with a tower of medium-rare meats and my stepmom with a petite mound of salad. While we eat, we debate the best cheap beers (Modelo vs. PBR) and talk briefly about our work days. But mostly we masticate in silence. We inhale the fruits of our desire and free will. Savor their blandness. When we finally exhale, we remark that they taste like hospital food, like prison food, like the school cafeteria offerings of the past. We laugh at how terrible our dinner is and then proceed to head back for more.
I go in for my second round and change up my approach completely. I eschew the whole healthy charade and serve myself two slices of pepperoni pizza and a heap of chicken fried rice onto a new and clean plate. Despite soaking it in hot sauce, it tastes like absolute crap but I cherish every bite anyway. What else is there? Plenty. But my stomach has no more room. This is it. This is the choice I made. Might as well enjoy it as much as I can.
I’m fascinated by the heart's struggle to remain content with any one thing—even when there are no other choices within permissible reach—but I'd like to stop experiencing it firsthand. Am I restless or just greedy? Am I voracious or just morally malnourished?
Maybe that’s why my dad brought me here. Not because he’s haggard and surrendering to a somber fate but because The Choke-n-Puke is a place I can simulate the act of entertaining each and every choice I’ve ever considered to my heart’s content. It’s pretty low-stakes if you aren’t worried about E. coli.
The concept of all-you-can-eat offers quick-n-dirty absolution for the masses. Endless but sick everything for one affordable price without consequence. We Americans love our guilt-free choices aplenty. Variety is the vice of life and I know this well. Like any of my fellow choke-n-pukers, I want endless possibilities. I want the latest options. I want to know they’re there even if they are toxic, unappealing, and not at all what would fulfill me.
I’ve always been this way. A fevered acolyte of the seemingly endless. Give me your many, your sundry, your new. The new fast food sandwich, the new energy drink in assorted fanciful flavors, the new clothes and shoes, the new film, album or prestige television series that definitely won’t change my life, but will distract and divert and seemingly defy the laws of time so I can forget everything but the simplicity of my soul for a little while. Give me the new me, the new you, the new world, the new way of being, of seeing, of dreaming, of loving. The new new new new new. Give me all the newest of the new so I don’t have to think of the old and the obsolete and the expired and the discontinued and the long gone never to return.
So, maybe I do think a little bit about dying.
On the ride home, my belly full but my inner world still undone, I reflect on what my dad taught me in the hallowed space of The Golden Corral. I learned that to choke-n-puke is to participate in a transcendental act. It is to breathe to excess, to taste the infinite, to live at the brink, to know you’re alive but soon will be dead. The Golden Corral is memento mori in edible form. I take this all in with my final sips of Dr. Pepper, knowing that one way or another, I’ll have to let it all go. The food and the bumbling through life like Cousin Greg and the rest of it. Whatever grueling choices I make now and however much suffering they might yield, the final one awaits me like an empty plate in a dining room where there’s nothing left to serve. I try to take comfort in this, but not too much.