Penkava: Eating sensibly, Viking-style

It’s 1959. Enter a 10-year-old boy who has just discovered an entire, untouched Sara Lee cheesecake in the fridge. He peers cautiously over his shoulder before seizing his golden-delicious treasure, scurries past the utensil drawer to grab a fork on the fly and stealthily slinks into his bedroom closet.

Alone at last, he uncrinkles the flexible aluminum rim encircling the round container. He delicately lifts off the pasteboard cover, and his eyes widen as his face reflects in the shiny, cheesy surface. He dips his fork into the soft creaminess and does not stop eating until the entire cheesecake is gone. Scarfed up like a dustball in a vacuum. Whoosh!

Thus begins the lifelong fantasy of many a lad … the dream of “All-You-Can-Eat.” It is a dream that has been pursued since time immemorial. Some think it got started with the ancient Vikings, with their All-You-Can-Pillage approach to meeting the neighbors. Since they were pillaging anyway, they also ate to their heart’s content.

Fortunately, today one does not have to pillage to eat like a Viking. With civilization have come the smorgasbord, the buffet and the comida por kilo (Food by the Kilogram). We have literally taken our cheesecake out of the closet and now can gather unabashed in public to consume however much we desire. But this all-you-can-eat thing is a lot bigger than just cheesecake.

For a modest price, we can join with others of like mind who wish to fulfill their quest of self-selected unlimited portions of boundless foodstuff varieties. Unfortunately, therein lies the rub.

With eating being one of our primary survival strategies, it is not unusual to encounter a bit of competition as we maneuver ourselves to access our food choices at the buffet.

We tend to move from serving area to serving area like ping-pong balls in a lotto hopper. It is virtually impossible to avoid the inevitable crashes at the fried chicken, the pile-ups at the soft-serve ice cream and the near rear-enders as we back away from the broccoli. We wield tongs like Kung Fu nunchucks and soup ladles like battle-axes. We flash serving spoons like we’re a member of the Jets from “West Side Story” and brandish pastry spatulas like light sabers from “Star Wars.” Vruuummmmm … crackle, crackle.

But despite the challenges, it is worth the effort. Sure, there are surprises. I once dipped my ladle into the brown gravy and pulled out a chicken leg. Another time, I found a french fry floating in my French onion soup, but since they came from the same country, I didn’t mind. Then there was the time I thought I saw a carrot cascading over the edge of the chocolate waterfall. At least I hope it was a carrot.

This is not to say that one cannot make healthy choices. I know people who enjoy these buffets because of the wonderful variety of fruits and vegetables. They know how to keep food portions small and avoid those foods that are high in fat. They even have figured out how to moderately indulge in the desserts. Well, good for them. But to me, going to an all-you-can-eat buffet and eating sensibly is like skydiving from a parked airplane. It makes no sense to me, but maybe that’s just the deep-fried buffalo chicken wing wrapped in a flapjack talking.

As this little boy has grown up, he has not forgotten the anticipatory joy and consuming bliss of a never-ending feast.  But thanks to modern technology and culinary expertise, I do not have to act like Erik the Red to get a good meal.

Sure, I may still find a cheesecake in the fridge and sneak it into my bedroom closet now and then. But that’s just between me and Sara Lee.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He is currently eating pasta followed by antipasto in the thought that they will cancel each other out so he can eat more. He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.

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