Feeding frenzy
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Feeding frenzy

Thu 02 Mar 2017 11:51 AM


When I was growing up in Mississippi, my mother hated how I would always tell people we lived “behind Shoney’s”. It was plain fact that the Nashville-based franchise, complete with mega-buffet and a baseball-capped bear mascot, was the simplest identifier for the highway exit for our home on Pinecrest Drive. No matter that my helpful directions made our family sound “uncivilized”—at least it wasn’t the Golden Corral, I figured.

We hardly ever ate at Shoney’s, but sometimes I would tell my parents I was playing outside and instead walk up there to buy a milkshake. I’d sit in the booth inhaling my ice cream through a straw, bearing witness to all forms of barbarism at the buffet. People who paid extra for the salad bar would help themselves to bowls of bacon bits swimming in ranch dressing. A small boy once used the dessert toppings’ serving shovel to spoon a pile of M&Ms into his mouth. I watched in horror as his mother slapped his wrist, scolded him and promptly tossed the spoon back into the M&M pit.

Part I

Fast forward to Florence some twenty years later. My tastebuds may not abide bacon bits, but I’ve been “that American” at the aperitivo hour—particularly in the student season of my life, when a 5 or 6 euro finger food spread couldn’t be passed up, no matter how plastic the mini-pizzas. My friends and I, after clocking four or five rounds at the buffet, would get well-merited malocchi from overly observant bartenders.

The shame that such judgments aroused in me, however, paled in comparison to the shock that still arises when I attend an event in Florence with free food. Despite the Renaissance city’s reputed elegance, if you put a complimentary buffet before a room full of Florentines—and foreigners who like their food—you will see the Hunger Games play out in the most literal sense.

Illustration by Leo Cardini

It is at these gatherings that I begin to understand why people tire of chic new restaurant openings, why local events aren’t more widely publicized and perhaps why the Roman Empire really fell. Any “line” for a free buffet in Florence is little more than a boxing ring where humanity’s baser instincts are brought to light. It’s not just students, teenagers and rowdy tourists: you’ll inevitably spot freeloaders of the fancy variety, simultaneously lamenting that “non è miha buono” and lunging for their fourth portion. Generally, though, the quieter the perpetrator, the higher-piled the plate, as some proverb or knowing nonna probably says.


Part II

My colleague Samantha had a rather harsh introduction to Florence when she first arrived as a graduate student one summer and was thrown directly in the lions’ den. She and her peers were recruited to serve the free pasta and watermelon given out on the Night of San Lorenzo, an annual August ritual held outside the basilica. Energized by the promise of plunging straight into community life, they jumped on board, as eager, smiling students often do.

On paper, the summer evening is a party for the Perseids meteor shower—a jovial occasion bringing together the working-through-August Florentines with intrigued visitors who happen upon the fun. But the pretense of a neighborhood dinner/dance/DJ set is a sham. In practice, it’s a shoving contest of Darwinian consequence—with the prizes being a bite of watermelon and a snack-size plate of pasta that’d take twenty minutes to prepare at home.

Samantha’s skin feels sticky when she recalls that night. “I was covered head to toe in watermelon,” she tells me. “There were seeds in my hair…That’s how hard the people grabbed it out of my hands. Pieces would go flying.” No carefree, alfresco fun followed that summer supper for Samantha: she went home to rinse the ragu drippings and watermelon chunks off her skin. We both agree that if we’re in town next August, we’ll spend the evening nursing minimarket beers and marveling at the spectacle from the sidelines.


Part III

You’d think the scariest free-food showdowns would happen when forks, knives and serving spoons are involved. But even a humble pizza party can turn Hobbesian when the slices come at no cost.

Florence recently hosted a free pizza evening so frightening that I’d happily have paid 50 euro for some Papa John’s and a little bit of peace. Groups swarmed the serving station with an urgency usually reserved for war zones or FAO Schwarz on Black Friday.

The pies were particularly inventive, too, which made it all the worse. That night I imagined Catholic guilt-ridden pizzaiuoli having nightmares after hours spent “casting {their} pearls before swine”. As a group, we were not far off from “trampling them under {our} feet, and tearing {them} into pieces” (Matthew 7:6).

Fed up (but certainly not fed), I almost went home hungry when a ray of light appeared. The organizers called out the partygoers for their brutish behavior and announced they’d open a second serving station, lest World War III break out over a measly slice of margherita. This prompted a mass exodus to the second, obviously superior station, which then sparked cackle-worthy commentary from a fiorentino DOC who couldn’t believe the depravity around him.

At first I was suspicious. Often when you see these characters—let’s call them insiders—they give off the illusion of being unaffected, above the chaos. Make no mistake: they know that as natural heirs of the free food frenzy culture, they have the power to effect change within it. They’ll make wisecracks about the madness around them, but remain active participants in it, maneuvering their way to the front of the mob or playing actual tug-of-war with their rivals at the plate stack.

This man was different. He passed napkins to the people around him, waited patiently for his turn and wagged his finger at those who refused to do the same, uttering incomprehensible Tuscan-isms roughly translated as “Look at your life. Look at your choices.”

I’m no better than the insiders who scoff at the dregs while doing nothing to shift the tide. But the (non) rules of the rumpus can’t be changed by someone like me. Were Americans or other Anglos to try implementing some order, we’d be shunned, shamed, shooed off the premises.

It’s not hard to see why when you think about the culture that created Shoney’s.

Yanks may be skilled at lining up single file and serving ourselves in an orderly fashion, but we’ll hoard all the free food we can on our plates, then ask the staff for substitute sauces and a to-go box. And we can’t count on Brits to bring about solutions: everyone would just stand around politely waiting for someone else to start the queue, and the free food would all get cold.

No, change must come from within. Short of installing an electric fence or Uffizi-style sensor in front of all buffets and kitchen windows, the best we can do is plant someone like the pizza commentator in the crowd at all free food events in Florence.

Until this revolution begins, we can acknowledge that Florence’s generous foodie culture disproves one popular saying: there is, in fact, such thing as a free lunch. But for now, if there’s a buffet involved, I’d rather skip it.

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