Buffets have long been the preferred way to serve when lots of people need to be fed in a relatively short period of time. This method of food service is the method of choice for most when it comes to parties, receptions and teas.
Let’s face it. Time and labor equal a big outlay of bucks, especially in the food industry where those replenishing and cleaning-up are paid by the hour, not tips. This is the impetus behind so many restaurants (and caterers) opting for this type of service, even for very small events.
Hostesses giving parties and events at home, including me, often choose to serve buffet style. Why? Hostesses want to enjoy their parties right along with their guests. If they are in the kitchen the whole time, they miss their own event. Again, the food is artfully arranged on a serving table where folks can get as much or as little as they want. All is well and good.
In a home situation, that fact may be oh so very true. This is because in a home environment, the food is not (or should not be) put out until about 10 minutes or so prior to the first guests arriving. When entertaining at home, there is usually someone in charge of watching the food, smaller amounts are put on the buffet line at a time and when the quantity reaches a low point, the tray or dish is removed and replaced with fresh from the kitchen. In other words, food does not have ample time to spoil.
Personally, when I am hosting 20 people or fewer, I serve the appetizer course along the bar in my kitchen. People eat as I take food either out of the refrigerator or off the cook top. There is no time for spoilage. When hosting a party/dinner for a larger number, I hire someone to assist me, thus ensuring there is no risk of spoilage,
While in theory, the picture of folks selecting exactly what they want and serving themselves until their hearts are content seems all well and good. The fact is there are many downsides to serving large numbers of people in this fashion. I am going to discuss what to me seem to be the top three:
- Food spoilage: Food being kept at the optimum temperature on a buffet table, while theoretically possible, is unlikely. Why? Few times, in my experience, have I found anyone really tending the food table, thus increasing the likelihood of food borne illness. You, the consumer, have no way to know how long any particular item has been out or at what temperature it has been maintained.
In commercial environments, foods may be prepared way ahead of time for the sake of convenience. However, depending upon the type of food, the quality and safety can deteriorate quickly, thus the problem. Additionally, some restaurants and caterers save food from one buffet service and put it out on another. How many times have you been to a restaurant on the day following a big buffet to find the “special” just happens to be one of the items featured on the buffet the day before?
Caterers are often the most unscrupulous. Case in point: I attended a wedding reception a few years back. The caterer, who was nowhere in sight, had his people picking up the “leftover” fruit and cheese to “use” at a reception the next evening. With that premise as his standard, just how much of the fruit and cheese on “that” buffet were purchased for that particular event.
Okay; fruit and cheese may keep, but where does that particular caterer draw the line? If this person finds this method of “recycling” food of benefit, where does he stop? Even more frightening is the question of “How many are there out there like him? And, personally, the idea of reusing food that has been set out, handled and picked through is repugnant.
- Waste: Equal amounts of food are prepared of every dish/food served. Does everyone attending the restaurant or party have the same taste? The answer is of course not! Depending on the number of folks and their taste buds, the caterer or eating establishment places vast amounts of food on the line, but much not consumed. Additional amounts are prepared in the kitchen, and never brought out. At best, these foods go to waste. At worst, they get “reused”, perhaps several times.
- Cross contamination: This one strikes near and dear to my heart. Anyone with a food allergy or sensitivity should avoid a buffet line like the plague. Unless everything on the buffet is free of any particular allergen, the opportunity for cross contamination is too, too great!
Folks reach across one dish to serve from another one. In the process, they scatter crumbs, etc, as they go, contaminating everything around them. They use the same utensil to serve themselves from several dishes. Again, any allergen in the previous dish contaminates the contents of the next dish. The list goes on and on and on.
Cross contamination is more than just allergies. At least most commercial buffets have sneeze guards over the food trays—how many times have you seen that at a catered event? One of my least favorite people is the double dipper. You know the type; this person takes a bite of an appetizer and then dips the chewed cracker again into the dip or spread or whatever. If he is coming down with something, he just made sure he is a generous person, sharing everything with everyone at the party.
Those eating medically mandated gluten free are impacted, I think, the most by a buffet situation. Those with Celiac or non-Celiac gluten sensitive are at a huge risk.
Sadly, so many, many caterers are absolutely clueless about Celiac or the impact cross contamination has on their digestive system or just how sick they can make these folks. I get the feeling that most do not really care. As long a people are paying good bucks for a paltry amount of food—in advance I might add—the caterer is a happy camper.
So, what can the Celiac or non-Celiac sensitive person do to protect him/herself?
- Make sure your host knows your dietary constraints.
- Survey the buffet line with scrutiny. If you see a glaze or something, such as corn, that may have come in canned, ask questions of the person who prepared the food. If they cannot answer your questions satisfactorily, DO NOT eat the food.
- Eat a little something prior to any event involving food unless you know you can trust the preparer, such as a close friend.
As hard as it is to not eat from a buffet when everyone else seems to be having a blast, make your apologies to your host, but don’t eat to be polite. The price the Celiac has to pay is just way to high!