The Trip to Bountiful 

Where if you don't like a dish, you're not screwed -- you're blessed.

Portions are so arbitrary. . When you go to a restaurant, you put your hunger into the hands of strangers. Making choices from their menu, devised by them, you sit and wait while they take their time making and bringing it. Then you can only hope you'll like it and, importantly, that they gave you enough.

No, we're not starving refugees. Yes, we know the dangers of obesity. No, this isn't our last meal -- maybe it is, but we won't know until it's over. Nevertheless, sometimes we just want ... more.

There used to be no shame or class issues in all-you-can-eat restaurants. In the '60s they were called smorgasbords, with Scandinavian decor and names like Swedish Corner or the Fjords, and diners served themselves unlimited quantities of spiced ham, mashed potatoes, and baked chicken along with Nordic peculiarities such as beet salad, prune whip, lingonberry crepes, and tiny white-pepper-spiked meatballs. All kinds of people ate there, even fancy ones. It was considered European. Smorgasbords had a rough-and-tumble subset: "smorgies" -- same trough setup, but spaghetti and fried chicken. It wasn't called comfort food then. It didn't have to be.

The last few decades wiped out smorgasbords. The big one where my parents used to eat was refurbished, its fjord murals painted over, and is now a faux-English tea salon. Being able to eat a lot ceased to be a point of pride. Dining became a mindful experience. Famished? Two words you never want to hear: California Cuisine.

Yes, numerous Indian restaurants serve lunch buffets -- the newest, Berkeley's Curry-in-Hurry (no, there's no "a"), now limits patrons to two platefuls each, and has recently amped its hotness quotient beyond the endurance of those who, like me, draw the line at French's mustard.

But out there in the real world, light-years from the Gourmet Ghetto, lie oases for people who, after the first few bites of something soft and bland, don't want to stop. Ten bucks, soft rock noodling from the speakers, and they don't have to stop.

Hometown Buffet in San Leandro is nestled in the Greenhouse Marketplace next to a Payless Shoe Source. Nearby is a massive Food Maxx, and a Target larger than whole malls. Districts like this dare you to forget just how big this country is. Nor will the restaurant let you forget. Pay first, choose from among a sea of tables, then you're on your own.

Unrecovered anorexics will feel freaked out at the Hometown Buffet, which is part of a national chain with additional outlets in Union City, Newark, and Pinole. Canopied steam tables sprawl, bristling with ladles, toward the far horizon. Viewed from overhead, their arrangement might comprise some rune or sigil. One's a salad bar, one's a dessert bar, one's a taco bar. One holds cold dishes -- coleslaw, carrot salad, citrine-yellow Jell-O cubes, and such. Another has hot dishes -- Spanish rice, enchiladas, hamburger patties, baked potatoes, macaroni, just for starters. Yet another defies categories: ham, mashed potatoes, fish, two kinds of squash, lima beans, cinnamon rolls. Drink machines form a gleaming and humming island: sodas, tea and coffee, but also rice-y horchata.

Hometown Buffet is too big to seem crowded. Scattered here and there when we arrived were families, a party of nurses still in uniform, a wheelchair user and his friend, and a father and son sporting military haircuts, all of them lit gently and overlooked by Norman Rockwell prints.

"The whole point," Tuffy said as we chose a booth near an elderly couple and three enormous ladies in flower-print dresses, "isn't so much that you get to eat all you want, though that's important too, but what you want, even if it seems irrational." On his first outing, he chose boiled cabbage, fresh-steamed asparagus, pizza, iced coffee, hard-boiled egg wedges, and a root-beer float. I did the salad bar, which alone could be worth your ten-spot. Beans, cheese, red onion, raw broccoli, beets -- yes, somewhere out there, people like beets -- cherry tomatoes out of season. Melon out of season. Sprouts. A certain sensitivity is afoot here, a dignity that contradicts assumptions in a place where the fried chicken and buttered biscuits never end. Nothing is taken for granted. No one is left out. Spinach. Sunflower seeds.

"That's a good grade of pork loin," said the old man at the next table, earnestly.

"That's a good grade of sausage, too," said his wife, bracelets clinking. "We'll have to get a ladder tomorrow and adjust the wisteria."

"The macaroni," the man observed, "are quite large."

Another round, and Tuffy sat serenely working away at a yellow hillock of corn. It wasn't canned or frozen but shucked recently off the cob, tender-sweet. It wasn't oversalted, either -- always a problem at smorgies. I spooned mashed potatoes and bleu-cheese dressing from a soup bowl. It was easier to eat that way, and no one minded. Diners here keep to themselves, fixed on their food and on serving themselves, their conversations, as if having agreed to an understanding: This is my home; you're not even here. It's as if a dome of privacy descends over every diner.

But of course Tuffy, now working on spaghetti and honeydew melon, blasted that understanding by eavesdropping as much as possible.

"Yes," said one of the enormous ladies in flowered dresses, wearing a napkin bib and lifting a sausage delicately between two fingers, "I found the church and the Lord blessed me fine." Van Morrison jived listlessly through the speakers.

"Poor Sidney," said one of her companions. "He was waiting up all night -- he didn't know what time I was coming home." She tore open a biscuit and buttered it.

"You'll notice," Tuffy said triumphantly, "that I have put fresh mushrooms from the salad bar into my spaghetti, thus improving it after my own fashion."

Around the place, diligent workers cleared dishes away from tables, asking in kindly tones whether everything was satisfactory. Far across the restaurant, some gathered around a table and sang "Happy Birthday" to a boy in a Fremont Tigers T-shirt.

"The soup is terrible today," murmured the elderly woman, her braceleted wrist lifting spoonfuls from a bowl of albondigas.

"But the cheesecake is supreme," countered the old man.

Over fruit cobbler, soft ice cream with chocolate sauce, three kinds of freshly baked cookies, and a cube of fluffy cheesecake, Tuffy remarked that the refried-beanless taco bar had been a disappointment, but that it didn't matter because he had just shrugged and eaten fifteen other things instead. In restaurants with menus, if you choose wrong, you're screwed.

The lady with the napkin bib answered her jangling cell phone.

"Hello?" she began, daubing her lips. "I'm blessed, how're you?"

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