We once had salad bars

Narrated by Anchor.fm AI

I grew up in a rural and out of the way place that at times was slow to catch on trends, so I don’t know whether when I first noticed things is when they were first introduced to the broader public. One such trend is the salad bar. This was an area set up with cut and cleaned ingredients appropriate for making salads. The patron would self-serve the desired salad by picking out items that were arranged in a way that required moving along a line, like an assembly line only where the person moves instead of the material.

As I recall, it was first introduced as an attraction for larger chain restaurants. At first, the patron would be given a clean plate and was permitted to put as much as would fit on the plate, but a second trip would require a new plate and a new item on the bill. Later, and rather quickly in retrospect, the offering became unlimited salad bars. In addition, the salad bar expanded to include more proteins and breads. It became possible to have an entire meal just from the salad bar. People would do that, and still order a regular meal. I know I did.

Long before the salad bar was the cafeteria type model. I forget the particular chain we would go do, but there was one that was just a cafeteria. Various meal items would be set out on heated trays and you would pick out what you wanted. I think they weighed the plate and charged a simple rate per pound, so it was tempting to focus on the more expensive items even when you craved items you know would be way over priced in this method. I still would enjoy this type of eatery, but the last time I encountered it was company cafeterias at places I worked. I enjoy the cafeteria experience, but it takes some attitude adjustment to pick out a portion that was what you wanted instead of what would give you the best deal at the counter. I only mastered it at a breakfast bar. Lunch bars were too tempting to make into a dinner for the day.

Salad bars were similar to these cafeterias, but it was perceived very differently. You would go to a restaurant for a served dinner. That dinner would take a while for the chef to prepare, so the salad bar was a very ingenious way to solve the waiting problem. Previously, people would order a salad and that would take a little while to be served, and once served often the salad would be completed with too much time to spare before the main meal, especially during busy periods. At a well stimulated table, the conversation would fill in the gaps without anyone checking their watches. Many other tables were with people who knew each other well and had run out of things to really talk about, I’m speaking about families in particular. The salad bar solved the problem because there is a lot of time consumed in considering the options and in picking out items one at a time, such as one cherry tomato at a time when you wanted several. I recall in even the first experiences we were provided very large and deep plates (or shallow bowls) so there was lots of room but you would not fill up most of it with lettuce.

The salad bar was always recognized as an insanitary approach to serving food. People would use the same tongs or spoons other people used. They would also hand pick things like rolls or larger items, sometimes putting it back if it was the wrong one. They would also hover over the food. There were adjustments made such as providing the plexiglass shield that you had to reach under. The serving utensils would be reused, but I think they were replaced with freshly washed ones regularly. This sanitary concern was mostly from the government. Most people did not seem to mind the possibility. I imagine that subconsciously they enjoyed this risky behavior, but they were not thinking about the risks at all. Pulling out portions from the same tray, using the same utensils, as everyone else wakes up a very primal instinct of eating together, even when among strangers.

I imagine the movie scenes of medieval festivals where there would be some large serving bowls and plate in the middle of the table and everyone would reach out and grab what they wanted, often times with their bare hands, and their neighbor would do the same, with zero hesitation. In such a setting, this would be a mirror behavior: one person doing what the other one does. This was a nonverbal expression of acknowledgment and respect toward the predecessor and this alone opened people up to behave as long friends even if they only first met at this table. Modernity lost this communal or feasting culture. The only thing that comes close to it is family meals or people using their homes to host guests. This is not the same thing because everyone is family or an invited guest. The prototype came from people behaving the same way but those people being strangers to each other.

I realize that cruise ships offer generous buffet tables. Casinos or similar places offer it too. In these places, it is a happy coincidence that the these tables are convenient for the operators to maintain, and that people actually enjoy it. Consciously, they enjoy the selection, sometimes of things they normally would not buy. I believe a stronger satisfaction comes subconsciously of knowing that they were picking through something that was previously picked through by the person ahead of them. I hear that one of the big appeals of these vacation spots is the buffet tables and it may be a big reason people come back even if they don’t admit it or even think about it.

Another recollection is when there is a group of people and the announcement is made that people can begin serving themselves. In that instant, no one wants to be first. You would think, from a selfish perspective, everyone would want to be first to grab the best of the best before anyone else does. Instead, everyone wants someone else to be first, and the person who goes first also does so out of a sense of sacrificing something. He is sacrificing his experience of mirroring the person ahead of him, and he is losing out on the ability to communicate his being open to others.

The salad bar at the time of its innovation was very popular. I was young at the time, and I just remember thinking about it being a good deal, being able to pick out what I wanted and later as much as I wanted for the same price. On the other hand, I remember the experience of waiting for the person ahead to complete his selection so I can take my turn. Sometime more was going on than just waiting my turn. The person ahead would know people were following him so he would size his portion to leave plenty for the rest. The people behind would know what the person ahead chose and would consider the same item themselves even if that was not their intention. This is communication at a very primal level. People acknowledging and respecting each others in an situation that involves ones appetites.

I imagine being alone in front of a large buffet table freshly set out with all the things I like. What constraints would I have against eating everything until I regretted it. I don’t really have to imagine that, I’ve done that when I cooked family sized recipes for myself. My intention was that I would put away the remainder for heating up the next day. When I started eating, I just ate the whole thing at a single setting, even though I’m sure I would have been fully satisfied with a portion where the rest was share with three or four others. Each time this happened, I felt a deep disappointment that this was wrong, and not just because I was feeling bloated.

I recalled once trying to make a Thanksgiving dinner just for myself. Instead of a turkey, I chose a duck because it was smaller, but it should have served at least another person, if not three. I never tried that again, but it was only much later that I learned to cook properly for one person.

I learned that cooking for one person does not mean cutting a recipe to prepare just a single serving. That is not even possible with many recipes, it just won’t cook right. Cooking for one person involves changing the kind of meal to prepare. Above I made the archetype for feasting to be the communal festivals described during pre-modern times and likely in more traditional cultures. The comparable archetype of preparing a meal for one is the hobo who heats up a tin of food over a very meager fire. My meals are single pot meals made with fresh ingredients but nothing too involved. It could easily heated up can of soup or one of those microwave noodle bowls. When preparing a meal for one, the meal has no pretense of ever being shared. At least that is what I found to work for me for at least the past decade.

The salad bar revolution at the time must have partly been a harkening back to the communal dining experience of people sharing a common serving plate. People enjoyed it to the point of choosing restaurants based on the popularity of the salad bar. The public’s response to salad bars was a reaction or even rebelling against the modern approach of dividing patrons into dinner parties where each gets their own table. Each dinner party in a common dining room pretends that the party next to them doesn’t exist, and sometimes gets annoyed when that party gets too rowdy or impolite. All that changes when everyone converges on the common salad bar. At least during the time at the bar, people become a community. It is too brief to be meaningful, but it was just enough to feel and for that feeling to be conscious to the point of being embarrassing. For a brief instant, the thought occurs to you that you don’t really want to return to your party’s table. If allowed time for a second thought, that thought might be a desire to pull the two party’s tables into one table. That thought is profoundly embarrassing.

This is the modern world, we have to define ourselves into dinner tables. We can not have a communal table, that is against the rules. The restaurant ambience is of different people at different tables, and the only time they might mingle is if they have to use to the restroom, and there there is the ritual of washing hands with soap and daring not to even touch the door handle to get out with comfortable delay from the prior person’s exit.

I really wonder if we are trapped in this modern model. Many people must like it because restaurants with dinner-party sized tables (table for two, for four, for six, etc.) get a lot of business. I imagine restaurants like it because preparing meals for individual tables makes scheduling in the kitchen a lot easier. Having a table for 20 or more requires a reservation not only to get the dining room arranged, but to prepare the kitchen for somehow having 20 plates of variety of recipes ready at the same time.

What if we had a communal restaurant. It would prepare some main course but that is the only main course available. That could be prepared in advance and ready for everyone when they are ready. They would all eat at the roughly the same time. In such a set up, what would be the appeal for people eat at one large table or where at least where there is no invisible dividers that forbid communicating or even acknowledging the people at that table.

I am aware that there are repeated attempts to make this kind of arrangement. It seems to always fail for evening meals, but it sometimes is successful for lunch places. I mentioned before the large campus corporate cafeteria where it works well including in the way I mentioned about bringing people together whose only commonality is sharing the same food from the same serving bar. It also works in office tower areas where people can walk to the restaurant from many buildings. The service-bar is convenient and fast, but it also brings people together in a way that accepts sharing of tables when the place is crowded as it would be during lunch hour.

Anyhow this post is about salad bars in particular. The salad bar is a tiny remnant of that memory communal eating. I recall when salad bars started to show up in grocery stores. In particular, I recall my original reaction of disappointment if not discuss. The salad bar looked identical to what would be in a restaurant. Instead of serving plates, you would put the salad into a disposable clamshell container. More importantly, you would put the container into the shopping cart and carry it home. There may still be a brief sharing experience when more than one person was at the bar, but even this is rare because shopping schedules do not have the time-of-day aspects of meal schedules. There is no experience of eating together.

I eventually grew to use the grocery store salad bar regularly. It was generally fresher, particularly for the mix of ingredients I would select. If I were to try buy these items in bulk and prepare them at home, they would be noticeably less fresh after a couple days and before I would run out. There was also an appeal that I recognized but had trouble describing. The appeal was in knowing that someone one prepared each of the selections in the salad bar. Even though I was eating later, and even though I was picking out my own selection, there is a realization that someone else prepared it, even if it was a matter of opening some bag and dumping its contents into one of the bins.

When the so-called pandemic hit, one of the first casualties was the grocery store salad bar. It has always been the case that government health departments loathed salad bars because of their potential to spread disease. They merely tolerated the attempts to minimize the spreading potential, but I’m convinced that government’s preference would be to outlaw salad bars, particularly in grocery stores. With the pandemic, they got their wish.

The grocery store still has the area for the salad bar, but they use it now for shelving of featured products. They could replace it with a more efficient and standard shelving but they keep the bar along with the side rails for holding the clamshells while filling them, when that was possible. Perhaps they are hopeful that the salad bar will be open again, because I’m sure it was profitable for them. I suspect another reason is that it is an ideal spot to feature products, a lot of people will look at the salad bar with recollection of a better time when we could pick out a fresh salad for the day, and even for a family to pick out each their own preferences.

The pandemic is not going away any time soon. Even if it would, we have not set the precedent that anything comparable to a bad flu season now merits closing down salad bars. The government health authorities probably will never permit them to open because they could be the focal point of the next contagious outbreak of whatever comes next.

I recall that salad bars were not permitted in the first place. Some restaurant found a way to introduce it in a way that didn’t violate the written rules at the time. Before the public health authorities could react, the popularity spread to so many other places that it was impossible to stop. Something similar likely will happen in the near future. The salad bar will return and it will be very popular with customers and profitable for the owners. The reason is that we are drawn to salad bars for more than just convenience. We are aware we are picking out items someone prior has left for us, and we are conscious that what someone else will pick through what we left behind. It is the thinnest possible recollection that we could be part of a community that is much bigger than the people we share dinner with. This inkling of a memory embarrasses us with the thought that maybe we are eating contrary to basic human instinct to eat communally in the broadest sense.

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