the smokebox guide to casino pigouts

Casino buffets are a truly special experience. I always visit one when I go to Reno and I always wonder why in the hell I do it afterwards, sort of like eating at Taco Bell; it makes me feel rotten to have taken part in the travesty that is the American fast-food mentality….”


by marc covert


You can learn a lot about human behavior by taking a trip to Nevada; while I have yet to sample the delights of Las Vegas, I have made several trips to Reno, “The Biggest Little City in Nevada,” and I find it fascinating in a perverse sort of way. While video poker has certainly taken up a smoky, beer-soaked corner in every single dive bar in Oregon, there is simply no comparison to the all-encompassing, inescapable gambling racket which is Reno. And the temptation to behave in sanctioned-yet-sleazy ways doesn’t stop with the incessantly dingling, flashing, smoke-belching casinoes. You can down endless watery drinks as long as you plug the machines or roll the bones; once properly bagged you can head out to the perfectly legal “gentleman’s ranches” and screw yourself into a coma; once that is done you can march right down to the plethora of marriage chapels and get hitched to the “Betty” you met over by the combination pawn shop/daycare center. But what do you do if you hate to gamble, don’t drink, and simply don’t have the desire to make the Beast With Two Backs at some lecherous dude ranch? As it turns out, you can witness some of the most revolting, fascinating behavior you are ever likely to see simply by hanging out at the casino buffets.

As I sat in yet another “gulp-n-blow” mega-buffet for lunch in Reno recently, my mind wandered (as it is wont to do); I couldn’t help but think of the many similarities the casino buffet experience has with Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” (if you havent’ read it you should). It could be about how to survive a descent into gluttony at one of those god-forsaken places…

Once we had paid our fees and received the proper paperwork, the group met with our Sherpas at what would be “base camp,” in the smoking section, tantalyzingly close to the soft-serve station. We would spend the next few weeks here, making repeated trips to the soup and salad bar, acclimating our withered bellies to the severe strain they would soon be placed under. “You just wait,” said our head Sherpa. “Soon your abdomens wills have stretch marks like the accordioned gullet of a sperm whale. Then and only then will we assault the North Face, stuffing ourselves with entrees: salisbury steaks, lasagne, porcupine meatballs, spaghetti, sweet-and-sour pork, salmon patties, meatloaf, and other delicacies. From there we will rest our distended meatsacks on bivouac, and at first light we will take the carving station. There we will be the first team to attempt the station without oxygen…stuffing our craws with vast slabs of roast beef, honey-baked ham, and leg of lamb with that goddam mint jelly you asshole Americans seem to love so much. Again we will rest, watching our fellows carefully for signs of “ralphing sickness,” or bloated gut edema, the most dreaded of gluttonous ailments. With any luck we can airlift any victims to the main floor of the casino and revive them with liberal doses of cigarettes and Old Fashioneds. At first light we will assault the summit: yes, the BIG PLATTER OF SHRIMP!!!!

anyway, you get the idea.

Casino buffets are a truly special experience. I always visit one when I go to Reno and I always wonder why in the hell I do it afterwards, sort of like eating at Taco Bell; it makes me feel rotten to have taken part in the travesty that is the American fast-food mentality. And make no mistake, casino buffets are the very epitome of fast food. There isn’t even a pimply-faced minimum wage serf between you and mounds of starchy wonders once you pay at the head of the cattle chute. The first one I ever went to was the Grand Canyon Buffet at the Reno Hilton. Off in a special room, all by itself, under dazzling lights, was the hallowed Shrimp Platter. It was HUGE, easily a purse-seine’s worth of cooked shrimp reposed under the sneeze guard. People stood at the entrance, awe-struck, hesitant to enter the hallowed ground. Speaking in whispered tones, they said “Look! It’s really real!!” or “Halleluia! My haj is complete!” or “Now I can die a happy man!” I’m pretty sure there was piped-in singing from Seraphim, and many of the supplicants approached on their knees. Of course, once they grasped their plates from the dispensers any last bit of reverence was lost, as they piled up great gluttonous mountains of pink shellfish asses and headed for their tables to feed. Not a pretty sight, let me assure you. I don’t even want to be near that place when they roll out the king crab legs.

There is a certain frenzy that overtakes most buffet patrons, and it is truly frightening, right up there with standing still for a second in the aisle at Costco. There is no hurry, the damn food isn’t going anywhere, there is more skulking about in the kitchen, in a sort of suspended animation state, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the overloaded plates of the buffet bon vivants in front of you. Most would rather die than ever make more than one trip. They just slather layer after layer of incompatible crap onto their plates, then lug the whole groaning shitload back to their tables (by now laden with glasses of milk, cups of coffee, pitchers of water, and, I swear to God, DIET COKES.) I have actually witnessed entire families of overstuffed mulletheads try to outdo each other at these places; one time I saw a father mercilessly berate his son for “not getting my goddam money’s worth.” The hangdog look on that poor 12-year-old’s face is one I fully expect to see again one day on “America’s Most Wanted.”

And don’t even get me started on what takes place once the voracious, varicose-vein set get to their tables. The sounds that emanate from the feeding grounds would be enough to make the late Don Martin weep. Ungodly slurping, chomping, rending, splashing, groaning, stretching, splorching noises, accompanied by open-mouthed, sputum-spewing discussions on the latest episode of “Smackdown” are de rigueur. Any thoughts of escaping the inevitable belching and farting would be in vain. Most dedicated buffet “glottus gastonomes” come equipped with the latest in Sans-a-belt, E-Z stretch “emergency pants.” Clad in these plaid pantaloons, the porcine epicures can spread out in their booths, great adipose folds of fatty flesh protruding from under and spilling onto their tables, flicking entire chicken drummets from between their yellowing choppers with mint-flavored toothpicks.

And yes, the dessert bar. Here it is helpful to think once again of the analogy with a typical Everest climb. Once you have achieved the summit of gluttony, the ordeal is not over, not by any means. Now you have to begin your descent, and the only way is through the dessert bar. It looks innocent enough, especially after the harrowing assault of the previous days, but many a buffet adventurer has slipped here, the victim of one careless moment, the victim of “just one more.” Remember the Mr. Creosote scene in “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life?” If you do then you get the picture. The secret to a safe descent is to make a decision as to your dessert selection and stick to it. No looking down!! Just take a big slurping, slishy (sorry, Tom Robbins) spoonful of apple crisp, toss some cookies on top, and cover the whole mess with a slurry of soft-serve and head back to base camp to feed. Chances are you will be treated to the sight of dead dessert hounds, frozen in place, lifeless fingers clutching plates loaded with slices of pie, lemon bars, apple brown betty, and lumpy chocolate pudding. Once they expire they are simply left in place as a grim reminder to gluttons for years to come.

Think of all of this next time you decide to give the museums a break and head for Nevada for some truly tasteless fun. You’ll thank me as you fill out those “emergency pants.”


Originally published:
Issue Two
October 2000


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