I was meeting up with someone I worked with, ooh, getting on for 20 years ago and whom I hadn’t seen for pushing 15. I was coming from Manchester; she from Soho, London. We compromised on Drummond Street, that row of ethnic eateries parallel to Euston Road. Time was when you could eat a vegetarian thali here, then limp-fart along to the end of the road and buy an ex-Red Army greatcoat at Laurence Corner, a truly legendary army surplus store – so legendary that, when I ran into Paul McCartney at a party once and the subject of Laurence Corner came up, he told me that he’d bought his first double bass there back in the 1960s.
I suggested that we eat at the Diwana Bhel-Poori House “for sentimental reasons” – but this was pretty much a lie, my associations with this south Indian vegetarian restaurant being largely negative. I once ate there before boarding the Deerstalker Express to Inverness, and during the night developed septicaemia of such virulence that, when I got to the hospital in Kirkwall, Orkney, the following day, my infected hand was the size of a nan bread and chilli-hot streaks of sepsis were shooting up my arm. I’m not saying that this had anything to do with the Diwana, which has always struck me as perfectly hygienic and has decor not dissimilar to that of a sauna in a Swedish health spa, but you know how the mind is, always associating ideas willy-nilly for day after day; frank ly, I sometimes think that it might be a relief if the sun didn’t rise tomorrow.
No, I wanted to eat at the Diwana Bhel-Poori House because I happened to know that, at lunchtime, it puts on one of the most curious culinary spectacles known to humankind: the all-you-can-eat buffet. Whoever first hit on the idea of offering unlimited food for a fixed price was some kind of crazed genius, because while you might think that this would be an incitement to gluttony, I’m pretty damn certain the opposite is the case.
A fixed amount of food for a predetermined sum introduces a creeping barrage of anxiety – from menu choice through portion size and on inexorably to l’addition – that can only be assuaged by stuffing your face (or, in modern parlance, “comfort eating”). The all-you-can-eat concept, on the other hand, relieves the diner of her cares, allowing her appetite to shrink to its natural size.
Yes, I’d bet the farm – or, at least, a Birds Eye Traditional Chicken Dinner – that all-you-can-eat buffets put out markedly less food per diner than the menu-mongers. Granted, my empirical sample is only, um, me – and I’m not so much a lady-who-lunches as a girl who favours a Ryvita smeared with cottage cheese come noon. Indeed, apart from strategic meetings – such as encountering someone I haven’t broken bread with since the Major premiership – I’ve long since dispensed with the meal altogether.
So, there I was, standing in the Diwana Bhel-Poori House, waiting for my quondam colleague and watching while happy office grafters piled their aluminium salvers high with rice, chapattis, assorted vegetable curries, fruit, chutneys and so on, but absolutely appalled. A sign tacked above the buffet read: “Please use one plate per person, eat as much as U like.” When it comes to being non-U, substituting “U” for “you” is enough to put anyone off their shoots and leaves. Not that I needed any putting off: the sight of all that tasty nosh, mine for a mere eight smackers, utterly nauseated me.
What would happen if I were to eat all I could? In Marco Ferreri’s 1973 masterpiece, La Grande Bouffe, four dyspeptic gourmands gather in a country villa with the express intention of doing just that, their ultimate aim being death by buffet. The film won the critics’ award at that year’s Cannes festival – fitting when you consider that, taken as a whole, film critics have to be the professional group whose eyes are manifestly bigger than their intellects.
When my lunch partner finally pitched up, I mentioned none of this to her and went about the business of eating lunch as if it were second nature to me – indeed, so relaxed was I that I ended up consuming a normal-sized meal. After we parted, I limp-farted to the end of the road and stood there staring melancholically at the corner where Laurence’s used to be.
I suppose the moral of this tale is that, in the all-you-can-eat buffet of life, petites madeleines are always for dessert.