History behind Buffet: The ultimate feast fest

By Madhulika Dash

Nothing indulges you like a buffet. The miles and miles of delicacies, laid to please the senses, the varieties that literally make you overeat with glee. It's the ultimate feast fest. But ever wondered how buffet was introduced?

Buffet, the word at least, is said to have originated in Sweden in the early 16th century from the word brannvinsbord (Swedish schnapps, or shot of alcoholic beverage). Alternatively called smörgåsbord, which meant "side board",  buffets, back then, were these small, meticulously set up side tables that were meant to feed guests after a long journey. The spreads usually was a mix of cold and warm dishes, specializing in Swedish delicacies like salted fish, eggs, fruits and vegetables, with little plates on the side. One could make as many trips to the table for a fill – a principle that modern day buffets work on too.

The term buffet was made fashionable by the French, who used it not only for the display of food, but also the furniture on which it was mounted, often draped with rich textiles and served in stunning tableware – especially plates. Many believe that the word buffet was an off shoot to the formal state banquet. The buffet – a standard feature in 18th century England and France – offered guests some of the choicest food to nibble as they enjoyed an evening of pleasure. It was more a showcase of opulence.  

But were these lavish garden parties the beginning of buffet? Curiously not. If archeologists and Rachel Laudan's Cuisine and Empire are any indication of the old style feasting then buffet was an art practiced even in the earlier Medieval times. The difference was that back then it was mostly the mess style or sit down meal style that was more popular than the all-you-can-eat, self serving ones these days. The kind of buffet laid was of course dependent on the occasion, and often had some courses that were rationed like the stuffed horse or the roasted ox – a must in the table back then-  given the sheer number of people (between 900 to 2000) who would come for a buffet.

Take the instance of the wedding feast of Henry III's daughter in 1251. While the number of guests is not certain, old kitchen records show an opulence that some of the best buffets today don't match - 1,300 deer; 7,000 hens; 170 boars; 60,000 herring; and 68,500 loaves of bread was consumed for a single sit down meal. Another example of feast and their spread was the enthronement party for England's Archbishop of Neville in 1465, where 1,000 sheep; 2,000 pigs; 2,000 geese; 4,000 rabbits; 12 porpoises and seals.

Closer home, there was of course the famous Chandragupta and Helen wedding that saw the arrival of 3500 barrel of wines, 11,000 vats of homemade sura (beer) and a spread that counted up to 300 special dishes excluding the channa dal, which was the highlight of the evening and the much loved meat fest that had exorbitant dishes made from country fowls, especially bred ox, deers, boars, goats, fowls and fish among others. The festivity, which was divided into a sit down buffet, and free for all, self serve buffet continued for three days and three nights.

Feasting (and buffet) has in fact been the oldest trick in the book to create a society. Take the instance of the head hunting tribe of Nagaland. While each family had its own kitchen, it was mandatory to lend the central kitchen a part of the catch of the day, and the food cooked here would be served to all in the dining area (a large garden in the settlement) where the tribe used to eat. Aside creating a sense of brotherhood, says Chef Vikas Seth, "such eating culture were an interesting way to not only develop newer dishes but also ensure nothing went to waste – a guiding principle behind the modern-day buffet today."

In fact, adds Chef Sabysachi Gorai (who has been archiving food habits of lost communities), "thanks to such buffet style of eating food remained an interesting place of innovation. Even back then two dishes could not be the same, and the spice box was regularly experimented with – be it adding a new spice, an interesting herb or creating a different spice mix. The trick of marinating meat in  barley water and wine is in fact an art that emerged from the culinary corridors that cooked buffets."

The Persian Empire, yet another kingdom according to Laudan that loved indulging in buffet. Much more lavish than the French and Romans, the Persian Buffet was in fact a centre of much culinary innovation thanks to the merchants, traders, emissaries and kings that visited the court. A usual buffet says Chef Mujbeer Rehman, "would run anywhere between 25 – 30 courses where the table was set with tableware made of gold, silver, gem studded and others depending on royal hierarchy. In spite of it being set up as a state banquet style there were tables around flooding with the best of fruits, dry fruits and sweetmeats that came from all round the world."

It is, says Laudan in her book, “this love for gorgeous food and lavish arrangement that reached to India and was refined further. The buffet-like feast thrown by king Porus for Alexander to mark their friendship where the first Raan was made stands an example of how the buffet which began as a small side table arrangement final reached its zenith.”

Of course later, adds Gorai, "traders, invaders and settlers added their own bit to this arrangement, and buffets became more lavish – not only in their appearance but also in dishes." A diary entry of Ibn Batutta, who came to India under different rules states, "The royal spread is like a treasure house. The pomegranates are red, the fruit luscious and fresh and the mounds and mounds of rice, meat, lentils and breads had on will."

As the need to connect on food grew, so did the different style of buffet too. While the military across the world followed the mess style, in Japan, with tea ceremonies gaining popularity, they were carts introduced into the buffet. Attached with warmers that kept the basket warm, these carts could be wheeled to the diner for a second helping – or even the first!

The rise of colonization and the rise of standalone restaurants and hotels pushed buffet – once the highlight of celebration – to the back of the burner. State banquets, sit down dinners and picnics became the order of the day. And with restaurants coming eating out became a closed affair. And somewhere buffets of the medieval time was lost until 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games, when the city's restaurants put out smörgåsbords for the hungry masses that had flocked to Sweden for the games. At the 1939 World's Fair in New York, Americans got to enjoy a traditional smörgåsbord at the Three Crowns restaurant inside of the Swedish pavilion.

Had buffet made a comeback? It didn't till El Rancho Vegas employee Herb McDonald reinvented it. Las Vegas in 1945 was not the Vegas we know it as today. It was a sleepy desert town that was slowly turning into a Mecca of vice with El Rancho Vegas as its first casino/resort. Originally run by Thomas Hull, the casino was the forerunner of everything we associate with Vegas today—glitzy accommodations, bombastic shows, popular restaurants and all-night partying. And it was here that the all-you-can-eat buffet was born. Tale has it that in the mid 1940s, Herb McDonald was working on the casino floor when a case of the midnight munchies struck. He went to the kitchen and brought out cold cuts, cheese and bread to make himself a sandwich at the bar. Passers-by at the 24-hour casino took note, asking McDonald if they could partake. Realizing a full meal would take them away from gambling, McDonald laid out a spread—a Swedish smorgasbord if you please. It was a success and led to the launch of the very first all-you-can-eat-dinner 24-hour spread called the "Buckaroo Buffet," costing customers only a dollar.

The buffet wasn't money making, but it was enough to keep patrons inside the casino and playing. Laid around the play area, the buffet allowed as many visits and had dishes that could be had both cold and hot. Of course, over a period of time, more sections were added like the dessert, the soup and the omelet segment too.