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The Land of Too Much

The Land of Too Much

Stack of Pancakes

Two years ago I was working in Liberia, West Africa and came to Chicago for a three-day conference. Coming out of West Africa to Europe and then North America is always a huge culture shock, and when I went all that way for just a weekend conference, I felt more disoriented than ever.

I stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott near O’Hare airport, and after arriving late at night after a series of long flights, I was excited to head down to the buffet breakfast the next morning. Here are a few observations on the experience.

Day One

I am amazed at what I see on the overstocked tables in front of me. There is enough American breakfast food to feed a small country, but it looks like it is all for me and the other hotel guests. By agreeing to pay $9.95 at the end of the experience, we can all eat as much food and drink as much coffee and orange juice as we’d like.

This inspires me to make sure I get a good value for my ten bucks, and the challenge is easy because the feast is enormous. Mountains of pancakes are stacked precariously in metal warming trays, but the crowd of eaters quickly works the stack down to the bottom as we go through the line again and again. We are encouraged to take lots of food, and our empty plates are whisked away in minutes after each visit to the buffet.

It’s hard to decide where to start. Platters of scrambled eggs are next to piles of bacon and sausage. French toast, fried potatoes, cereals, danishes, and bagels are all appealing. Enormous slices of melon and cartons of yogurt are available for the health conscious, and if you eat some fruit, you can feel better about the eggs with cheese and buttered toast.

Matching the food, the glasses and plates are jumbo-sized. Rivers of orange juice flow through bottomless two-liter carafes, and there is no such thing as decaf coffee here. My server comes by to refill the large glasses and asks if I’d like a Belgian waffle with butter and syrup. Really, a Belgian waffle in addition to everything on the buffet? No extra charge? This is amazing. Another server comes by and asks if I want an omelet, just in case the scrambled eggs at the buffet are not enough.

Why not have it all? I think to myself, and that’s exactly what I do. I start with a little of everything, and then I have a little more of everything. I’m hungry from traveling so far, and thrilled for the chance to have breakfast food that I don’t normally get.

I look around the room and see that everyone else is eating like me, so I assume that it must have been a while since they had a good breakfast too.


Hey, what civil conflict or natural disaster did you guys come from?
I wonder. I had no idea that everyone else at the Chicago Courtyard by Marriott had just arrived from war zones like I did.

Later on I realize that my fellow diners have come from countries like Milwaukee and California and Calgary—funny, I didn’t realize there was a shortage of food in those places, but judging from how everyone is eating, there must be something I don’t know.

The whole experience is amazing and wonderful. And later on that morning, I feel a little sick from eating so much, but that’s OK. I deserved all of that food… right?

I don’t feel like having any lunch either, but I still look forward to the next day’s buffet breakfast.

Days Two and Three

I go down from my room the next morning and see that the feast has been restocked. The pancake fairy has visited in the night, and the omelet angel is there again, smiling at the customers and periodically bringing out huge platters of eggs.

Everyone is eating just as much as yesterday, and I start to get worried. I know that we all just came out of civil wars and natural disasters yesterday, but maybe the others think the food will disappear if they don’t eat as much as they can and as quickly as possible.

I stand up on the table, tap my spoon against an orange juice carafe, and get everyone’s attention.

“Hey guys, slow down! Don’t worry! The pancake fairy will come again tonight. There will be enough for everyone, I promise.”

(OK, I don’t really do that. But I think about it.)

I decide that everyone else must know more than me, and perhaps there really will be a food shortage later. I eat as much as I can and then some more before straggling over to my conference. This time, the stuffed feeling of having eaten too much doesn’t feel very good at all. For lunch, I only feel like eating some carrots, and I don’t even have my normal afternoon cup of coffee after drinking so much in the morning.

By my third and final day at the Courtyard, I’ve learned my lesson. I take only two trips to the magical buffet tables. I place myself on a strict diet of three pancakes and four cups of coffee. As hard as it is, two large glasses of orange juice will have to suffice for the morning.

Reflections

When a luxury becomes a commodity, we quickly take it for granted.
The first day I encountered the feast at the Courtyard by Marriott, it was a genuine luxury to me. I absolutely loved it. The second day, it was pretty good. By the third day, though, it was becoming routine. It was a commodity, and I appreciated it much less than before.

An abundance of choices is not always a good thing. Hotel breakfasts are a good example of this. If everything looks good, what do you eat? You probably eat some of everything, or at least I do. Taking away a few of the options can help you reduce the choices and eat less, just as in life it is sometimes good to have a few good choices instead of many average choices.

It’s OK to appreciate good stuff. Notice that I haven’t said anything about feeling guilty for eating pancakes when I had just come from a poor country. That’s because I didn’t feel guilty at all; I felt grateful.

This is a subject for another essay, but the short version is that if I didn’t eat the pancakes that day, nothing would have changed for anyone in Liberia. The problem is not that those of us in rich countries are able to eat as much as we want for breakfast; the problem is that breakfast isn’t always available for other people around the world.

Good stuff like unlimited pancakes should be appreciated. Don’t take pancakes for granted, but don’t feel ashamed about enjoying them in relative moderation.

***

One time I heard someone say that the best dieting practice is to make sure you are actively aware of each bite you take when you are eating. I think this relates the concept of conscious living in general, something that I try to practice as much as possible. Inevitably, my success rate is far from perfect, but now at least I notice when I’m not paying attention to things I should.

One more note: a few months later I was back in another Courtyard by Marriott in Washington, D.C. I had just arrived the night before from Denmark, which is a little different from Liberia. I went down to the dining room in the morning and saw the same scene as before: pancake fairies, platters of eggs, stacks of pastries, and everything else. Although there were plenty of Bluetooth chatterers eating as fast they could while oblivious to the world around them, I also noticed a few people paying attention to life.

I want to be one of the attention-payers. It takes a lot of discipline to be able to appreciate the way we live, deliberately choosing to embrace it without taking it for granted. As cool as breakfast buffets can be, there are some things even more exciting.

###

8 Comments

  • Mary Wallace says:

    Great article and so true. There is no such thing as luxury anymore. Since we can have anything, anytime, we no longer feel the pain of hunger. We stuff ourselves and we can no longer empathize, FEEL what other humans feel because all we feel is full.

  • JoeDrinker says:

    Along the same lines, I once had someone try to get me to eat a bag of M&M’s by eating them one at a time. Try it; it’s more difficult that you might think!

    We go through life racing through activities and events, and hardly ever take the time to really appreciate each part of our lives. Sometimes the only thing we realize about something is that it’s standing in the way of our next pancake or car or home or spouse.

    Good post.

    Cheers.

    P.S. I now eat M&M’s two at a time…it’s about as conscientious as I can get.

  • Shashikiran says:

    I live in India where wealth and poverty and opulence and squalor are everywhere neighbors. We have restaurants where you can order a small cup of coffee, and the waiter brings some empty cups for all at the table to share from it.

    So, each time I visit the US, it takes me a couple of days to get used to the small and the grande—they’re both huge! And it takes me two days more to stop being appalled at the extent I must waste on my plate.

    I tell this to my American hosts, which is probably not a nice thing to do on my part. They listen graciously.

  • Lise says:

    Loved your post, it visually and fragrantly put my mind in a state of true abundance and how much we take it for granted. When people need to walk miles just to get their water and how it contrasts with how we have become so greedy and yet so ultimately empty. Being in Thailand on holiday I saw that people with hearts full of everything and yet mostly with nothing physical in the way we have it, experience more happiness, some might say not knowing any better, but the older I get the more I less value things and stuff than I do people and experiences and smiles and warmth. Your extremes of experience have really woken me up, appreciate it!

  • Kristian says:

    Intriguing. I’m especially struck by your observation that “if I didn’t eat the pancakes that day, nothing would have changed for anyone in Liberia”. I often find myself burdened with guilt when considering my fortunate situation compared with those less fortunate, but I’m beginning to wonder if such guilt is self-inflicted, and if it’s not actually a bit conceited. It may even be that I’d rather feel guilty than take action.

  • Saravanan says:

    Wow.. what a nice article…

    I am from India and I do agree partly with Shashikiran. But these days India is also changing thanks to software and out-sourcing. We have been on an eating spree too. :)

  • It’s kind of interesting that this post is called The Land of Too Much, rather than the Land of Too Little. It helps frame the perspective from which you are writing. As a US citizen and recent traveler to Europe, I experienced a similar culture shock while in Europe.

    However, your article has me wondering where is the line from poverty to abundance. I think the US has gone into food abundance with our big meals and big bellies. But I’d be worried if other countries followed suit. I think that the US needs to rediscover a balanced way of consuming food and that will take some doing. And other countries hopefully will find more food than what they are currently getting. This will also take some doing.

    I guess what I am really saying is that I don’t think that it always comes down to “have and not have”, although that is a popular perspective. Or maybe it’s just not the whole story. I felt the abundance level in Europe was the same as the US, but just with different foods, and perhaps more importantly, different portions. Maybe I just stayed in nice hotels. I’d like us to look beyond the either/or mentality and realize there’s a vast gray area between, where the US consumes less and is more in tune with how we get our food, and other countries have more, but not so much more that its abundance swings too far into commodity. I think the right level of food is the commodity level you are talking about — it should be the norm. But, the too full belly is perhaps feedback telling us our commodity is too abundant.

    Thanks for your post — made me think a lot!

  • Chris says:

    Hey guys… wow, I am behind on responding to this set of comments. I think I will probably have to let this discussion go on without me for now. Please feel free to continue. :)

    Thanks especially to @Michael for making some very good thought-provoking points.

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