Hard to refuse an “all you can eat” meal – especially if it pitches crabs

What is it about “all you can eat” that just draws folks to restaurants that pitch that on the menu. I admit, I’m a sucker for it, aren’t you? When I’m with a group and we struggle with the very important decision of where to have lunch or dinner, and someone interjects, there’s an “all you can eat” seafood place – no need to push me. I’ll push everyone else. It’s a mindset that can be deceiving. Can make you think you can eat as much as you want, with no consideration at all for the capacity of the stomach, nor its ability to digest large and mixed portions. Darn the advertising draw that’s so powerful. I go anyway.

So, last weekend, I attended a church fundraiser in Palo Alto, an event I always look forward to every year – an “all you can eat” crab dinner. It was no surprise that 90% of attendees were baby boomers or older. Is it this generation that falls easy prey to “all you can eat” offers? Or, is it this generation that worries less about calories? Or, is it this generation that scrimps on meals every day for health or other reasons, that a big break is so welcome. I’m glad I went. The crabs were meaty, plentiful and free flowing. The heads and legs kept coming. I wondered if the sponsor cornered the entire supply of the Bay Area. I was afraid to ask – didn’t want to jinx the table service.

But first, there were hors d’oeuvres — a long table filled with platters of cheese, crackers, purple and green olives, chips, salami slices and small cups of miniature shrimps swimming in rich, spicy red cocktail sauce. I was hungry at 6 p.m., and I observed, so were the crowds who lingered around the table and who kept ambling back for more. Now, wait a minute – this was “all you can eat” appetizers. A double whopper, I thought. Unwittingly, I filled up. The auction table was a useful distraction, or I’d be continually munching on the salami and shrimp cocktails.

The music DJ asked that we be all seated because salad would be served soon. I convinced myself, some green leaves and tomatoes in olive oil and vinegar dressing would be refreshing to the palate, and not heavy to the stomach. Those near me agreed. My group of six emptied the entire big salad bowl of lettuce and arugula. Then came the pasta. Big one-inch noodles immersed in sauce cooked perfectly with mild spiciness, a little peppery bite, the Italian touch of the evening, along with the crunchy garlic bread that someone said was very popular at Safeway. Couldn’t refuse those and regret it later. So I scooped the spoon underneath the tempting mound of warm carbs, gave myself four big spoon-fulls, and reached for the strongly aromatic bread. I consumed half of both. Delicious! But my gastro started to grumble, so I stopped. Suddenly, I remembered what I came for – the crabs! O darn! I need to walk around the block, or around the auction table ten times at least, I mumbled to myself. None of the items interested me; they weren’t as attractive as last year’s. I decided, I’ll walk around the table, anyway. People may just think I couldn’t make up my mind. So, I heavily stood from my chair and moseyed on – to the restroom instead.

I took my sweet time to come back to the dinner table. And there they were, steaming fat legs, claws and pompous heads, with everyone smiling over them, oohing and aahing but not endeavoring to reach first, just as if the crab pieces would melt if anyone dared touch. The crabs tantalizingly smelled like the sea. I solemnly sat in royal fashion, straight back and head held high, prim and proper – before I attacked. Hey, I wasn’t going to wait for the others, though my sister beside me went first. I clutched at two heads and a big fat leg. No ceremonials here. Cracked the thin head shells and started to pull white meat from the enclaves and shoved it to my watering mouth. I almost forgot the bottle of organic apple cider vinegar I brought; opened it and poured some into a small cup, before passing the bottle around. My neighbors thankfully accepted the vinegar and drizzled it directly on their crab pieces. Our table reeked of the sweet-sour aroma of vinegar. No one cared. With that, we ate more crabs, bowls were quickly emptied, and more filled bowls came. The mindless chatter before the crabs came quieted down to grunts of satisfaction and soft gripes of “I’m so full, but I want some more”. The heads and claws kept coming.

At what point does one make the decision to stop eating? The temptation of food is strong, especially if it’s right in front of you. The mind is willing to continue to eat, but the body gives up. At this point, the body forces the decision. Everyone at my table stopped practically the same time. Contentedly smiling at each other, we relaxed and sat back on our chairs — and I imagined, we were smug, shy of scratching our bloated bellies and dozing off for a quick nap. We all snubbed the dessert, a yellow cake with cream filling in between layers. The piece looked sweet and pretty in a saucer, but the attraction was for naught. We were awefully stuffed. Except a young man in his late 20’s seated almost across from me. He stopped eating an hour before we did. We suspected he was trying to stay slim for his groom’s attire for a wedding scheduled next month. That, or he didn’t want to shock his bride to-be with extra pounds and puffy cheeks when he travels to the Philippines in a few weeks to be with her. Or, he just wasn’t as crazy about crabs as we were. That was just fine with us – more crabs for us to finger pick.

The surprise of the evening – no leftover crabs to sell by the bags, unlike in previous years. Someone yelled from the kitchen to a line of eager customers –“Sorry, no more crabs!”

Guess what! I wasn’t sorry at all. There’s another “all you can eat” crab dinner in three weeks to be sponsored by my brother-in-law’s Knights of Columbus council. I told my sister, pass by for me please, I’m going!

Linda P. Jacob