I was 16 when I began college as well as started working. At the time, I had no support from my parents, and thus, no choice in either decision: I needed to attend the state university in Chapel Hill, because the tuition was cheap, and earn money for expenses, because no one had any money to stake me. I lived a few miles from the nearest Golden Corral, and when I went there in search of employment, management took my work permit and handed me an apron. The next three years of my life were set in stone — nothing but lecture classes and the buffet, and without the latter, I couldn’t have passed the former. I was starving and desperate, and the sustenance provided by the Corral kept me from destitution.
I cannot begin to explain how lonely this period of life was. I lived with roommates who came and went, and I had no social life of which to speak. In order of importance, my priorities were the gym, the Golden Corral and school. I skipped classes to work extra shifts. If I felt my bank balance was sufficient to get me through the week, I’d try to skip work to complete extra workouts at the gym. An insistent voice in the back of my mind urged me to build mass, even if this mass would be utterly useless, because the alternative was embodying the weakness that my father despised.
The food at the Golden Corral became the hub of the wheel around which my life turned — it was, I thought, the only conceivable way I could get paid to consume the mass quantities needed to build a massive self. I started on the cash register and then waited tables, but these were poor vehicles for maximizing consumption. Still, new habits developed. I learned to surreptitiously sneak into the bakery and squeeze two or three rolls into my mouth, easing them down my throat with a big gulp of lukewarm water. I grabbed chicken fingers and french fries whenever they appeared in the order window, reasoning that guests wouldn’t miss one or two of these treats. And since I frequently closed the store and attempted to clean the horrifically smelly lines of the ice cream machine — for heaven’s sake, never drink ice from an ice machine or serve yourself ice cream from an ice cream machine — I would seize the bags of sweetened ice milk that hooked to the lines and drink from them as if they were huge canteens.
This was just the beginning, too. I’ve been told that personal narratives aren’t intrinsically interesting, but my Corral-abetted diet from 1999 to 2002 was sui generis — an introspective journey deep into the heart of my guts. And once I got certified on the hot bar and the grill station, all bets were off. While working the hot bar, I created a number of systems for loading more calories into my body. I kept consuming my water-drenched “bread snacks,” but also started eating lard and batter “crisps” from the fryer. I took handfuls of uncooked sirloin tips and shoved them into my mouth. Eating raw meat in general became an important focus, since I believed I was training myself to develop a “cast-iron stomach” like the pro wrestler Pepper Gomez, one of my father’s favorite grapplers from the 1970s.
The weekends were my game days, as I’d try to work a long enough shift to eat from the breakfast, lunch and dinner rotations. On Saturdays and Sundays, I always signed up for the early-morning shift so that I could make the omelets and the imitation “krab” salad. For the omelets, I’d be situated in front of a few gas-powered ranges and given numerous quarts of liquid egg and bowls filled with toppings like bacon and green onions.
Unlike my customers from the local megachurches, the majority of whom demanded that their eggs be “hard” or “extra well done,” I’d take big swigs from the liquid egg quarts and gargle them with toppings from the bowls. The “krab” salad was prepared in a large plastic container, into which it was dumped from its airtight plastic packaging and mixed with Miracle Whip and green onions. Often, as I kneaded the “krab” from lump into strings, I would take hunks of the stuff and eat it. Usually I was wearing gloves, but the daredevil side of me seemed to enjoy the preparation all the more when I wasn’t. YOLO, I suppose.
I saw my co-workers more frequently than I did friends and relatives, and I grew quite close to them. I worked hard, harder than I have at any job since, and they respected me for that, but mostly they respected me for how much I could eat in a single sitting. The majority of the workers on the hot bar and in the bakery were immigrants from Central America and Eastern Europe, and something about the way I devoured these mountains of food pleased them the same way that eating three sleeves of Oreos had impressed my maternal grandfather, also an immigrant. “That fat boy can eat better than any hog,” Grandpa Stechly would boast to my parents after they’d returned from a weekend away to pick me up, and the admiration of my fellow employees arose from a similar place.
For a solitary person who neither dated nor even socialized much, it felt nice to be appreciated for something, even if that something had nothing to do with history or journalism, my college majors, or any of the ostensibly deep thoughts I believed myself to be grappling with.
Needless to say, I never required a university meal plan and rarely bought food at the grocery store or other restaurants, not that I could have afforded to anyway. In fact, my food budget has been an utter disaster ever since, given that one of any item is too many and a million isn’t nearly enough. What good is a pint of ice cream when I used to be able to drink a gallon of watery ice cream from the bag? Why should I be satisfied with a small slice of premium cheesecake when I used to devour those crappy Jell-O-style instant cheesecakes two or three at a time, sometimes stacked one atop the other? Who on earth could eat only five or six halfway decent-tasting scratch-made biscuits and call it a day? Even today, Costco is a personal necessity; its oversized portions strike me as sensible meals.
“Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be filled” is a line from CCD to which I often returned during this college-age period of absurd hunger, insatiable hunger, sacred hunger. It seemed to me that everyone I encountered at the Golden Corral arrived hungry, each of us starving in our own way. And the hunger was satisfied differently depending on the person: One guest could eat a couple of hot rolls and be full, while another would need to eat an entire extra-well ribeye steak with “double ketchup” and “burnt fries.” A few customers would have already rushed to the Corral bathroom, which I cleaned in a decidedly half-assed way a few times a day, and begun to feel better after relieving themselves, while others would hold it in and hope that everything remained in place until they get home.
But me? I hadn’t really been properly filled up, even once. Nor had I ever thrown up due to an upset stomach. I, who had eaten so much that I lost the count and sequence of it, remained hungrier than anyone else in this world.
Not long after graduating in 2001, I left the Golden Corral and went to work for Abercrombie & Fitch. There, at age 19, I slowly began to lurch into adulthood, still empty inside but now without easy access to the foods that had kept my hunger pangs at bay and my anxiety to a minimum. As the years passed, I began to think — isn’t life but an intermittent fast for our starved souls? Like everyone else, I’ll die sometime, and I know I’ll die hungry, without ever having had a satisfying meal in my life. And I’ll approach the life-giving force at the heart of the universe, a “God” or some such thing, through the Golden Corral buffet line.
That “God” will ask me if I found everything okay, if everything tasted alright, and I’ll just stand there silent, with the muteness familiar to anyone who has nothing to say to these nervous, over-eager fast-food managers so desperate to find out if you’re going to demand your money back.