If you’ve ever been to one of the all-you-can-eat buffets that dot the Lancaster County tourist landscape, you know it’s hard to leave hungry. “Smorgasbord” feels like the perfect word here.

shady-maple-smorgasbord-outsideA recent article at eater.com takes us inside three Lancaster smorgasbords: Bird-In-Hand Family Restaurant, Miller’s, and the big daddy of them all, Shady Maple, which seats up to 1,200 people and boasts over 100,000 square feet of eating space.

I thought this was a good description of the kind of chow you get in these places:

“In Lancaster County we have this lingo where we talk about the seven sweets and seven sours,” Smucker says. “We love butter and we love sugar — white sugar, brown sugar, it doesn’t matter.” This penchant for butter and sugar comes from the region’s rich dairy roots and its residents’ love for baking and preserving. The menu here is fiercely sweet, sour when it needs to be, and meaty. Potato and macaroni salads are sweetened to the verge of dessert territory, while pickled red beets and chow-chow, a green tomato and cabbage relish, balance out plates of “broasted” (breaded and pressure-fried) chicken and dairy-rich creamed corn with a welcome hit of acidity.

Amid the more standard PA Dutch fare like hot bacon dressing and chicken pot pie, I came across one I hadn’t had before: Amish caviar. This is described as “a rarely seen regional specialty of cream cheese topped with more-sweet-than-spicy red pepper preserves.”

Usually, if I’m visiting Lancaster County, I stay with Amish friends, so eat whatever they put on the table (and they’ve never put Amish caviar on the table, or if they did, didn’t call it that).

It is often the type of hearty farm fare you’d think of as traditionally Amish or PA Dutch (scrapple, casserole, chipped beef gravy, etc.), but could also be pizza or Mexican-influenced dishes, which are also popular among Amish.

But I’ve been to two of these places, once for breakfast, and another time for dinner. I wasn’t blown away, but it’s hard to really mess up an all-you-can-eat buffet, since the point is really variety–and quantity.

The blessing and curse of all-you-can-eat 

I have a love-hate relationship with these buffets, and really any all-you-can-eat place.

I’m a variety eater, and never happier than when I have a dozen different items to sample.

But inevitably in my enthusiasm I take a few bites too many–before my brain has caught up to put on the brakes so to speak–and my waistline feels it the rest of the afternoon.

The abundance of choice is just too enticing. You don’t want to leave anything untried. In this scenario, even just a little bit of everything adds up to a lot.

I also think the “getting your money’s worth” mentality can be harmful in this situation. In the article one of the establishment’s chefs is described as asking customers if they had gotten enough to eat ($23.95 is the price tag at this place).

If I was paying that much for a meal, I’d be motivated to pack away a lot of food. It changes the approach to eating from one of savoring dishes to one of quantity consumption.

shady-maple-desserts-and-pies

I do not know if all-you-can-eat is a strictly American phenomenon, but I haven’t seen much of this in Europe or in other countries I’ve visited. We tend to do everything bigger. And all-you-can-eat is a symbol of the abundance we enjoy.

One person who is not a fan is William Woys Weaver, a food historian and author (see here for our interview with Weaver on PA Dutch cuisine). As Weaver tells eater.com, “People coming to Lancaster with their binoculars looking for Amish have to eat [something].”

But these eateries are a firmly-ensconced part of the landscape in Lancaster County, where millions of tourists come each year to visit Amish Country. In fact the trend dates to the 1960s, when tourism was already well-established.

There are alternatives for Amish Country visitors looking for a culinary experience, sometimes including the possibility of a meal in an Amish home, though that takes a little more legwork to arrange.

What do you think about all-you-can-eat places? Ever been to one in Amish Country? Any favorites?

Image credits: Shady Maple exterior- Maria Young; dessert buffet – buddhakiwi/flickr