The Old Country Buffet Was My Immigrant Father's American Dream
Illustration by Adam Waito

The Old Country Buffet Was My Immigrant Father's American Dream

He saw the abundance of the Old Country Buffet as a symbol of his success, proof that he had transcended his old identity as a poor immigrant.
August 30, 2018, 9:33pm

Going out to dinner at the Old Country Buffet in Seattle meant a big night out for my dad and me. By his own admission, he’s not a very good cook. He can only prepare two dishes, both memories of his childhood in Jakarta, where his family lived before they immigrated to the United States by way of Holland: babi kecap, a garlicky pork dish simmered in ketjap medja (an Southeast Asian variation on soy sauce also called kecap manis) and gado-gado, a salad of cucumber and tofu topped with peanut sauce. He never insisted that I eat Indonesian food, though, only occasionally preparing babi kecap for dinner. After all, he had come to America to live like an American. That meant indulging in a certain amount of gluttony, a virtue in his mind when it came to eating.

His view of food was, and still is, admirably uncomplicated: Protein reigns supreme, therefore healthy bodies should take in a nightly serving of protein-rich red meat or fish. He obsessed over the food groups at the dinner table. There should be three different but complementary sections of food on your plate: a small pile of vegetables (frozen corn or Brussel sprouts, which he dumped into a bowl, and microwaved with at least three pats of butter before serving), a carbohydrate like French fries or rice, and a slab of meat. And nowhere was this philosophy made quite so literal than at the Old Country Buffet.

When you walked in the door, all you had to do was pay the host at the front counter something like $11 to be granted an all-access pass to stations piled high with thoroughly American food: Main courses included roast beef, fish like halibut and salmon, baked chicken, pork chops, and steak if you got lucky. Greasy heaps of mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, and green beans and corn that had a suspiciously similar texture to the bagged stuff Dad nuked at home could be found at a nearby station. The platter of hot dinner rolls, still stuck together in a neat square, had a glossy sheen. Globs of congealed sauce stuck to the meat, dried out from hours under a heat lamp. I may have only been eight or nine at the time, but even then I suspected that the food could not possibly be as healthy as my father insisted it was.

We filled plastic tumblers with water or soda and sat together in a booth; there were no waiters, but we sometimes stayed seated until the crowds around the trays thinned a little. While we waited, I wasn’t allowed to drink my beverage, lest I ruin my appetite. Once we served ourselves, I stubbornly picked at my food in silence, upset that I had no say in where or what we got to eat. Growing up in American, I looked down on the Old Country Buffet as place for people in need of charity, while he saw such bountiful food at such a low price as a luxury. Though I never said it out loud, I felt like my father was forcing us to eat there because he was cheap, and that he was intentionally depriving of us of the experiences of normal families, who ate at regular restaurants with waitresses.

To be honest, my father can be cheap, and often when it comes to dining out. As long as I have been alive, he has refused to tip waiters, an insufferable trait that has occasionally called for a clandestine mission to an ATM so that I could sneak the staff their due while he used the bathroom. Once, when my mother was in the final trimester of her pregnancy with me, she took him to a nice restaurant. He opened the menu, then abruptly got up and left. “I couldn’t stomach spending $70 on one meal. That seemed a bit extravagant,” he told me.

He has a good reason to spend his money cautiously. One of the few details that my father has divulged about his early childhood is that his family was so poor that his mother fed the children Spam out of a can for days at a time. By the time he made his way to America, joined the Army, earned two Masters' degrees, and bought the two-story house in the quiet Seattle suburb where he raised me, he certainly didn’t have to eat Spam anymore. But he still saw the abundance of the Old Country Buffet as a symbol of his success, a sign that he had transcended his old identity as a poor immigrant and become a valued American citizen.

My father had worked unimaginably hard to leave behind those days of hunger. It wouldn’t be a Michelin-star restaurant that symbolized his ultimate assimilation into American culture, but the Old Country Buffet, where food was bountiful, where no pangs of hunger could be felt, and every craving could be satisfied. He didn’t see the Old Country Buffet as lowbrow. I think he saw it as a symbol of wealth, a uniquely American indulgence he happily participated in, perhaps to prove to himself that food no longer had to be rationed but could be enjoyed with careless abandon.

When I talked to my dad about those outings recently, he surprised me. “We had fun there,” he insisted. “You liked it because you got to eat ice cream.” He also reiterated his belief that the Old Country Buffet served “nutritious” food, recalling how he’d heaped fish on his plate, for the protein. “You were my right-hand man at the time. You never raised any objections about eating there,” he told me. “But you were adamant about the type of food you ate. You hated fish, but you liked broccoli. Afterward we’d rent your favorite movie at the time, Last of the Mohicans, and watch it at home.”

I hadn’t been very fair to my dad back then. It never even occurred to him that I wasn’t enjoying myself in that food paradise. I think he tried to form a secret pact with me that I would never go hungry on those outings. To him, America signifies a life with filled with choice. Roast beef or steak, mashed potatoes or mac and cheese, or maybe both—whatever I wanted, I could have. That was his American dream, which he passed on to me, come to life in the Old Country Buffet.