Feeding Time!

Behind the scenes at the world's biggest buffet.

Amish buffet
If Ohio is the heartland, the little towns of Holmes County surely make up its aorta -- the broad artery through which midwestern values pump. Even the names sound sturdy and wholesome: Millersburg, Mt. Hope, Winesburg, and Walnut Creek. And as asylum for the world's largest remaining settlement of Amish farmers, the county's very air seems to hold the promise of down-home comestibles and country-style dinners, finished off with slabs of shoofly pie.

Contemporary reality, it turns out, is considerably less romantic. Much like a working-class version of Napa Valley, Amish country has been transformed over the past decade from a low-key day trip to a major tourist destination, where millions of visitors clog narrow highways and make two-block "downtowns" look like Saturday morning at Trader Joe's. At the same time, pastoral farmland has given way to enterprise -- sprawling cheese houses, "Swiss heritage" wineries, and warehouse-sized furniture stores, their vast, gray parking lots choked with chartered buses.

Authentic country dining has been similarly co-opted. In place of true mom-and-pop eateries, enormous "Amish-style" restaurants now cling to every hillside, featuring almost identical menus of stewed beef, broasted chicken, egg noodles, and mashed spuds, augmented by endless buffet tables stocked with pickled eggs and Jell-O salads.

Buffets? I hate buffets, if for no other reason than their glorification of the pernicious "quantity over quality" mentality. Yet here I am on this Saturday morning, heading toward the Holmes County Amish Flea Market in Walnut Creek -- an indoor, two-story, 100,000-square-foot complex hosting what promoters hope will go down in the record books this day as the World's Largest Buffet.

To tell you the truth, I'm going mostly because the notion seems so deliciously quirky. Even the event's origins come wrapped in a cocoon of fuzzy, homespun logic. To wit, the buffet's creator, Evelyn Wooten, had confided during a much earlier phone conversation that she got the idea from watching a TV show. "I saw that the Las Vegas Hilton had just won the Guinness World Record for the world's largest buffet, with 510 dishes, and I thought, 'Wow, everyone's always saying what great food we have down here: We ought to be the ones to have that record!'"

Wooten immediately set to work, crafting an ambitious -- if ingenuous -- plan to whup some Vegas booty. Her goals: at least 600 individual dishes and as many as 3,000 diners. Ohio Governor Ted Strickland could head up the roster of VIPs, and a Food Network personality would add a nice touch. "Like Rachael Ray," Wooten said hopefully.

Despite some early resistance, Wooten eventually persuaded her peers on the newly created Holmes County Lodging Council to hop aboard. "We didn't see this initially as something we wanted to get involved with," council prez Phillip Jenkins says today. "It's been a huge undertaking and not really something we were set up for." Finally, though, the officials relented; today, the setting is abuzz with more than 60 cheerful volunteers devoted to making the buffet a success.

Even without tracking down culinary divas, it's clear the challenges have been daunting: collecting hundreds of recipes, compiling them into a 334-page cookbook, recruiting more than 40 health-department-approved kitchens to do the cooking, transporting food to the site, organizing the vast maze of tables and steam pans, and constantly guarding against food poisoning. On that front, a worried-looking Dan Warren -- a Holmes County health inspector -- is dashing around with his instant-read thermometer. And Elaine Straley, from the Ohio Restaurant Association, has been tapped as Guinness' official counter. But even now, with hundreds of impatient guests lined up for the 11 a.m. kickoff, Jenkins and Shasta Mast, director of the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Bureau, hedge their bets, assuring reporters that the event's real goal is to raise money for the county's food pantry, not necessarily to break the Vegas record.

At this point, of course, those in the crowd don't give a hoot where their $11 ticket is going; they just want to sink their choppers into some grub. Finally, a few minutes past the appointed hour, County Commissioner Dave Hall offers some mercifully brief remarks, clangs the dinner bell, and the feeding frenzy begins. Two hefty sisters from Brewster and Killbuck lead the charge, each wielding three Styrofoam plates that soon start sagging beneath the weight of yeast rolls, Hawaiian meatballs, and banana pudding.

We count 16 soups, 14 flavors of angel food cake, scores of cookies, and 24 pies. There's biscuits 'n' gravy, along with barbecued beans, multiple versions of corn pudding, and several variations on apple crisp. And as a sort of carb-intensive anchor, pan after pan of buttered noodles, cheesy pastas, and Johnny Marzettis spread out almost as far as the eye can see.

Other pans, though, contain UFOs: unidentifiable food-like objects. An earlier plan to mount ID cards near each dish, with its name and ingredients, has been abandoned due to time constraints; as a result, the mysterious brown and green concoctions could be just about anything. This state of affairs does not improve with the passage of time. Before 1 p.m., some of the dishes offer all the eye appeal of Route 83 roadkill.

Plus, the meat is disappearing. The scrumptious-looking fried chicken is gone by 11:40. Roast beef is history by noon. "This was a helluva long way to come for beans," grumbles one old-timer, as he chisels bits of meat loaf off the bottom of an aluminum pan. Finally, by 3:30 -- with hundreds of people still in line -- carnivores are completely out of luck. To compensate, volunteers begin giving away copies of the event's $15 cookbook; nonetheless, nearly 50 pissed-off diners eventually demand their money back.

Jenkins admits that planning could have been better. Also, several restaurants pulled out at the last minute, knocking the food count out off kilter. But the biggest culprit, all agree, has been gluttony, exacerbated by the fact that until relatively late in the day, eager-to-please organizers do little to stop conspicuous overconsumption, merely watching in polite astonishment as diners pile up plate after plate -- and even tray after tray -- with gobs and gobs of food.

Disturbing ethical issues aside, as a PR stunt, the buffet's been da bomb: Organizers sold more than 2,000 tickets and dozens of cookbooks, and many of the local inns, hotels, and B&Bs have been booked solid for the night.

When we next run into Jenkins, it's that evening at the Inn at Honey Run, where he's been general manager and innkeeper for five years. During his tenure, Jenkins has added art, fine furnishings, and top-quality appointments to his serene, woodsy domain far off the main drags, and, with encouragement from small-ag advocate and former Cleveland chef Parker Bosley, has taken the first steps toward turning the Inn's airy restaurant into a showcase for Ohio's homegrown foods.

"We broke the record!" Jenkins announces, with a look somewhere between delight and exhaustion. "The unofficial count was 547 dishes!"

The final tally of donations to the food pantry will have to wait several more weeks, till organizers settle up with suppliers. But Jenkins says that in terms of community-building, the World's Largest Buffet has been a blockbuster.

As for the food, he's a little less ebullient. "Personally, I don't care for buffets," he says with a wink. Then he heads into his dining room to schmooze.

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