Last year was a rough one for my family. On Thanksgiving, my parents and I found ourselves in Minneapolis as my grandmother was recovering from surgery. As we searched for a place to eat lunch, my Dad announced that he would go anywhere that offered turkey and gravy. Some stuffing would be nice, too. This place ended up being Old Country Buffet.
OCB, as it is affectionately known in my family, is a buffet-style restaurant that is often the butt of all-you-can eat jokes, but it holds a special place in my heart. We went here a lot when I was a kid because it was affordable, it was filling, and the inevitable carb-induced food comas would guarantee my parents a peaceful ride home from my brothers and me. We visited the restaurant frequently during my older brother’s teenage “bottomless pit” years and my little brother once received a round of applause from dessert-loving patrons when, at six years old, he miraculously repaired the broken soft serve ice cream machine.
We pulled into the parking lot and the fluorescent lights of the dining room beckoned through the frosted glass windows. Once inside, the dewy iceberg lettuce winked at us from the salad bar and the cubes of red Jell-O quivered in anticipation. But something about this OCB was different, and it wasn’t just the cheerful staff and the immaculate restrooms.
We had walked into the United Nations of Thanksgiving. Women in gold-threaded saris went back for second helpings of sweet potatoes. Somali families conversed over bland mac and cheese. Kids speaking Spanish laughed as they threw bread rolls at each other. Multiple generations sat together discussing how thankful they were to not be in a kitchen on this holiday. It was one of the most effortlessly integrated places that I’ve ever been, so much so that it almost seemed staged, like a brochure for a liberal arts college.
A sense of comfort and ease and community permeated the room, like the steam rising from the warming trays beneath the tubs of mixed veggies. In this space, we were all Americans. After all, what is more American than enormous vats of mashed potatoes, slabs of ham sweating under heat lamps and barrels of all-you-can-eat chocolate pudding? We were in the land of plenty – and that land was covered in cranberry sauce.
In our current political climate, with potential policy decisions based on hate, racism and fear mongering, this memory is especially poignant because at the end of the day, we all just want to sit around a dinner table with our families, whether they’re biological or of our own design. We want them together and we want them safe. And what stuffing has brought together, let no man tear asunder.