We're supposed to be bewildered by the decadence of it all. And I was.
Mashed potatoes floating in a pond of shimmering melted butter. Gravy made lumpy with giblets or, well, something. A pan of green beans that made me wonder if it were the only dish that didn't contain meat. And the cook who moments later placed a softball-size rump of meat atop said green beans. Succulent and flavorful slices of meatloaf with a layer of runny cheese atop them. Fried green tomatoes that were more fried batter than tomato. The sight of people queued up 30- and 40-deep at 4 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. Patrons carrying loaded plates that only a farmboy or marathon runner would be able to consume without mainlining fat right to their guts and rumps. Those same plates, wiped clean save for bones and gristle, with abandon.
The site of this countrified cornucopia is the Paula Deen Buffet, which opened in early September at the Horseshoe Southern Indiana Casino & Hotel amid a blitz of advertising featuring its celebrity namesake, dropping “Y'alls” right and left as if they were pats of butter on a country biscuit. Deen is the reigning doyenne of Southern cooking, made prominent by her ubiquitous presence on the Food Network — four shows, starting with “Paula's Home Cooking” — and the magazine Cooking With Paula Deen. There is also a line of cookware and packaged baked goods. Even before the marketing machine found her, Deen's restaurant, The Lady & Sons in Savannah, Ga., was considered a mecca for down-home country cooking. She is so archetypal that when Cameron Crowe was casting about for a genuine country-cooking gal to play the gloomy protagonist's Kentucky-fried auntie in the 2005 film “Elizabethtown,” the search more or less began and ended with Deen.
Which in part explains the long lines at the Paula Deen Buffet. With her perfectly styled gray hair, broad smile and steely blue eyes, Deen is the living embodiment of the boisterous Southern grandma, at least for white middle-class America — and her food is an extension of her persona.
Most Kentuckiana residents have to work to get to the Paula Deen Buffet. The Horseshoe is a good half-hour drive from most parts of Louisville. There, you'll pay $19.99 for the privilege of eating buffet versions of Deen's recipes, and depending on the time of day, you might have to stand in line for another 90 minutes before there's a plate in your hand.
The food is tasty, for sure, but also loaded with stuff that makes a cardiologist grimace. So, of course, receipts at the Paula Deen Buffet have skyrocketed compared with the space's previous occupant, the less interesting Villa Buffet.
The Paula Deen Buffet is pricey compared with blue-collar buffets like Golden Corral and Hometown Buffet, and it's harder to get to. So why all the fuss? In a region with such a well-regarded dining scene, why is a carbo-loaded casino buffet the talk of town?
Perhaps the better question is: Why did it take so long?
“These are the foods we grew up with,” said Andrew F. Smith, a food writer who teaches culinary history at The New School in New York City.
Meatloaf. Mashed potatoes. Vegetables drenched in butter. Gooey macaroni and cheese.
“In the 1950s, it's what our parents could afford, and it brings back memories of times that seemed less complicated, at least for me,” Smith said. “And for my parents, it brings back memories of the Depression and when families were closer together. It reminds us of mother and family and the good times we had. This is one of the things food does for us — it reminds us.”
The Paula Deen Buffet is a study in comfort food, and nostalgia is what comfort food is all about. Remembrance of a time when big tasty dishes were the family's consolation after a long day of work or school, calories and fat be damned. In these health-conscious times, we practice a mean game of cognitive dissonance when we make merry with hoe cakes with honey butter and red velvet cupcakes.
“It's a butter explosion,” said Aimee Conrad-Hill, who came to the Paula Deen Buffet despite being on a diet. “I figured it would have a ton of butter. I'm on Weight Watchers, but I didn't even bother counting.”
Such is the power of this thing.
“Yeah, we blew our diets,” said Conrad-Hill's buffet partner, Katie Owen. “The mashed potatoes — you could see the butter, a layer of it on top.”
Was this said in admiration or out of deep concern for the nation's cardiovascular health? Maybe both. They were going back for more.
The renovation required to create the 525-seat Paula Deen Buffet cost $3.4 million, and so far the switch has paid off — according to the Horseshoe, the buffet has attracted an average of 702 more people per day to the casino. The Villa Buffet was out of place anyway — the vaguely Roman-themed restaurant was tailored to the casino's original Caesars Palace motif, abandoned in 2008 for the more folksy Horseshoe theme. And few celebrities today say folksy better than Paula Deen.
“This is probably the most exciting change we've had here since our re-branding,” said Eileen Moore, general manager of Horseshoe Southern Indiana. “Her fans are extraordinarily rabid, and her brand represents value, which is important in these times. And also comfort. Paula talks about it all the time — the sitting on the porch while eating grandma's pie. That's the biggest piece — comfort.”
Comfort, yes. But, again, this overlooks the uncomfortable fact that a hungry man could probably double the recommended 2,000-calorie-a-day diet with three well-strategized plates.
Moore calls the Paula Deen Buffet “destination dining.” Because of the distance and cost, this probably won't replace Applebee's as a family of four's go-to dinner option.
“She definitely uses butter, but it fills you up and it's savory,” said Moore, who seemed obligated to address the whole butter issue. “That's the thing I like about the food — it's filling.”
I suppose I, too, was a destination diner on my recent visit to the Paula Deen Buffet. But after driving 40 minutes from my Germantown home and spending $40 for two diners, I wasn't planning on stopping when my stomach signaled that it was full.
After the long walk from the parking lot, past the card games and slot machines, you reach the entrance to the buffet, which corrals you in the same snaking way that theme parks corral you as you wait to get on the roller coaster. On this Sunday afternoon the line was made up mostly of middle-aged people and seniors, and as excited as I've ever seen an adult about eating at a restaurant. A trio of gray-haired ladies had their photos taken with a life-size cutout of Deen next to the entrance.
The friendly hostess walked us to a table near the dessert section — a bad move, which I'll explain later — and told us our friendly server would bring our drinks.
After a visit to the salad bar — really? — the true adventure started with the next plate. I wanted to at least sample just about everything — an unachievable goal, it turns out — and so I started piling things onto my plate. Thick french fries and dry but tasty barbecue ribs. A sticky mass of yellowish orange mac and cheese. Perhaps the juiciest chicken wing I've ever had. A sweet slice of country ham. Plain but hearty baked beans. Oh, and sweet potatoes, too. From there, I went on to the meatloaf, which would have been excellent even without the inexplicable coat of melted cheese. I sampled salty fried green tomatoes and a runny serving of potpie. Still not done, I enjoyed gravy almost as thick as the mashed potatoes it covered. Fried and grilled chicken. A juicy slice of beef roast — I asked for a small piece, and it was almost an inch thick.
I began to feel woozy. I never even got to the seafood — oysters, shrimp cocktail and such. But was I done? No. I managed to inhale a moist, rich slice of carrot cake. And a slice of thick cheesecake, too. (What? I couldn't decide.)
Like most things touristy, the Paula Deen Buffet exits through a gift shop. I browsed the knickknacks, Christmas ornaments, coffee mugs, cookbooks and T-shirts with country-kitchen witticisms like “You're the Mac to My Cheese” and “Fried Chicken Mama.” The Paula Deen cookware was sold out. Outside the cozy store was a host of rocking chairs — the better to aid digestion — and a display of Paula Deen furniture.
The cult of Paula Deen gathers in legions at the Horseshoe. Moore said Deen has visited the complex five times this year — including a stopover to check out the Savannah-inspired dining room, another to confer with the restaurant's team of chefs and a couple of trips to play in the casino like any other guest, albeit a famous one.
“She's a gambler,” Moore said. “We take good care of her, of course.”
And lest anyone forget, that's why we're all here.
There are now six casinos within driving distance of Emily Robbins' home, but she and her family chose the Horseshoe because of Paula Deen.
“I'm a fan,” said Robbins, who came with her husband, Dan, and their children. “I like the Southern style. It makes me think of my grandmother's food. … It's not very good for you, but once in a while it's OK.”
The big gaming companies like Harrah's Entertainment, which owns the Horseshoe and some 50 other casinos around the world, don't expect to make money from buffets like this one, explained The New School's Smith.
But it's more than a loss-leader.
“Their goal is to drive you into the casino — and that's where they make their money,” Smith said. “And it's high-carb food. And I'm sure there are plenty of desserts, too. [Editor's note: Yes, there are.] This is physiological — you get a high. In Las Vegas, the idea is to give you a high before you go back to gambling.”
So guess who went onto the game room and gambled for a bit after the three-plate (plus salad and two desserts) diet disaster?
When you consider how Horseshoe's target audience always seemed to be as much middle-class suburbanites as “Ocean's 11”-style high rollers, the Paula Deen Buffet seems like a brilliant calculation.
“It uses a name that carries recognition as quality, so it has a certain cachet,” said Smith, who hasn't tried the buffet, but wants to. “Paula Deen is obviously a top celebrity chef in the food world. And she's homespun, as opposed to haute cuisine. She makes simple food that tastes good, and I think that can be attractive. You couldn't do a Wolfgang Puck buffet.”
After I got home, I fell asleep in a chair watching football. Just after midnight, I awoke to the most painful rumbling that ever emanated from my gut.
It has been said that I possess a cast-iron stomach. My family has watched in amazement as I've gone back for thirds on Thanksgiving, singlehandedly devoured a large pizza and nibbled a cheese tray into extinction. The Paula Deen Buffet is the most food I'd consumed in a single setting, though, and I'd never suffered so for a meal. Or, well, three meals.
Comfort food can be painful, too.
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