All You Can Eat

As a child growing up in the 70s and 80s, television shaped my worldview for better or worse. My husband and I were talking about this the other day and were amazed at all the stuff we absorbed from t.v. shows and commercials.

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Television made us wish we were special: My husband wished he could break his arm like the kids on Emergency 51 because they got all the attention, my sister-in-law wished she could work in a shop like the girls on Facts of Life because they sat around chatting and doing nothing, and I wished Ricky Schroeder was my boyfriend because he was beautiful.

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Television made us feel like we were doing it all wrong: Why did my family put up the Christmas tree a month before Christmas when everyone on the t.v. specials waited until Christmas Eve? Why did we pronounce “syrup” and “orange” and “coupon” incorrectly? Why did we keep our eggs in the fridge instead of in a decorative bowl on the countertop? Why didn’t we have a live-in housekeeper?

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Television made us weird: My sister used to reenact deodorant commercials by spreading roll-on all over our bedroom mirror. I used to try to spread my peanut butter with a perfectly flat knife just like the Jif commercials. And I still catch myself wondering when I write a phone number or address on a notebook if someone would be able to rub pencil over the next page to find my whereabouts. My husband used to think cuisine meant “fancy people,” so Lean Cuisine meant “skinny fancy people.” Once when his family was enjoying a nice meal he said, “Well aren’t we a bunch of Lean Cuisines!”

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Television taught us how the world works: The smart younger sisters were always annoying and the smartalecky doctors were always the best at their job. Women ruled the business world in big shoulderpads and stay-at-home men were the Boss. We learned about eating disorders from an Afterschool Special, about rape from an episode of Little House on the Prairie (remember that creepy mime mask?), about pedophiles and acid rain from Different Strokes, but contrary to what our worried parents thought, we did not learn the facts of life from The Facts of Life. We did learn from George Clooney that there was a country called Kuwait (years later when Saddam Hussein was in the news, my first thought was, “Oh yeah, like the The Facts of Life.”)

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Television tricked us: I always used to wish my mom would buy Hamburger Helper, Manwich and Chef Boyardee instead of cooking meals from scratch and then I felt so betrayed when I actually tasted them. Kix looked like it would taste sweet and Big Red promised long-lasting freshness. And don’t even get me started about Sunny Delight.

When my husband was in elementary school his teacher said he had gone to a gourmet restaurant. “Does anyone know what ‘gourmet’ means?” My husband raised his hand and said, “Like Sizzler?” The whole class and the teacher laughed at him and he was humiliated. But I remember thinking the same thing. Sizzler commercials were always on t.v. which meant it had to be an important place to go. And anyone who watched any t.v. shows knew that steak, shrimp and lobster were about as gourmet as you could get, second only to caviar of course. And since my family never ate there but my friend’s more wealthy family did, the only explanation in my mind was that Sizzler was just too fancy for us regular folks.

Of course, looking back at old Sizzler commercials now, I don’t know how I ever got that impression since the ads were always emphasizing the restaurant’s affordability. But somehow I missed that part. In my mind I would only ever get to eat at Sizzler when I had truly arrived.

When I told my husband that eating at Sizzler was on my List and had been right from the start, he didn’t really catch my vision but was willing to support me. And he even wore a tie, because one thing I also learned from television is that you always have to wear a tie to a fancy restaurant. I wore a dress for the occasion. When I told my sister-in-law where we were going, she asked if we were pronouncing it in a stage whisper: “SIZZZZ-ler”.

When we got there, I was surprised to see that the parking lot was so crowded and even more surprised to see how long the line was. I guess I assumed that since I never eat there no one else would, which is pretty presumptuous of me.

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I was also confused by the order counter, although I shouldn’t have been. Charlie in the commercial ordered at the counter so why should I expect anything different? I guess other all-you-can-eat places do that too. But we didn’t realize until we had finished eating that you can’t tip unless you have cash on hand. I was digging through my purse for any stray quarters while my husband Googled “How to tip at Sizzler”.

Of course I had to order the steak and all-you-can-eat shrimp because that was The Thing in every commercial. That’s what makes Sizzler so very special. And I don’t even like shrimp.

When I sat down I noticed that my napkin was soaking wet and I had to ask for a new one. Then they came out to ask how I wanted my steak because they somehow missed that when I ordered. Then they brought out our meals without remembering my side so I had to ask for that too. The presentation wasn’t too pretty but the steak wasn’t bad and I could pretend the shrimp were just onion rings because with enough breading you can mask the texture of just about anything.

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But my all-you-can-eat shrimp? No one ever came and magically refilled my plate like Jodie’s in the commercial. No one even asked if I wanted more. I shouldn’t have been surprised because they didn’t refill our water either, but I felt like I had been swindled. I didn’t really want any more shrimp, but that’s not the point. They didn’t know I didn’t want any more shrimp! I had come to Sizzler with certain expectations I had harbored for over 30 years and I felt ripped off.

But I guess disappointment is just part of growing up. If my years of t.v. viewing taught me anything, it’s that when the world never seems to be living up to your dreams, you take the good, you take the bad, and what might be right for you might not be right for some. I never said I was a victim of circumstance. Maybe the world is blind or just a little unkind, don’t know. Then again, sometimes the world looks perfect, nothing to rearrange. Nights are long but I might awaken to a brand new life around the bend and who knows, I might finally get a piece of the pie.

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