What Exactly Is Fresh About Furr's Fresh Buffet?

Doesn't look so bad upon first glance, does it?
Doesn't look so bad upon first glance, does it?
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt

This is not my week.

First, I gave in to curiosity and tried a McRib after 32 years of pointedly ignoring the restructured pork product and discovered firsthand the troubling McRib Paradox: People who turn their noses up at offal will happily consume pork hearts, tripe and scalded stomach blended with azodicarbonamide, ammonium sulfate and ethoxylated mono- and diglycerides if McDonald's slathers it in barbecue sauce.

And then, I ate at a Furr's Fresh Buffet. I'm not quite sure, days later, what I was thinking. I blame the McRib haze. But I was tired and heading into an exhausting holiday weekend in which my boyfriend and I drove to three different cities and visited four different families in four days. And thanks to Houston traffic, the first leg of the trip -- to Granbury -- saw us drive approximately seven miles in one hour. I am not exaggerating.

So by the time we made it to Spring from our downtown apartment, we'd been on the road for two hours. Both of us were suddenly starving. And there it was: a cute sign for Furr's Fresh Buffet, which seemed to indicate a refreshed version of the old Furr's Cafeterias so many Texans grew up with.

My boyfriend stocked up on his yearly supply of starches and carbohydrates.
My boyfriend stocked up on his yearly supply of starches and carbohydrates.

Emboldened by a recent experience with Golden Corral that turned out "exceptionally well," according to him, my boyfriend suggested we give it a try. "It'll be cheap and fast," he reasoned. "And if Golden Corral was good, this'll probably be great."

Logical fallacies. They'll get you every time.

Instead, what I found at Furr's Fresh Buffet was the affirmation of three life truths I've found irrefutable:

1) It is incredibly easy to mess up macaroni and cheese. This is a deceptively difficult dish to master.

2) Conversely, it seems that no one -- no matter how poorly intentioned -- can mess up a batch of fried okra. This is a no-brainer.

3) Americans have a love-streak the size of William Howard Taft for beige-colored food, something which will likely contribute greatly to our eventual downfall. The Roman Empire had barbarian invasions and economic instability; we have drone strikes and diabetes.

Aside from one pitiful-looking container of steamed spinach that sat untouched, there is very little that is "fresh" here -- as in a fresh fruit or vegetable. Everywhere you look on the various steam tables that comprise Furr's "fresh buffet" are foods in varying shades of brown, taupe, chamois, fawn, khaki, ecru and occasionally something approaching the yellow-orange end of the spectrum: macaroni and cheese, for instance, or an alarmingly sugar-laden "sweet carrot casserole" that my boyfriend literally spit out in disgust.

Can you identify the items on this plate?
Can you identify the items on this plate?

Between his embarrassing food-spitting incident and the fact that the two of us were prowling relentlessly around the steam tables in search of something quasi-edible to eat, I think that Furr's management was triggered to the idea that outsiders were roaming their pasture. We were quarry soon.

All around us, tables of families crowded in and crowed happily over their meals. One older couple admonished the waitress who initially tried to seat them at a table near ours: "Why here?! We're too far away from the food!" The waitress acquiesced and moved them to a four-top located directly next to the steam table that held both chicken-fried steak and taco meat.

We, meanwhile, poked and prodded at various dishes in their steam baths and conferred in hushed voices each time one of us came back to the table with a fresh kill. "This is a salmon patty," I noted of the dark brown puck that tasted mostly of fryer oil. My country-style potatoes tasted like dried sage had spilled into the vat; my liver and onions tasted like licking a greasy battery. "What did you get?"

"This is apparently fish," my boyfriend replied. Of what species, we could not determine. It tasted like a wharf and I forced myself to gulp it down it mostly unchewed, so as not to replicate the sweet carrot casserole display. His chicken-fried steak was too salty to eat, the baked chicken too dry to swallow. A baked potato he'd grabbed was uncooked inside, but its jacket had puffed up and peeled away from the flesh of the potato like the skin of a corpse bloated from days' worth of accumulated gases and bodily fluids.

The salad bar -- the one buffet table that held anything outside the limited brown-to-yellow color spectrum -- was tattered and mean looking, the lettuce leaves limp and the toppings scant. I'd seen happier-looking salad bars in hospital cafeterias. The only vegetable I consumed that night in any great quantity were a few spoonfuls of that fried okra, tasting the same way as it does anywhere that serves frozen, battered okra.

I noted with interest a few carving stations towards the back, but the men hacking off grim bits of roast beef looked even less interested in being there than we were. They hunkered resolutely behind their stations, chopping with long strokes as though they were working on a chain gang.

Even the dessert stations held no consolation. A frozen yogurt swirl that slobbered out into my plastic cup tasted of aspartame and fake vanilla. A lumpy, oily slice of Millionaire Pie possibly turned me off the Southern classic for life. And I couldn't bear the thought of trying the cake that squatted beneath a confusingly honest sign: "Artificial Chocolate Cake (contains garbled-sounding chemical I can't remember)."

Because I didn't recognize the name of the chemical on the sign -- and because I was amused by its candor -- I snuck my cell phone out of my pocket to take a quick picture of it. The phone was no more than waist high when one of the Furr's managers stopped me. I'd felt his eyes on me all evening, and I was caught flat-footed.

The only picture of the restaurant I got before I was busted.
The only picture of the restaurant I got before I was busted.

"Can I help you?" he asked with all the grace of a Vegas pit boss. His eyes never met mine, but stayed firmly on my cell phone, in case there were any questions about why he was stopping me. He tapped his foot impatiently as he glared, awaiting my response. I had none.

"Just...uh...trying to decide what dessert to get." He wasn't buying it. I turned tail and scurried off.

I've been kicked out of nicer joints than Furr's for taking photos before (and very nearly kicked out of a Korean grocery store, a Marshall's and the Mi Tienda in Pasadena), but the policy itself never ceases to amaze me. Nowhere is it posted that you can't take photos, but many restaurants and grocery stores don't appreciate it -- and will very often ask you to leave, in the case of most stores -- regardless.

We were done with our "meals" anyway, so I gathered up my boyfriend. "We've been made!" I told him laughingly. "Let's blow this joint!" We left $10 cash for our beleaguered-looking waitress, who'd done a fine job of keeping our iced teas filled, and headed back out to endure the traffic on I-45.

An hour later, I was hungry again. And the only thing waiting at the end of our seven-hour trip to Granbury was a Sonic at the edge of town, the last thing open on that Friday night. The Chicago dog I ordered fell apart as I ate it, but I relished every last bite: Sure, it's made of the same terrifying stuff that goes into a McRib, but there were vegetables on top. Tomatoes. Onions. A pickle. Some sport peppers.

I discarded the quickly disintegrating bun and ate the meat and vegetables instead. No more beige; not for a long while.

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