Many years ago, before I crossed the desert for the first time to venture to the quintessential American City of neon and artifice, I asked an acquaintance about the buffets. He was a fan, I could immediately tell. "Mounds of shrimp as high as you can see," he exclaimed. He was speaking of the Mirage buffet, which at the time was considered by many to be among the best Las Vegas had to offer.
The Las Vegas of the early 1990s was undergoing revitalization. Change has slowed in the 15 years since, but then the era of the mega resorts was just hitting its stride. The Mirage was among the first big projects to change the urban tourist landscape of Las Vegas since Caesars Palace had been built in the mid 1960s. Before Caesars, Las Vegas Boulevard, lying just outside city lines, had been dominated by low, sprawling casinos that resembled motels (huge motels, to be sure) more than the themed environments of today.
The Mirage, like all the big resorts, has a massive buffet, aping an old Las Vegas tradition wherein "cheap food" lured in the marks. The El Rancho buffet cost $1.00 in the 1960s, competing with $2 steak and eggs and the ubiquitous $1 shrimp cocktail. The latter can still be found downtown, to sate those beckoned by a similar throwback, the $1 craps tables. Nothing stays the same in Las Vegas, at least not for long. The persistence of buffets as a cornerstone of the hotel/casino experience suggests that the lure of foodways persists-even thrives-among even the most rapid changes.
Michael Owen Jones has long advocated for a new view of American folklore as situated within the behavioral history of the American experience. In arguing for this new conception of American history, he writes:
It is an approach congenial with the writings of Dorson, who led his colleagues in folkloristics and history alike by calling attention to the existence of folklore in America and relating that folklore to experiences of people who encountered new social situations and geographical conditions. In this way, and to this extent, Dorson's work stands as model and inspiration for the writing of a history that reveals "another America," an America not of typical or atypical trends, of power relations, or of household economics but an America of common and recurrent forms of behavior by means of which people expressed their humanity, maintained their dignity, and managed to survive in the course of everyday events and ordinary encounters. (Jones 1982:50-51).
Las Vegas, as I have argued elsewhere,1 is a quintessentially American place, and the behavior we find within it also defines it as the most American of cities. Though it doesn't aspire to the ideals that Jones and Dorson advocate, Las Vegas provides insight into American behavior as a model for the American history that Jones is calling for. Observing behavior at Las Vegas buffets provides deep insight into the nature of American attitudes toward food and, more broadly, toward the American experience.
The classic Las Vegas buffet may have paled in comparison with the new, high-end version, but buffet behavior reportedly has not changed much in the last 50 years. The "old" allure of buffets was similar to that of cheap rooms or penny slots. The enticement of perceived "value" was enough to lure visitors across the desert. Once there, ideally, they would spend their "savings" on goods and services more profitable to the house. Of course, the real lure was and is Nevada's boom industry: gambling. The prospect that you may be the one who wins more than you lose is tantalizing. But in gambling, as in buffet culture, the house always has the edge. The allure of the "winner" idea is a profound one, despite all evidence within an individual's experience. You may be losing your money, but you can hear people winning around you. The gaming industry has to ratchet up the experience in a profound way to make the lure strong enough to keep the visitor coming back. …