Aspen Times Weekly: Paradise Lost | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: Paradise Lost

by Amanda Rae

AFTER ONE LAP around the International Buffet, suspicions were confirmed: We didn't come here for the food. Sure, there would be "Endless Cuisine" all week at the Mexican eco-resort — "It's a scientific fact that vacation calories don't count!" the glossy brochure exclaimed, in an effort to inspire a nonstop gorge-fest — but cafeteria-style dining, by definition, doesn't breed creativity or innovation. Instead, it's about pumping out meals for the masses.

I've traveled south of the border many times, but never to an all-inclusive, beachside retreat. Even if you haven't visited these sprawling properties studded with snack bars, aqua parks, and activity areas, you can imagine what they entail: Frosty, colorful drinks that flow like Jacuzzi jets all day long; poolside luaus with giant pans of paella and piles of skewered fruit; and unlimited chocolate soft-serve, even for breakfast if that's your prerogative.

Far, far away from Aspen — home to exactly zero buffet restaurants for as long as any local can remember — this expanse of the Riviera Maya is where European tourists in too-tight banana hammocks bum-rush the Zumba stage and sugar-high kids throw tantrums on schedule. Even the glorious ocean breeze is accompanied by a steady backbeat of dance pop, thanks to an amateur DJ in sunglasses too sizes too big. It's a place where one's most pressing concern is guzzling a plastic cup of cold cerveza before it warms in the sun — which, with temps topping 85 degrees, happens in approximately three minutes.

The package-deal getaway is not my kind of vacation adventure. Yet before my guy and I rented a Volkswagen coconut (that's what it looked like, not to mention what it felt like cruising at 140 km/hr on the highway) to buzz around the Yucatán Peninsula in search of street food, we spent Thanksgiving at a big ol' family reunion to celebrate the his parents' milestone wedding anniversary.

It took a few days to learn how to navigate the resort's sprawling smorgasbords without leaving stuffed yet wholly unfulfilled, but eventually we fell into a groove. Herewith, a few lessons from the buffet line and beyond:

Brace yourself for some really lame food, but know that a healthy, enjoyable meal is out there, too. You just have to find it. If there's a plant-based restaurant on-site — highly likely, as more vacationers are demanding vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options — visit immediately. After four days and Thanksgiving dinner at the Brazilian grill/nighttime disco, we chanced upon a new, à la carte vegetarian restaurant on the property. Named for the largest genus of plants in the mint family and stemming from the Latin word meaning, "to feel well and healthy, health, heal," Salvia was sparsely populated. This made for sad evidence on ugly-American eating habits, but it proved beneficial to us — we feasted on petite portions of poblano peppers stuffed with tofu picadillo, raw lasagna with pine nut ricotta and sundried tomato pesto, avocado gazpacho, mushroom tamales with chipotle lentils, and beet carpaccio with grapefruit and candied mint. Another benefit to picking the least popular (vegetarian) restaurant: premium Don Julio tequila on free pour, flaming after-dinner drinks made tableside, a quiet atmosphere without rambunctious children, and mellow staff eager to serve.

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Do a lap at the buffet. Swing through sans plate to inspect offerings before grabbing at tongs. I made the rookie mistake of loading up on limp salad before discovering a taco bar stocked with tortillas that trump any I've found stateside. Which brings us to:

Seek local foods. In Mexico, that meant pork (cheap to produce and therefore plentiful; it's also one of the more flavorful proteins), fresh fish and seafood, and native veggies like jicama, plantains, tomatoes, and papaya. Scoopable fresh coconut ice cream was an unexpected discovery. That pudding-like soft serve at the snack bar? Not so much.

Live on the edge. Studies show that folks who sit far away from the buffet are less likely to crave seconds and return for round two when they're not hungry. "The average person makes three trips to the buffet — and five or more is not uncommon," says Brian Wansink, PhD, director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab. "My research showed that for every 40 feet farther away from the buffet that people sat, they made one trip fewer." Diners tend to overindulge when food is visible and conveniently within reach.

Don't forget seasoning. Interestingly, most of our food was tragically under-salted. A dab of salsa or squeeze of lime goes a long way.

Skip piña coladas. Alas, my boozehound heart was set on icy pineapple concoctions in hurricane glasses, but most of the bottomless cocktails at all-inclusive resorts are loaded with artificial sweeteners and colorings that make them unpalatable. Instead, we loaded up on cerveza, tequila, and Irish cream on the rocks.

Follow the Asian persuasion. Most popular at our Mexican retreat was the Japanese teppanyaki grill. Not only does it provide live entertainment—Mexican cooks role-playing Samurai performance artists is pure comedy—but, chances are, there's bottomless sake, even if it's not listed on the menu. Reserve your spot ASAP.

Know the schedule. We missed the poolside barbecue with whole roasted fish because we decided to take an ill-timed ocean swim.

Slow down, eat less. Life on the playa is not a race. You have all day to dine, literally.

Understand that there is no such thing as a walk of shame at an all-inclusive resort. Crowds begin to get rowdy at 1 p.m.—that's what happens when free te-kill-ya begins flowing at breakfast. Burn off your culinary sins by playing tournament ping pong in the game room.

Don't feel too guilty —about wasting food, that is. Many resorts compost leftovers, which should make us feel better about dumping those soggy chilaquiles.

Enjoy the joy, even if it's phony. Employees will smile and nod in response to virtually any question—Housekeeping cerveza delivery to the mini-fridge? De nada! How's the fish today? Muy bien!—because it's written into the company handbook to greet guests with a cheery "Hola!" upon eye contact. This doesn't change the food, but it may trick you into thinking it tastes better.

Remember why you picked an all-inclusive resort in the first place. (Hint: It wasn't for the food.) So few meals in our lives are truly memorable. Do you recall what they ate for dinner eight days ago, let alone on that beach trip eight years ago? Enjoy the experience for what it is: A break from the Aspen bubble, surrounded by sun, sand, and, most importantly, family. Hanging with the whole clan for the holidays — that's what makes memories.

Amanda Rae is happy to be back in Aspen, but still seeking culinary inspiration. She hopes that the new restaurants opening this season will bring it, already! amandaraewashere@gmail.com

OVEREAT…TO IMPRESS?

Pass the endless pasta! A new study from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab published in the medical journal “Evolutionary Psychological Science” shows that men eat more in the presence of women, perhaps in a subconscious effort to impress them. Men who ate with at least one woman consumed significantly more food—92 percent more pizza (or about 1.5 slices) and 86 percent more salad at an all-you-can-eat Italian buffet. The study did not explore why men ate so much more around women, but the researchers have a theory based on evolutionary psychology: An evolved tendency to ‘show off’ in front of others to assert dominance and/or increase attractiveness to others. They noted that this desire to show off is evident in eating competitions, which attract mostly male participants.

In contrast, women who ate with men reported feeling that they felt rushed through the meal and that they ate too much. However, after the research team measured food samples they discovered that female diners ate nearly the same amount of food regardless of with whom they dined.

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