From the Kids Table: All You Can Eat
A sometimes testy father-daughter relationship comes to a head at a Southern California chain named after its bottomless bowls of soup
Welcome to From The Kids Table, our personal essay series. On some Sundays, we’ll ask writers to share childhood memories about dining out. For our fifth installment, health + wellness writer—and one of our favorite essayists—Juno DeMelo recalls gorging herself alongside her fitness-obsessed father at Souplantation, the only place where she was allowed to overeat at while growing up in Southern California during the 1990s. We hope you enjoy, and would love to hear your feedback in the comments below.
Here are some foods we always had in the house when I was a kid: baby carrots. Yoplait yogurt. Whole-grain cereal. Whole-grain bread that was literally called “Health Nut.” So many bananas.
It was Southern California in the 1990s, and my dad was both Portuguese and a gifted soccer player, soccer coach, and professional squash instructor. Which is to say that he a.) didn’t have to force himself to eat a Mediterranean diet—he preferred fish and salad to spaghetti and meatballs—and b.) had an incredible command over what he could get out of his body and what he put into it. He refused to be sedated when he got his first colonoscopy, and I never once saw him drink alcohol, though we did have a dusty six-pack of Guinness in the garage he bought after reading that it was good for you. He was Obama eating seven almonds, but for real.
He was also mercurial—sometimes playful and affectionate, other times cruel. He and my mother separated when I was three and divorced when I was five. He had primary custody, and while I feared him, I also idolized him.
I would eventually follow in his footsteps, at least when it came to what is now called “wellness”: I started running and going to the gym in middle school and never stopped. I spent most of my 20s working at fitness magazines as a nutrition editor. These days, I still eat a lot of plain Greek yogurt, and I have a hard time finishing a single glass of wine, even when the pour is not generous. I am very disciplined.
My childhood appetites, however, were less controlled. After dinner I would eat huge bowls of Blueberry Morning cereal, one after the other, in the dark. Once I hid a baby loaf of Tillamook sharp cheddar under my bed. Every Thanksgiving, I would eat pie until I felt sick, then go back for more. I was a binge eater, but because I often did it in secret and was skinny, no one seemed to notice. Until one evening at Souplantation.
Known as Sweet Tomatoes outside of California, Souplantation was an all-you-can-eat chain that closed its 97 restaurants when Covid hit. Upon entering, you would immediately queue up for the salad bar, which had all the standards—raw spinach, crumbled hard-boiled eggs, sunflower seeds—plus some Souplantation exclusives. The “tuna tarragon,” a pasta salad made with two kinds of pasta and two kinds of glop (sour cream and mayonnaise) remains my Proustian madeleine.
After you’d filled your salad plate, you would pay for your meal and gain access to the real magic: a soup bar with handled bowls you could fill with clam chowder and chicken noodle soup, the noodles so thick and fluffy, they were like matzah balls but in strip form. There was also a muffin bar with blueberry mini-muffins and cornbread with whipped honey butter (we had only olive oil and Smart Beat at home), a baked potato bar, and a dessert bar where you could fill your cup with vanilla-chocolate soft serve until the peak toppled over. There was also pudding, Jell-O, and canned Mandarin oranges. My dad was the only person I ever saw eat the oranges.
To anyone who regularly got a Personal Pan Pizza and a big red plastic cup of Coke at Round Table or a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, a restaurant named for soup might have seemed like a dud. To me, it was the pinnacle of indulgence.
We dined at Souplantation a few times a month. For my dad, the allure was that it was cheap and easy. There were no servers, no menus, no tips (my dad emigrated from the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique, where tipping was not a thing—something I learned when he once tried to leave a waitress $1 at Denny’s). He loved Souplantation so much, we tried to go on Christmas Eve once. It was closed.
I loved Souplantation because it had the kind of stuff we never had at home: processed carbs, cream-based anything, the kind of kid food I knew about from my friends, whose parents bought them packages of cinnamon rolls from Costco and kept plastic wrap–covered Funfetti sheet cakes out on the counter for snacking and ordered them pizza bagels from Einstein Bros. To anyone who regularly got a Personal Pan Pizza and a big red plastic cup of Coke at Round Table or a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, a restaurant named for soup might have seemed like a dud. To me, it was the pinnacle of indulgence.
But I also loved Souplantation because of the quantity. I would make multiple trips to the various bars, piling my tray with more than I could eat, even though I could eat a lot. With the exception of the occasional muffin pilfered home in a paper napkin, my unfinished food would go to waste.
And then at dinner one night, my dad decided that I had to finish all my food. Maybe he wanted to teach me a lesson about abundance and not taking it for granted. After all, he was sent to boarding school in South Africa at age eight, and I imagine those years were marked by privation. Maybe, having been laid off more than once by then, he felt powerless, and parenthood provides an opportunity to exert a great deal of power. Maybe my hunger embarrassed him, and he wanted to rub my nose in it. The thing I know for sure is that I told him I would throw up, and he made me finish my food anyway.
I protested, but he insisted with a forcefulness I knew would only grow the more I pushed back. I went to the bathroom and tried to throw up, but nothing came out. I’m pretty sure I cried, though I can’t really remember whether I did, nor whether I was in elementary or middle school or even who we were eating with: probably my stepmom? Trauma can scramble your episodic memory, and a mixture of adverse experiences—many of them involving my father—blotted out a lot of my childhood. We never discussed what happened, but I was much more circumspect every time we went to Souplantation after that.
In Matilda, headmistress Trunchbull forces a boy named Bruce Botrotter to finish an 18-inch cake in front of an assembly of schoolchildren. I know this because my five-year-old was listening to it on audiobook recently, and I was so horrified, I almost turned it off. I have never forced her to eat anything, unless you count the time I smushed a banana into her mouth when she was one and I was desperate to make her stop crying. I don’t even tell her she has to finish her dinner in order to have dessert. I’m well-versed in all the ways one can fuck up their child, especially daughters.
She has yet to eat at a buffet restaurant. For one thing, we live in Portland, Oregon, a city known for pizza and strip clubs that serve good steaks and James Beard nominations, not salad bars. But mainly, all-you-can-eat restaurants make me anxious now, and I am almost certain that I would nudge her to put some vegetables on her plate, something with protein, not so much dessert, please. I am forever trying to find the line between guidance and control.
I stock all sorts of foods in our house that we never had when I was a kid: cookies, candy, butter-flavored popcorn. I let my daughter drink chocolate milk every day at school, even though it’s loaded with sugar. When she asks for fruit after dinner and then yogurt and then more fruit, I often give in. I make “rainbow plates” for her: semicircles of food, one for each letter of ROYGBIV. Recently she declared one of them “the worst dinner ever,” even though it had a blueberry jelly bean on it. I worry sometimes that she’ll turn out to be a brat, entitled, undisciplined. I’m almost certain that my father, who passed away in 2012, would think so. But the bigger worry—that she’ll feel cowed or ashamed—usually wins out.
I recently read that Souplantation is planning to open its first new location since it shut down. I like to think that if I ever take my daughter there, I will let her load her plate with as much as she wants of whatever she wants. My husband and I will eat anything she doesn’t finish, and she will love the tuna tarragon as much as I did.
Juno DeMelo is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance journalist. Her writing has appeared in print in The New York Times, Bon Appétit, Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Women's Health, Men's Journal, Runner's World, Shape, and online for The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, NPR, McSweeney's, Food & Wine, The Cut, InStyle, Vice, Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, the Food Network, and other publications.