The epitome of American gluttony—the all-you-can-eat buffet—actually originated as a much classier and much more European affair. While enormous spreads of food were a common sight during medieval feasts, the Swedes were the first to formalize and give a name to such an endless meal. In the 16th century, it became a common Swedish practice prior to a more substantial feast to welcome arriving guests with a brännvinsbord, meaning a “table of spirits.” Though it consisted of finger foods like bread, butter, cheese, cured meats and smoked fish, the star of the brännvinsbord was the traditional spiced vodka—known as Brännvin—that was served. Often distilled from potatoes or grains, Brännvin would later be joined on the table by beer, schnapps or aquavit.
In the early 18th century, the Swedes turned the pre-dinner brännvinsbord into the meal itself. Calling it “smörgåsbord," it was often used to feed hungry guests coming from a long distance. The spreads usually featured a mix of cold and warm dishes, specializing in Swedish delicacies like salted fish, eggs, fruits and vegetables—probably no omelet station. While the smörgåsbord is still quite popular today, there's one main difference from the Americanized version of the all-you-can-eat buffet: It isn’t a free-for-all. The serving table is meticulously set in a very specific order that forces guests to exercise some restraint and not grab all the food at once. As gracefully put by Sweden’s official tourism website, “You can pick out a non-Swede by the way the person loads everything onto a single plate.”
The Swedish tradition first gained international fame at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games, when the city’s restaurants put out smörgåsbords for the hungry masses that had flocked to Sweden for the games. At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, Americans got to enjoy a traditional smörgåsbord at the Three Crowns restaurant inside of the Swedish pavilion. While there’s no evidence that he attended the 1939 World’s Fair, perhaps accounts of Sweden's “smörgåsbord” inspired El Rancho Vegas employee Herb McDonald, who made the buffet a culinary mainstay in the United States only a few years later.