Payson has been putting on its Salmon Supper since 1954, and in all those years they never learned how to handle a crowd. The Payson Salmon Supper is so popular that groups get bussed in (if you are on such a bus, you can get in line an hour earlier than the unwashed masses), but they have doggedly stuck with the one-long-line protocol for feeding the masses.
The line went up and around an entire large city block and took nearly two hours from start to salmon. The wait was exacerbated by large groups of people cutting the line every few minutes. There was no provision for line control or indication of who should go where. When I asked someone in line if this was the line for ticket holders or for those wishing to purchase tickets, she just shrugged and said, “It’s the everything line.” In fact, we didn’t see an event worker until an hour and a half into the wait when someone walked around asking people if they already had tickets. So, presumably, one could wait an hour and a half in line before finding out they were in the wrong line (don’t worry, we had bought our tickets online).
Actually, pre-purchase of the tickets is the only thing that kept us in line. I had heard how amazing the Payson Salmon Supper was, but as I stood there, one bead of sweat tripping down my spine, I realized that all of these glowing reports came from people who live in a landlocked state — people who may never have even seen the ocean, much less eaten transcendent salmon. If I hadn’t already been $16 a head into this crazy idea, I would have cut my losses then and there. But I was in too deep.
I sent the elderly and the young children to a bench in the park, and my oldest child and I started the long, hot walk to dinner. It wasn’t the worst line I’ve ever been in, really. There was only one brief encounter with a cigarette smoker who felt that walking a few steps away from the line (upwind) was sufficient to keep us all from smoking his cigarette with him (don’t worry, I complained on Facebook; he somehow heard my subliminal chastisement and put it out). After an hour, we got some cloud cover and a gentle breeze (helpful for those who wished to enjoy their neighbor’s cigarette smoke).
At the three-quarters mark, we were close enough to hear the announcer’s punny salmon jokes and see the rest of our group on their chosen bench (somehow in those two hours, they never thought to snag a seat at the tables). When we finally, finally, finally made it to the ticket taker and the folks handing out food I knew for sure I was in Utah because every single one of them (who had surely had a much longer day than I had) was unfailingly friendly and cheerful.
When my daughter hesitated about getting the coleslaw, the guy said, “You’ve been in line for a really long time. You’re gonna want the coleslaw.” Thank you, Coleslaw Man, for acknowledging our pain! Another worker (I believe she was the Potato Lady), upon hearing that my daughter read an entire novel in line, told us about the Payson Library’s great summer reading programs. I was resignedly irritated when we entered the actual, active, food-on-a-plate line, but when we emerged with almost more food than two people could carry (we really should have recalled our bench people when we got to the plates), I was downright chipper.
I wanted to hug all of my fellow line-waiters. We made it! I didn’t dare indulge in hoping for this moment when we slogged through our shared trauma, but now we are free. We are free, and we have ridiculously large slabs of salmon! And corn! And cookies! And rolls! And coleslaw! We have coleslaw! We gathered our bench sitters, found a spot at the tables, and vacuumed up the food like the ravenous fools that we were.
Was it good? Yes. Was our judgment colored by the fact that we were at the weeping stage of hunger? Yes. Will we ever go again? No. Friends, the next time I spend $71 on dinner, someone else is going to carry it to the table. The next time I devote four hours to acquiring food (Payson is a bit of a drive for us), it’s going to be because we are lingering over dessert and entranced by the sparkling conversation of our fellow diners. And the next time I crave transcendent salmon? I’m going to go on a road trip and not stop until we hit a coastal city. But if I feel like spending an evening with kind-hearted, generous folks, I’ll just stay here in Utah (but I’ll eat before we get to the park).
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