For some people, food is just that: food. Fuel - ideally tasty fuel - that keeps the body plugging along. But for an increasing segment of the population, food and eating have become something else: a challenge. Another arena in which to test who is the top dog, leader of the pack, or king of the hill. Competitive eating continues to grow in popularity with events televised on ESPN, internationally known melees like the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, and the Travel Channel's hit show "Man Vs. Food," in which host Adam Richman tries his stomach at various food challenges across the country. The spinoff, "Man Vs. Food Nation," recently had a Rochester-based episode that shined a spotlight on culinary creations right in our backyard.
I can remember my first food challenge. I was at a car show in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, years ago. I had to be the first to finish an entire whipped-cream pie. I won a t-shirt that was too big for me - I suspect they didn't plan on someone my size winning the contest. Nowadays I don't eat competitively, but I love a challenge. And while I'm not the track-running stick I was in high school, I think my respectable 32/34 waist (depending which restaurant I'm walking out of) and 5'10" stature keeps me a fairly lean, mean, eating machine.
And really, Rochester is a great place to put my competitive-eating talent to the test. After trying the second-highest hot-wings challenge at Quaker Steak & Lube over the summer, the wheels began turning. My goal: to hit as many Rochester-based food challenges as I could, eating across different flavors, foods, and feats, testing myself on all the gut-busting obstacles: speed, heat, and bulk of food. I narrowed my quest down to five different challenges that I've been punishing myself through over the past five weeks. Below find my tales of digestive woe. If we missed a local food challenge, please let us know about it by making a comment on this article, below.
Description: Finish the approx. 16 oz. bowl of soup in 30 minutes or less ($8.25)
Best for: Fish, Aquaman, anybody with some gillyweed
First up on my list was Tokyo Restaurant's challenge, a massive bowl of miso ramen soup prepared at the highest spice level. I had originally picked it because I thought it would be one of the easier challenges on my list. I mean, it's soup. How hard can it be? I was so confident, in fact, that I ate lunch just a few hours earlier: a decent-sized salad and an M&M ice-cream sandwich. What could go wrong?
I knew I was in trouble when a waitress brought a bowl of soup to a table near me, coughing after catching a whiff of the spice. That soup was only a Level 4 in spiciness. The table full of other diners laughed at me for even thinking about going higher up on the scale.
The first bite in I thought I'd be fine. The soup was spicy, to be sure, up there with some of the hottest solid foods I've ever tasted. But I thought I could handle it. However I completely underestimated the problems that a liquid-based spicy challenge would present as I went deeper into the abyss. Only a minute or so in I was already coughing. The spice slowly started to compound across my taste buds, and it wasn't long before my sinuses started running. Five minutes in I was still enjoying the soup, but the heat continued to build. I clung to the notion that it would be close. If the soup cooled down, I just might have a chance.
I was naive. The problem: most spicy things are solid. Chicken wings give you some meat to help wash down your tears. The soup, however, was like drowning in a bottle of boiling hot Tabasco sauce. Even though I was allowed to drink water during the challenge, it proved to be a double-edged sword. It helped with the soup's super-hot temperature, but cost me time and precious tummy space.
Halfway through I could tell things were looking bleak. The coughing only continued, and the water-to-soup ratio made it look like I was having a water-drinking challenge with a soup chaser. One of my plans was to try to get rid of the solid food first - the leeks, noodles, and meat - and then chug the broth like my life depended on it. It was a good plan, but difficult to enact in practice.
By the time the soup hit an edible temperature, my stomach was already screaming a loud and resounding "NO!" As I limped through the last few minutes of the challenge, picking at the seemingly Olympic-pool-sized bowl, I realized I wasn't eating. I was barely gnawing at the noodles in an attempt to persevere. By that point the soup stopped tasting good. When asked why, I responded with a bitter, "There's a lot." I vowed to never eat soup again.
So I definitively failed Challenge 1. It was more of a food marathon where I had expected a sprint. The main problem was that I was spread too thin and fighting too many fronts. I was up against heat, time, temperature, and volume. By the end the soup was diluted with tears of defeat, and I was starting off my quest 0-1. To make matters worse, somebody on the wall of fame apparently finished the whole thing in less than four minutes. No domo arigato, Mr. Soup-oboto.
(Tokyo Restaurant is located at 2930 W. Henrietta Road. For more information call 424-4166 or visit tokyorestaurantrochester.com.)
Description: Eat six mega-hot wings, no time limit ($6.99)
Next it was time to spread my wings. The spicy side of food has always been my specialty, going back to high school when I was forbidden from making an all-pepper stir fry in cooking class. Having had my share of both hot wings and sauces, I was feeling a little cocky. I felt more at home with this challenge, but also felt some pressure. What if I didn't succeed in what I was predicting would be one of my best showings?
I started with a newcomer to the Rochester wing crowd, national chain Quaker Steak & Lube. When it first opened earlier this year I tried one of its regular "atomic" wings. This time I was back for the six-wing "triple atomic" challenge.
For the five people on earth who follow these kinds of things, the wings sit at a blistering 500,000 Scoville units. If cavemen had sauce this hot, we never would have learned how to build fires from wood. This challenge is not for the faint of heart, or tongue.
The six wings came piled innocuously in an egg carton, and they looked good to boot. I decided for the sake of the contest to go blue-cheese commando: I was going straight for the heat. Might as well grab the chicken by the proverbial horns.
The wings didn't smell that hot, and they weren't soaking in sauce at the bottom of the carton. For packing such a punch, the sauce was actually quite tasty. It had a tanginess that most super-hot sauces lack, and it wasn't out-of-the-gates-of-Hell unbearable.
The heat started to build, however, and it was the after effect of the sauce that was the worst. Once I paused my mouth was consumed by the fiery spices. I plowed through the six wings as fast as I could, coughing once after the fourth wing. It was nowhere near the lung-attack festival that the soup had thrown the week before, though that may have been the difference between taking the sauce straight to the throat instead of letting it pass through my mouth first. In any event, success was mine.
To tally up my cooling efforts: before I left the restaurant I downed four glasses of water, drank some of the blue-cheese dressing, nibbled on some pita bread, and had a chocolate-brownie sundae. The burning sensation lasted roughly eight minutes and my lips burned on past that. But I walked out victorious, and got a snazzy car decal. I felt famous.
(Quaker Steak & Lube is located at 2205 Buffalo Road in Gates. For more information call 697-9464 or visit thelube.com.)
Description: Devour 12 wings in six minutes ($10.15)
Reward: Photo on wall, t-shirt (they were all out!), a kick-ass wing crown (be jealous)
With only a day in between I rebounded to Buffalo Wild Wings. If I was going to do one national-chain wing challenge, I might as well do two. The BWW challenge was slightly more regulated then Quaker Steak's, and that made it much more difficult. I had only six minutes to eat 12 wings, which I wasn't that worried about. But the challenge also specifies no napkins, no water, no blue cheese, no nothing. It was just me vs. the wings. The restaurant even set out a glass of milk to tempt me for when I was finished, the white light at the end of the red-hot tunnel.
I felt pretty good going in, even with the time limit and the heat. For more perspective as to just how much fun these challenges are, the waitress told me that a few fraternity brothers had come in for a pledge event earlier that week. It made me feel good knowing that I was choosing to do something others took as punishment - and that they didn't pass the test. I'm waiting for my frat acceptance letter in the mail.
Once the wings came I wasted no time going through them. I moved through the first three in a blazing fast 45 seconds, giving me good time left on the clock for once the heat fully kicked in. For a while I was on pace to clear under four minutes. My first cough came right under the three-minute mark.
"I smelled that cough," a waiter said.
From there I slowed down, the heat finally getting to me. I ended up finishing the 12 wings in 4:27, which for comparison purposes, is faster than I have ever been able to run a mile. The reference is apt, given how much these wings made me sweat. The waiter even brought me a very refreshing wash cloth once I finished to help cool things down.
The heat from the BWW wings was enough to literally make me cry: I wept mid-contest. Just like the Quaker Steak wings, it was a slow-building heat, but this was much more intense and lacked the sweeter kick of the Lube wings. The burn also lasted a lot longer - it was more than 20 minutes before my mouth finally stopped burning, and it took even longer than that for my lips to cool down. The lovely chocolate lava cake and ice cream I ordered afterward helped. Now, with Flamethrower officially added to my move list, it was time to move on.
(Buffalo Wild Wings is located at 780 Jefferson Road. For more information call 475-1240 or visit buffalowildwings.com.)
Description: Two people must eat 10 lbs. of pizza in 45 minutes ($25)
Reward: t-shirt, picture on wall, certificate for free large pizza
Pro Tip: Transform into a cow; have eight stomachs
With two victories under my belt it was time to up the ante. The next two challenges on my list had never been beaten before. First up was 2 Ton Tony's 2 Ton-za Challenge, which was a mouthful just to say. This two-person challenge required me bringing in the cavalry, so I wrangled my good friend Dillon Jinks, who had joined me last year in a fun jog around Sticky Lips' Atomic Challenge (more on that in a minute).
Preparation is always important, and I didn't want to go into this one blind. I started a junior version of what heavyweight eaters might put themselves through. For a few days leading up to the challenge, I was almost constantly drinking water - it expands the stomach and runs through your system quickly. The day before I crammed four meals into one day, and the day of I had a light breakfast and only enough small snacks to keep me from completely wasting away before dinner.
For the 45-minute challenge we were allowed to drink water, but couldn't leave the table for bathroom (or, in this case, vomit room) breaks. We decided on pepperoni and half banana peppers, but in hindsight we probably should have just went with cheese.
"You're screwed," the man across the counter told me when I told him I was here for the challenge. Apparently the furthest any team has ever come is halfway through the pizza. That immediately became my benchmark and goal.
My first thought when the pizza came out was wondering where the restaurant found a tray that big. I'm guessing it must have been a custom order, and I worried for the poor oven that had to accommodate all that pizza. This was a continent of pizza, featuring roughly 60 slices. That's a lot of dough.
My first giant burp came roughly 10 minutes in. I had perfected my burp wiggle, which usually works to move the food through my system faster and help me release when I need to. "It doesn't taste good anymore...This isn't worth it," I uttered as the contest progressed, already knowing that there was no way we'd be able to finish.
The clock kept running, and my mouth kept moving, albeit much more slowly. "Oh God, I'm so tired. I feel like it's got like chloroform in it," I said (even the sound of my voice on the digital recorder seemed over it). "Passing this is going to suck. It's going to be like passing a kidney stone through my butt."
My compatriot Dillon was even less pleased: "You tricked me into doing this."
With 15 minutes remaining, my taste buds hit their limit. The pizza itself was quite yummy, but eating so much of it was causing my mouth to process nothing but salt.
"My goal is to eat one more piece of pizza," I said. "Oh wait, there's one right here [on my plate]. I guess my goal is to eat this piece of pizza. It doesn't even taste like pizza anymore..."
The delirium only got worse. If you can get drunk off of food, I was three sheet pizzas to the wind. And there was at least one moment where I was worried that the food was going to start coming out the same way I was trying to force it in.
By the end - we finished a respectable just past half way through the pizza - I felt like I was pregnant with a pizza baby. I could hardly sit up straight, was barely coherent, and passed out almost as soon as I got home. Just like drinking too much, my body was retreating from food the only way it knew how: forcing me to sleep. It was the most painful of the challenges at that point, and I'm not going to lie, I wavered in my resolve to continue my quest. But I only had one left, and I wasn't going to let a pizza that could have solved world hunger stop me now.
All that said, I did eat pizza the next day.
(2 Ton Tony's is located at 545 Titus Ave. in Irondequoit. For more information visit 266tony.com.)
Description: In 30 minutes consume 1 lb. hamburger, 1 lb. pulled pork, 1 lb. French fries, 1/2 lb. hot meat sauce, 1/4 lb. cheese, eight strips of bacon, four dress sets (lettuce, tomato, onion) on one over-sized bun ($19.95)
Just like the previous challenge, nobody has beaten the current iteration of Sticky Lips' Atomic Food Challenge, now featuring a larger bun, more bacon, and hot meat sauce. (The challenge was recently featured on "Man Vs. Food Nation.") Truth be told, this wasn't my first encounter with the massive meal. I tried it once before in the summer of 2010, and am either brave, or dumb, enough to be back a second time.
My waitress told me I wasn't the first challenge she had that day. I was the third: two people had tried it during lunch. I can't imagine doing much after any of these challenges, much less walking back into work. So kudos to the lunch patrons who dared to dance on the devil's dance floor.
With the ring of a bell, the waiter announced the commencement of the challenge. My food arrived. It was a lot bigger then I remembered. But we had a score to settle.
The Atomic Challenge is a pretty intimidating plate of food. I never really reached the bottom of the platter - I moved food out of the way just to make sure it had a bottom, but it was so big that even finding a place to start seemed a life-altering decision. The size of some of the less-provoking elements was also alarming. I'm pretty sure this wasn't normally sized, earth-grown lettuce. I didn't even bother with the tomatoes. I don't like them, and unless they were the last thing between me and victory, there was no reason to be so cruel to myself.
Not far into the challenge I was in danger: I had taken a giant bite and not chewed it enough. As I struggled to swallow the too-big-to-eat bite, I was worried I might have made a rookie mistake and would end up choking to death. I recovered, but that fear plagued me as I tried to eat more manageable pieces and not die in a giant pile of food. I think you're automatically out of Pulitzer contention if you expire mid-bite.
I did not stop while the timer kept ticking, and by the end I obliterated most, if not all, of the hamburger and pulled pork - all of it delicious - but I just couldn't get past the large starchy pile of fries. I'm pretty sure I got the bacon and cheese polished off as well, because hey, I'd eat anything covered in bacon.
After my second Atomic defeat I didn't actually feel that bad. I was much more talkative than I was after the pizza, which pretty much crippled me, and worried that I didn't push myself far enough this time around. It wasn't until I got up to leave that it really started to hit me. I took leftovers with me (what would fit in the take-out box, that is). The car ride home was agony, perhaps because I was driving, but also because every whiff of the to-go box caused me to fear for my poor nauseated stomach. Let's just say I made it home just in time. At least I didn't have to worry about those calories.
(Sticky Lips is located at 625 Culver Road and 830 Jefferson Road. For more information visit stickylipsbbq.com)
To experience more of the digestive woe, check out this video of Willie and the Sticky Lips Atomic Bomb Challenge! VIDEO BY MATT DETURCK (Click the vimeo logo to enlarge and watch on vimeo's site, or click the "expand arrows" to watch fullscreen)