Charlie Stark, owner of the Whistle Stop in Ferguson, readily admits where the inspiration for his restaurant's thirteen-scoop, frozen-yogurt challenge comes from.
"Man v. Food. I won't lie," he says.
Jeff Mullersman, owner and chef at de.lish Cheesecake Bakery & Cafe, also found inspiration after seeing a food-challenge show on television.
"I just loved watching people taking on the different challenges," says Mullersman of his fiery-hot Inferno Sandwich Challenge. "It's just fun to watch people sweat."
It's not as if this is an entirely new trend -- Crown Candy Kitchen started its 5 Malt Challenge all the way back in 1913. And there is nothing more prototypically American than our celebration of eating, whether it's our ridiculously large portions, professional competitive-eating circuits or conquering unfathomable levels of spice, people can't get enough.
Lance Ervin, owner of Mama Campisi's Restaurant, was inspired after he saw someone try to vanquish the largest burger he'd ever seen at a restaurant in Memphis. "I thought I should try to incorporate the idea, but for an Italian restaurant," he says. Thus, Mama's Pasta Challenge was born.
For Ervin, the goal of hosting a challenge was to "create something that would be talked about," and he notes that people travel from all over with the specific goal of defeating Mama's Pasta. Simply put, food challenges are fun and attract customers.
"We don't really make money on the actual challenge," says Stark. "It's just that people always bring friends, and no one wants to sit there and watch their friend eat ice cream, so they have to order something too."
There's another reason why eating challenges succeed: suckers like me. While researching local food challenges, I came to believe that given the right circumstances, my immense appetite could probably handle whatever portions or spice level was presented to me, no problem. The cocky, overly competitive voice inside my head kept insisting that I go out there and dominate.
I decided to attempt six local food challenges over five weeks -- having done no preparation or training -- believing fully that my exploits would prove successful and I'd soon receive widespread admiration. Here's what actually happened.
Mama's Pasta Challenge $24.95 Mama Campisi's Restaurant (2132 Edwards Street; 314-776-3100)
At Mama Campisi's on the Hill, I'm led to a back table covered in lovely white linen and a single lit candle. The immaculate tablecloth will be the field upon which a war will rage between myself and a gigantic meatball resting upon a king-size bed of noodles and sauce. There will be casualties.
Mama's Pasta Challenge consists of three pounds of pasta, a half-pound of homemade tomato sauce and, the pièce de résistance, a two-pound meatball. Owner Lance Ervin has a grin on his face when he tells me that only three individuals have ever conquered his challenge. Those were pros whose strategy, Ervin tells me, was to "keep shoveling it in as fast as possible."
This was my first food challenge, and I arrived with bright, hopeful eyes. I still believed with childlike naiveté that if I tried hard enough and really focused, I could complete the list of challenges set before me.
I was slightly shocked when the plate of pasta appeared from the kitchen. The meatball was easily the size of softball, and the bowl of spaghetti looked capable of feeding a family of four. I started by tearing into the meatball, stabbing at huge chunks with my fork. It was steaming hot (I burned my mouth on the first bite and tried not to cry) but surprisingly tender and tasty. Soon enough, the massive orb of meat and spice had disappeared. I held up my hands in victory. But then Ervin came back from the kitchen to check on my progress and quietly reminded me that the huge bowl of pasta and sauce still sat there, mostly untouched. Meanwhile, the meatball was lodged in my stomach, digesting glacially. But I soldiered on, twirling my fork in the pasta and tomato sauce.
Soon, however, I began to sweat and feel dizzy. I suddenly felt disgusting, like the glutton from Se7en. I attempted one last bite of spaghetti, scooped up a chunk of sauce and forced it into my unwilling mouth. Breathing heavily, I put my hand over my stomach and let out a mammoth belch -- it was the sound of defeat. Ultimately, there was just no room in me for the hill of pasta and sauce. (Ervin sardonically offered bread, but I did not partake.) I was ashamed, even after having eaten two pounds of meatball and roughly one pound of noodles.
Aftermath: My stomach remained distended for hours and hours as I lay on my couch, wondering what I had gotten myself into. For the next day, the mere thought of food made me slightly sick. Pepto-Bismol and I would become fast friends in the coming weeks.
Difficulty: ++++ Without years of training in some remote Russian compound, an elastic stomach and the ability to swallow a softball-size object whole, I don't see how a regular human being could possibly win this challenge.
The Pointersaurus $54 Pointer's Pizza (1023 South Big Bend Boulevard, Richmond Heights; 314-644-2000)
The renowned Pointersaurus is a ten-pound, two-meat-topping (or four-vegetable), 28-inch pizza. It necessitates what must be the largest pizza-delivery box in the world. But, unlike most food challenges, a $500 reward awaits the two-person team able to eat every single bite -- quite the incentive. Challengers have one hour and may not use napkins to soak up the grease, or "pizza juice" as the rules call it. This last stipulation turns out to be significant; its rationale painfully manifests itself by the end of the challenge.
Initially, I couldn't help but think, "I love pizza; this should be no problem." Owner Dave Hughes informed me that over the last fifteen years, out of roughly 4,000 teams, only 33 have succeeded. I simply assumed I would soon join their vaunted ranks.
My friend Mike Boyle also loves pizza, which is why I chose him as my partner. Standing roughly six-foot-four-inches tall, Mike is lanky and lean, like one of those skinny Japanese professional eaters, so my confidence was high. We talked it over and chose bacon and pepperoni for our two toppings, figuring that our favorites would be easiest to eat.
When Hughes set the ginormous pizza down before us, it took up the entire table and jutted off the edges. He cut the pizza into squares, and Mike and I split it into quadrants that we were responsible for eating. The first piece went down no problem. The doughy crust, sweet tomato sauce and piping-hot cheese were so good that I began to think about how I would spend the prize money.
Expectations remained high as I worked my way into the center of the pie. But by slice No. 7, warning signs began to appear. The delicious crust seemed thicker than before and felt increasingly so with each bite. The sauce and mozzarella cheese soon congealed. And the pepperoni and bacon, at first so crisp and wonderful, began to weigh heavily in my stomach. I began feeling as if I'd swallowed a bag of marbles.
As we neared the halfway point, Mike was still bravely piling it in (he's so tall, I reasoned with flawless scientific logic, the food has a longer way travel), but I was flagging -- each bite a bit more uncomfortable, a bit more displeasing. My jaw hurt, my stomach was cramping and my gut hung over my belt. Mike and I looked at each other, red sauce clinging to our lips and fingers, and, despite the fact that we still had ten minutes left, we knew the end was nigh.
It wasn't even close. We got maybe halfway through, and that's being generous. To be fair, Mike ate more than I did, but in the end it didn't matter.
Aftermath: Here's the thing about choosing bacon and pepperoni as our toppings -- there ends up being a lot of "pizza juice." When consuming a great deal of pizza, the grease tends to gather and pool up somewhere above the stomach, where it sits and waits, like volcanic magma. Foolishly, I attempted to go for a walk afterward, and about halfway through, it all came roaring back up with a vengeance. I managed to keep it all down, but it was an awfully unpleasant walk home. But, hey, my refrigerator was full of pizza for the next week.
Difficulty: +++ The first few pieces are very enjoyable; the last few pieces are not.
Hot Mess $29 The Dubliner (1025 Washington Avenue; 314-421-4300)
Server Jordan Flanigan had to be very careful when carrying out the Hot Mess or the tower of food would surely collapse. This challenge is a mishmash of foods: three six-ounce burgers covered in Swiss, Irish cheddar and slices of bacon; a Reuben sandwich sliced in half so as to bookend the whole pile; plus two fried pickles. A pound of fries served as a sturdy base, and three shish-kebab stakes pierced the layers of food to hold it all together. Flanigan looked at me dubiously before handing over the required shot of Jameson and pint of Guinness. He set the timer for 30 minutes.
I stared at the glob of meat and cheese with total confidence -- this time I felt like I had a chance. I can eat me a burger. I took the shot of Jameson, a big sip out of my Guinness and dug in. I ate the top half of the Reuben and moved on to the beef patties, which were delicious. I was on fire, destroying all three burgers with a carnivorous rage. I felt strong and punctuated the last bite of beef with a swig of Guinness.
Here's the one factor I didn't consider: I'm not a huge fan of Thousand Island dressing. By the time I made my way to the final half of the Reuben, I got one whiff of the rich and mayonnaisey dressing and dry heaved. I threw the sandwich back on the plate and did not pick it up again. Half a pound of fries and two fried pickles remained. Once more, I was beaten.
Aftermath: After losing yet again, it helped to still have half a Guinness in front of me, which I sipped in bitter consolation. I felt extremely fatigued and lethargic afterward, but relatively speaking, the effects were mild. I even jogged a few miles, albeit at a pathetically slow pace -- until nearly throwing up on the side of the road.
Difficulty: ++ This proved to be the most doable of all the challenges. Had it not been for the Thousand Island dressing, I might have had a shot.
Train Wreck $25 Whistle Stop (1 Carson Road, Ferguson; 314-521-1600)
The Whistle Stop resides in what was once the Ferguson train depot along the Norfolk-Southern freight line, and to this day you can watch trains chug up and down the tracks -- you can also sometimes watch victims of the Train Wreck Challenge puking up melted frozen yogurt, according to owner Charlie Stark.
The task is pretty straightforward: Eat thirteen generous scoops of frozen yogurt. The flavors are my choice of vanilla, chocolate, butter pecan or any combination of the three, and two toppings (one liquid, one solid). There's a 30-minute time limit, no bathroom breaks and absolutely no upchucking. Stark has only seen five competitors wolf down all thirteen scoops, but he offers that some have been more successful after churning the whole concoction until there's more liquid than solid, then slurping it all down. That sounded easy enough.
I chose a mixture of all three flavors, with hot fudge and Oreos. A colossal glass bowl was placed in front of me, replete with a giant swirl of whipped cream and a dainty cherry sitting on top. Dark swirls of fudge sliced through thirteen baseball-size scoops piled high -- it looked like the perfect dessert, just supersized. With wild abandon, I picked up my jumbo metal spoon and dug in.
Whistle Stop's frozen custard was delicious, and I destroyed the largest chunks of Oreo first. But I quickly noticed that even while I was scooping up decent-size bites, the mountain of ice cream looked relatively untouched. After five minutes, I was still faced with around ten scoops. That's a hell of lot of dairy, and I began thinking about those milk-chugging contests that almost always end poorly.
With ten minutes left, I had a lake of melted chocolate, vanilla and butter pecan in front of me. My spoon pathetically sunk to the bottom as I switched to a straw and began to suck, but I ultimately made very little progress. With my stomach gurgling angrily, I tapped out. Realistically, I don't think I even made it halfway.
As he took the bowl away, Stark told me about the time a 62-year-old man from Kansas brought his family into the Whistle Stop for Father's Day. He ordered two Train Wrecks -- one for himself and one for the rest of the family -- and eviscerated his thirteen scoops. I'd like to find that man and shake his hand.
Aftermath: In a word -- constipation. And the dam did not break for many days, leaving me to sit in the bathroom for long, fruitless hours, wondering how it was that I'd sunk so low.
Difficulty: +++ A stomach can only hold so much dairy before it revolts.
5 Malt Challenge $25 Crown Candy Kitchen (1401 St. Louis Avenue; 314-621-9650)
Welcome to the granddaddy of food challenges, destroying stomachs and wreaking havoc on internal plumbing for 100 years. Crown Candy Kitchen has easily seen thousands of individuals try to down five malt milkshakes in 30 minutes, and only 30 have succeeded. Their names can be read on a small gold plaque on the wall.
I had barely recovered from the Train Wreck (thanks in large part to my Smooth Move tea), and in hindsight, yet another influx of dairy was probably a bad idea. But Crown Candy's handmade malted shakes are legendary -- three scoops of ice cream, whole milk, syrup and, most importantly, malt powder combine to make a thick, creamy delicacy. When the 120 ounces of malted milkshake (roughly one gallon of dairy) were presented in shiny silver glasses, suddenly I was salivating over all that malty goodness.
It breaks down like this: Five ice-cold stainless-steel vessels are brought out, each filled with 24 ounces of whatever flavor I chose. (I went with three chocolate, one marshmallow and one strawberry.) I was then given an eight-ounce classic soda-shop glass, and after some complicated long division, I deduced that from each 24-ounce container, I would get three full glasses of malted milkshake.
I started off by filling two-thirds of my glass with chocolate, and then topped it off with marshmallow and strawberry before swirling it all together. I stuck in my straw and sucked down half the glass in one go. I knew it was crucial to keep up the pace, but after a second gulp, the inevitable happened: brain freeze, or as the scientist call it, sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.
I was warned to watch out for brain freeze, but there's no way around it. Before I finished the first eight-ounce glass, my head ached and my teeth were chattering. The key to any challenge is to go as fast as possible, preventing your stomach from realizing that it has reached capacity. But in order to dull the pain, I had to drink some water and take a quick break.
By glass No. 2, my pace had slowed considerably. I held my head in my hands as I slurped up the last of the glass, rubbing my temples in desperation. I struggled through glass No. 3 and slowly poured in No. 4 (milkshake No. 2), but my real enemy was time -- only ten minutes remained. My pacing was poor. I was in the process of finishing milkshake No. 2 -- glass No. 6 -- when the timer went off.
Aftermath: Once again, constipation. Maybe I hadn't truly recovered from my previous challenge, or maybe the malted milk is particularly good at clogging up the pipes. Whatever the case, I know this: I was plugged up like the dike from the Little Dutch Boy.
Difficulty: +++ My inability to unhinge my jaw and ignore the icy chill enveloping my brain was ultimately my undoing. If I could have just sat there all day, eventually I think I could have finished, which would have roughly equated to 5,000 calories.
The Inferno $16.50 de.lish Cheesecake Bakery & Cafe (1060 Rue Saint Catherine, Florissant; 314-831-7400)
The Inferno Challenge is downright scary, and here's why -- the inclusion of the infamous "Three Horsemen": the Trinidad Scorpion pepper (which Guinness Book of World Records lists as the hottest pepper in the world), the ghost pepper (second hottest pepper) and the habanero. By itself, the regular "Inferno" (a foot-long, twelve-ounce top-sirloin sandwich served with jalapeños, pepper-jack cheese, homemade Cajun sauce and fried onions on toasted French bread) sounds delicious. But the addition of the "Three Horsemen" transforms the sandwich completely. Owner and chef Jeff Mullersman personally grinds the peppers into a fine dust before adding it to a remoulade that coats the sirloin. Server Mark Muehling once sampled the sauce so that he could describe the intensity to customers. He placed a tiny dab on his tongue and then did not stop sweating for ten minutes.
Add to that the requirement that after the first bite, I had to wait one full, agonizing minute before taking a drink. (A beverage is permitted, with the exception of milk -- Mullersman explains that mixing dairy with the peppers pretty much guarantees that I'll puke.) There's no leaving the table, the plate must be clean and a 30-minute time limit is in place. This challenge is so intense that I had to first sign a waiver and wear a pair of latex gloves to protect my skin. Mullersman warned me that only 3 challengers out of more than 50 have ever won. The rest ended up on the wall of shame.
Before starting, I rubbed lip balm all around my mouth, thinking that this might help prevent burning. I love spicy food and felt relatively confident that as long as I ate quickly, with a pitcher of water close at hand, this would be a piece of cake.
The sandwich looked amazing -- thick slices of meat with sauce covering every inch...but looks can be deceiving. The first bite was no biggie, and I felt fine as I sat there for the required one minute. But after about five bites came the ultimate sucker punch: A blast of heat ignited on my lips and spread down my throat. It was so intense that my nose felt as if it were literally on fire. (I might have been hallucinating.) Sweat cascaded down my forehead. My hands shook uncontrollably and my eyes watered. A nearby patron showed real concern for my health.
Not surprisingly, the challenge ended after eleven minutes and almost half the sandwich eaten. Mullersman commented that my performance was "slightly above average," though I think he mostly pitied me. I drank more than two pitchers of water and a bottle of Sprite before Mullersman instructed me to pour sugar into the water. Only then did the heat begin to subside. True relief, though, came only after eating one of the most superb slices of chocolate cheesecake I've ever tasted. But this was far from the end of my struggles.
Aftermath: From the moment I threw in the towel, my insides began to protest such foolish behavior. For the next 24 hours, general anarchy broke out in my digestive system. My stomach was wracked by waves of pain and sharp convulsions -- just breathing proved difficult (I assume this is as close as I will ever come to being in labor). But the absolute worst part was that as bad as it burned going in, it was far, far worse coming out. I cut a clear path between my bedroom and the bathroom, so frequent were my trips. The mix of nausea and acid reflux had me briefly considering a ride to the emergency room, but instead I curled up in a ball, gently rocking back and forth, and weathered the storm.
Difficulty: +++++ Fire consumes all.
Sheer hubris allowed me to believe I could conquer my list of food challenges. I began this journey believing it would be a success story. But this is a story about failure. Every challenge far exceeded my expectations and concluded with me sitting in agony, wondering why the hell I'd agreed to do this. A few days later I would rally, as if my hours spent in the bathroom and days of bloated discomfort would not be repeated. But the result was always the same.
Rather than glory, all I got out of this was thousands and thousands of calories. Though I spread the six challenges out across a five-week time period, the effects carried over and built as I went along. After the final challenge, I just felt unhealthy. I haven't gained weight, nor can I point to any other quantifiable measurement, but something was just off -- enough so that I will never undertake such an idiotic mission ever again...probably.
Although I went in thinking I was a man of enormous appetite, it turns out I was just an average eater, faced with daunting odds and the likelihood of permanent intestinal damage. I'd like to think my journey, my sacrifice, will serve as a warning, a lesson in the dangers of such gluttonous behavior. But I doubt it. Instead, I suspect that many will read this and immediately conclude, "I could take down that challenge. Sign me up." But even if you manage to beat the challenge, here's what my hours of agony taught me: The food always wins.
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