Nuts to Soup!
big boy: 6'1", 250 lbs. Despite my physical attributes, I’ve always sucked at sports. Sure, I can get rebounds, but don’t expect my clumsy ass to drive it to the hoop and slam dunk, let alone make it to half court without getting winded. One thing I always excelled at, however, is eating. That’s where my athletic prowess shines most – when it’s dinnertime, I’ve got speed, endurance, and focus. But this wasn’t always something to brag about.
The ability to stuff your face in record time wasn’t a global turn-on until 2004 when ESPN began airing Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. Watching the contest for the first time, I thought: This is it! This is my calling! But I never acted on this impulse until last year when I tried to eat a six-pound burrito at the Sahara in Las Vegas. I managed to eat only a quarter of it, mostly because it tasted like a wet dog’s dick smothered with sour cream and guacamole. Earlier this year I tried to eat the Big Wallie, a three-pound burger at Wallie’s Diner in Tracy. In 15 minutes. Close, but no Cuban. I got down well over three-quarters before the buzzer rang.
But momma didn’t raise no quitter. Determined to prove to myself that I can eat a midget if necessary, I set my sights on the Pho Garden Challenge. Those who enter this battle must duke it out with two pounds of noodles and two pounds of combination beef (rare steak, tripe, soft tendon, well-done flank, brisket, and meatballs) in an hour – you don’t have to finish the broth.
Having failed at two food challenges, I decided to get some help from a professional. I recruited three-time Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest champion Joey Chestnut, who last year set a new world record by eating 68 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. He also completed the Pho Garden Challenge in 21 minutes (and ate that nasty-ass Vegas burrito and the Big Wallie in 6 minutes each).
It’s Wednesday, June 9, 8 p.m. My friends are here to cheer me on. I’ve got Joey Chestnut in my corner. The size of my opponent is intimidating – there’s a picture of a baby sitting in the Pho Challenge bowl – but I’m ready to knock this motherfucker out. I sign a waiver agreeing to the rules and I guess to release Pho Garden of responsibility in case I eat myself to death. A waitress brings the giant bowl and starts the timer. It’s game time.
Joey recommends that I sit down to eat because I’m gonna get exhausted and that I ask for a glass of ice. “Pour the ice in, stir it around and let the ice melt a little bit. Then start going to town on the noodles,” he says. The noodles are expanding in the broth, so I gotta get through ‘em as fast as I can. He also gets me a fork so I can easily build a rhythm. Here’s the play-by-play of what happened next:
I’m killing this bowl as if it’d insulted my mother. I wrap the noodles around my fork until it looks like a yarn ball and chomp down. I don’t care what anyone thinks about the way I’m eating; I’m in this to win. Around me, my friends begin talking about “One Guy One Cup” and other gross Internet video clips. I ask them kindly to change the subject as I don’t need a mental image of a guy picking glass shards out of his ass while I’m eating my soup. Thank you.
I haven’t put down the fork once. I keep chowing down as much as I can with full speed.
I’m more than half way done but I’m slowing down. The waitress pours what I have left into a small bowl since I’m not required to finish the broth. This fucks up my rhythm, as well as the flavor. No longer swimming in a giant bowl of broth, the taste and texture of the rubbery tripe seems bolder. And that’s not sitting too well with me. A friend says, “Just put it in your mouth,” which sets off a string of lame “That’s what she said!” jokes and Joey singing, “Put It In Your Mouth,” an obscure rap song about blowjobs. This would all be amusing if I wasn’t starting to feel nauseated.
I’m slipping. My stomach’s turning and I don’t know how much more I can take. “C’mon, this fucker did it,” Joey says, pointing to a picture on the wall of fame behind me. A friend suggests I pretend that it’s a former crush’s vagina; it might help getting down the tripe. Another friend reminds me that there are teens in Vietnam forced into sex slavery so they can eat and survive, and here I am eating their food not for sustenance but for fun in a fucking food challenge. Why did I bring these people along?
Joey suggests I pour some broth into my small bowl to give it some more flavor and add lubrication. “Just remember how you were feeling at the beginning and go back to that place,” he says. “There’s no reason why you can’t eat it like you were in the beginning.” Actually, there is a reason: I’ve eaten nearly three pounds of food.
I almost throw up. Shit’s flying at me from every direction: “We need a maxi pad over here!”; “Do you need some Vagisil?”; “When they take your balls away, do they have to put you to sleep?” Joey recommends I stand up and take a few deep breaths. Another friend even massages my flabby gut.
It’s starting to sound like a violent porn film around here with Joey yelling, “Put it in your mouth!” “I’m not gonna do it, man,” I say as I shake my head. There’s uproar so I keep trying.
Joey gets in my face like he’s about to shout at me like a drill sergeant. “There’s no pain, just swallow it,” he says, before telling me to jump up and down. At this point, I don’t question it, I just do it.
There are only five minutes left. This is it, the final stretch. I’ve got my second wind. My adrenaline’s pumping. I start shoveling full speed. The crowd is going wild. They’re chanting my name…then my stomach gurgles and I feel the pho rapidly working its way back out the way it came. I freeze. If I take another bite, it’s going to look like the Stand by Me pie eating contest barf-o-rama in here. Do I try to hold back and keep going, or do I throw in the towel? I put the bowl down and spit out the food in my mouth. Like Foreman in the eighth round against Ali in The Rumble in the Jungle, I was done, defeated by a bowl of soup.
I don’t know how Joey does it, but this is too much for my body to endure. The third strike in my fleeting food challenge affair, I’m giving up on my competitive eating dreams.
Think you can do better than me? Head to Pho Garden at 2109 Clement Street, open 7 days a week from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (ignore the “Closed on Wednesdays” on the website). Finish the challenge in under an hour and it’s free. You also get to keep the bowl.
A tip from Joey Chestnut: Try not to eat the day of the challenge because you’re going to need as much capacity in your stomach as possible. Instead, drink lots of fluids because it’ll pass through your system faster while keeping your stomach stretched.