A growing (yet still rarely followed) tenet of internet culture is that you should avoid spreading articles you don’t like on social media. A comically oblivious article can generate more traffic through Facebook and Twitter anger/laughter than a well-thought-out and researched piece that doesn’t employ a trolling, attention-grabbing headline. The reasoning here is that we should click on/share the best and outright ignore the worst.
While I respect his long career in Milwaukee media and his theater criticism is normally insightful, OnMilwaukee columnist Dave Begel‘s culture columns can sometimes be so rife with stodgy takes and sloppy wordplay that I can’t finish them. But why do I routinely check out his work when I so often disagree with what he says and how he says it? It’s not because I willfully disregard the tenets of internet culture. No, it’s because I’m hoping Dave Begel writes something nearly as great as when he stumbled upon what I consider the best listicle of all time: Top 10 Milwaukee foods to eat while you are driving.
Two years ago today, he bestowed the world with the shining hubcap of automobile dining criticism. A quick dive through the cuisine reveals the man’s expertise, sense of adventure, and insatiable appetite. He eschews the runny butter burger in favor of fries at Solly’s and delivers some sound advice to boot:
“Ketchup runs. It’s just too thin and hard to control. Instead, ask for a cup of mayonnaise and dip your fries in that. The mayo stays where you put it, and it’s a new taste experience.”
He keeps things vehemently old school on the Benji’s lox sandwich:
“Don’t get any of those sesame or poppy seed bagels, or you’ll get crap on the lap. A plain bagel is best. Ask them to go easy on the cream cheese so it doesn’t squirt out. And make it plain cream cheese, none of that garden or raspberry favored by so many millennials.”
But the pièce de résistance is the inclusion of ribs. Not only does this item seem absolutely illogical as driving food, but the order itself is so baffling because it’s so thoroughly particular:
“First of all, ask the cook to leave the sauce off the ribs. Put it about two inches of it [sic] in a large soda cup. Then ask for the rack to be cut into individual ribs. No white bread, either. Then you can eat these and if you want, dip a rib into just a little bit of sauce.”
The article became the subject of intense discussions with friends, family, and strangers, an accessible gateway into a lengthy conversation about the absurdity and danger of consuming food while driving. You see, these suggestions were carry-out items from restaurants without drive-thru windows (save Speed Queen) that could have been easily eaten quickly in-house instead of on the road. These orders often took a painfully long amount of time to cook. There were freaking ribs on the list, an item so messy that most places include wet naps to clean your sticky hands. And it seemed shameful that you needed to ask another human being to fill a soda cup two inches with barbecue sauce—who would be ashamed more, customer or employee, was a matter hotly debated.
After nigh upon two years of these conversations, I finally decided that I needed to attempt these methods for myself in a test that would colloquially become known as “The Dave Begel Challenge.” Was it possible to eat these food items while driving without 1.) spilling on myself or 2.) killing someone with my car? I wanted to be sure I could spot any stain, so I started with a clean base: a white T-shirt and white pants, a human napkin of sorts. I ended up looking like a vigilant painter.
With no real understanding of what lay ahead, I hopped into the car (my personal mobile dining booth, if you will) and started a four-day journey I’ll never forget. Here’s what I learned in the first-known execution of The Dave Begel Challenge.
1. Hummus and Pita Chips, Aladdin
The first stop on the challenge didn’t require much effort. There was no cucumber on the Classic Hummus dip so I was unable to test out “the right hand dexterity” it takes to put those green slices atop a pita chip. But the brittle pita chips provided some concern. I often lost half the chip into the hummus, or worse, a bite would leave pita shards falling from my mouth to down below—a real “crap on the lap” nightmare, to steal a Begel-ism. But after a quick brush off, my attire was clean and I was ready to soldier on with the remaining nine foodstuffs.
2. Hot Ham and Cheese, George Webb
I drove all the way out to New Berlin because I needed ample time to devour the tub of hummus, and that town’s George Webb location sounded adequate. The original order called for a grilled cheese, but Begel had posited that “adding bacon or ham is also an option, but be careful of ham; it can be a little oily and ooze out of the side.” Since the journey was just beginning and I was feeling a little bullish, I threw caution to the wind and told the nice waitress to load that grilled cheese with ham. I expected the takeout box to be drenched with grease, but to my surprise, these oozing oils were nonexistent. I took down the first half of the sandwich in a few bites but almost flipped over the cheese-lined box when I grabbed the second half. Other than that near catastrophe, the hot ham and cheese offered no real stain problem. The only negative to the experience is that a hot ham and cheese from George Webb tastes disgusting and made me want to throw up immediately.
3. French Fries with Mayonnaise, Solly’s
“That’s a small carry-out,” a teenage employee smirked behind the Solly’s cash register when I ordered a small fry to go. Besides receiving confused glares from customers for the white T-shirt and pants combo (a common reaction), the most awkward part was when she handed me the bag of fries and then put individual packets of Hellmann’s mayonnaise in my hand with a look of, “Is this really what you wanted?” I shamefully nodded and was on my way.
Since there was no container for the mayo, I squeezed the Hellmann’s packets into the former resting place of the George Webb takeout. This location truly provided “a new taste experience” of congealed cheese and warm mayo. The fries were way too hot to eat right away, but this was no big issue since I was driving on the highway. I simply rolled down the car window and cooled off single fries in the breeze before dipping them into some mayo and then stuffing them into my pie hole. I started feeling like the ideal setting to eat hot fries was in a car going 75 miles per hour.
4. Chorizo Burrito, Taqueria Buenavista
The next stop presented the first real problem I had with the ordering process. I utterly despise customizing an order. I prefer the simplicity of just asking for everything that comes on an item. The al pastor burrito from Taqueria Buenavista’s food truck on Chase Avenue called for queso and a small helping of refried beans—oh, and for the burrito to be double wrapped. I didn’t even know this customization was possible when I ordered, but there didn’t seem to be a problem when I asked. Then, I was called back to the window (probably to talk over the whole double tortilla thing). But to my relief, that seemed to be okay, it was just that they no longer had the ingredients for an al pastor burrito. Without thinking I quickly switched to chorizo, forgetting that its greasy qualities could very well comprise my white T-shirt.
My teeth went through what seemed like eight layers of tortilla on my first bite into the burrito. Really, one half of the burrito was rolled up flour and the other half was a chorizo, queso, and refried beans mixture. I have to hand it to Begel here, though. Even with the chorizo, no grease spilled onto my shirt. My passengers, on the other hand, each experienced stains on the first couple bites of their tacos. But with a half-filled burrito in my hand, I started questioning my motives. What was I accomplishing here? Why was I wearing this ridiculous T-shirt and pants combo? I didn’t really want to do this challenge anymore, and I still had six more stops to go.
5. Spring Rolls and Crab Rangoon, Jings
I learned that fried food makes for a good driving companion. Of course, Begel’s instructions didn’t make things so simple when eating the Crab Rangoon from Jings:
“While driving, use your right hand to break off the crisp wonton edges of the dish until you are down to the crab center and just a little bit of fried wonton.”
This method is much more difficult than it sounds. Only the far edges of Crab Rangoon are crispy; the fried outside softens closer to the center and it takes some skill to find that middle point, where the edges are crispy enough to break apart. After working at excising as much shell as I could, I ended up throwing those crab-filled puffs directly in my mouth with ease. My confidence returned after the meal. I was halfway through the challenge without a discernible stain.
6. Classic Lox Sandwich, Benji’s Deli
“Do you know what you want to order?” a Benji’s waitress asked me as I glanced at a menu. “Um, yeah,” I said with a lack of certainty, like I hadn’t gone through this order 10 times in my head. “I’ll have the Classic Lox Sandwich on a plain bagel. Go easy on the plain cream cheese.” I walked out of that restaurant proud that I wouldn’t be labeled as a millennial. That jubilation quickly faded as my first stain sullied my attire. Yes, the juices from the tomato seeped from the side of the bagel and onto my shirt. I shouted, “Bagel, why have you forsaken me? Begel, why have you forsaken me?”
7. Rib Tips, Speed Queen
I went a little off-book for the next stop. I preferred the already chopped-up Rib Tips instead of asking that the ribs be sliced into individual portions. Also, standing in line wearing a stained white T-shirt and pants, I couldn’t muster the courage to request a soda cup filled two inches with barbecue sauce. I had sunk so low already. While the rib tips came in bite-sized pieces, these small morsels proved cumbersome to eat, as you had to search out the cartilage and bones while eating them. I had to spit the inedible portion back out into my hand and place them back into the box. This proved much more testing than the regular ribs.
The real key to this experience was the bread. Begel inexplicably advised against the bread, but I didn’t really understand the reason, so I didn’t bother asking for its removal. This carb-filled sponge turned out to work wonders. I placed a couple pieces on my lap to provide cover for any falling sauce. This became my saving grace, as some sauce dripped off my rib tip and fell toward my leg. Thankfully, the bread stopped the sauce from reaching my pants. With my hands sticky after eating, I simply wiped them on the pieces of bread. Voila! Clean hands.
8. Veggie Pita, Pita Pit
I took the opportunity to eat something semi-healthy during this stop. I loaded up a veggie pita with hummus, spinach, provolone, tomato, onion, and green pepper. Even though Begel warned against topping with any sauce—”eat it naked,” he explained—I had the pita artist squeeze in a little balsamic dressing. This turned out to be the only refreshing and light meal on the challenge. A couple veggies fell to my lap, but neither left a mark.
9. Cheesy Potato with Ranch Pizza, Ian’s Pizza
I felt truly rebellious by ignoring Begel’s insistence on practicing the technique of folding a pizza in half at home before trying this during a drive. Unfortunately, Ian’s no longer carried the suggested Quattro Formagio pizza, but I remained faithful to Begel’s stern condemnation of red sauce and meat and instead ordered a slice of Cheesy Potato with Ranch. Turns out while the cheese, potato, and ranch stay put, the combination produces streams of grease. The oils pooled into the crevice created by the fold and ran like a river down my arm to my elbow. Drops of oil fell into my shirt and pants as I navigated the stop-and-go traffic on I-94 during rush hour. My hands were soaked with grease. With only one destination left to visit, I gave up and wiped the oils on my pants.
10. Salted Brownie, Honeypie
I walked into Honeypie with grease stains all over my now off-white wardrobe. Feeling embarrassed about my sloppiness, I quickly ordered one salted brownie to go. All my inhibitions faded during the home stretch—quite literally, as my residence was only a couple blocks away from the restaurant. Instead of driving aimlessly around the city to eat the brownie like I had the earlier items, I circled the block by my house a few times until my final duty was complete.
At the end of this culinary adventure I was left wondering: Was this all meaningless? Did the Dave Begel Challenge serve any purpose at all? Was this just a half-assed grab for clicks and social media shares? Probably the latter, but I guess my only hope is that others can attain some similar delight out of something so silly-yet-compelling. We’re only one given one opportunity in this life. Don’t waste this elusive gift by always keeping two hands on the proverbial wheel. Every once in a while, you need to reach down with your right hand, grab an individual sliced rib, dip that sucker into a soda cup filled with barbecue sauce, and enjoy.