I’ve always been able to eat a lot. Even before I was a love-handled and beer-gutted walking (with some discomfort) Wisconsin male stereotype, I could always put away more food than those around me—usually at a faster pace. In middle school, I would be scolded for eating an entire DiGiorno pizza for a meal (which is kind of bullshit, because they were factory defects my aunt, a Kraft employee, bought from the company store for a dollar), and in college I could effortlessly down three Cheesy Bean & Rice Burritos (R.I.P.) in the Taco Bell parking lot after a night of drinking. Last year, I ate seven hot dogs to celebrate Dollar Madness at Miller Park. These aren’t points of pride. I’m just stating the facts.
Though I’ve always been a big eater, my ingestion has never ventured to competitive levels. Like many of you, I’ve been intrigued by this growing consumption counterculture, but in the way one cranes their neck to see a car wreck along the interstate. I’ve resigned myself to a life of being the guy who’s really good at pick-up basketball of eating. In fact, with 30 on the horizon and my metabolism slowing, it would probably be best to eat more responsibly.
As you may have read, it’s Downtown Dining Week. The eight-day epoch of epicurean exploration entices diners to try new things in new, unfamiliar places. In that spirit, I decided to set aside my health and self-respect, grab $23 (plus tip) of Milwaukee Record’s money, and go to Water Street country bar Red Rock Saloon to see if I had the guts (or gut, rather) to complete The Unforgiven Challenge. If you missed seeing the challenge featured on Travel Channel’s Man V. Food Nation, the crux of the contest is that a competitor has 23 minutes to eat a burger, some seasoned fries, and six hot wings. Sounds simple enough. Except it’s not just any burger, fries, and wings. Unforgiven is:
• 1/2 lb Burger
• Topped with cheese & bacon
• Deep fried Chicken Breast
• Another 1/2 lb Burger
• Topped with cheese & bacon
• An egg, lettuce, tomato & onion strings
• A basket of fries
• 6 T.C.B Ghost pepper wings
Holy fuck, right? It’s even a test for ultra-serious eaters like this dude.
I meekly entered Red Rock around 2 o’clock on Tuesday in hopes the restaurant wouldn’t be busy. The fewer witnesses the better. Fortunately, when I took a seat near the bar, I learned the only other person in the dining room was the bartender. Unfortunately, the bartender/server was a pretty young woman with an all-around pleasant demeanor. Picture the last person you’d want to witness you in your fattest moment. Yep, that’s her! Wincing, I ordered the challenge, then promptly relocated from my bar-adjacent table to a secluded two-top along the wall, facing a TV showing a stale SportsCenter from that morning.
The minutes between registering the order and receiving the food were like an eternity. It was a mixture of shame, fear, and abject hunger. My “preparation” consisted of going nearly 24 hours without eating—save for water and black coffee—and being kind of chubby. I’d say my strategy, if being so bold to suggest one existed, was to eat quickly and rely on the supposed 20-minute lag between my stomach being full and my brain recognizing it. This was my first time in the Saloon, so I tamped down the apprehension by looking around the place. Douchey western motif and mechanical bull aside, it was a nice place that—as plaques indicated—made award-winning chili and offered rare whiskeys. I tend to avoid downtown bars, but this had the makings of being a perfectly fine place. Like a less shitty Tumbleweed.
In the amount of time that reflected I was the only customer in the joint, the aforementioned server (Maria) was back with a heaping plate, an empty plate stacked high with napkins, a pitcher of ice water, and four words: “I hope you’re hungry.” She had no idea. Having eaten just once in the last 40-plus hours, I took note of the time and began dismantling my massive pile of meat and grease. First, I moved the ghost pepper wings to another place, as they were set against the burger and atop the fries, dripping scorching sauce on both—which is kind of dirty pool, but whatever. Then I took the deep fried chicken breast out from between the burger patties and went to town on a ONE POUND bacon cheeseburger (with vegetables and a fried egg), with occasional French fry switch-offs.
I ate at a somewhat leisurely pace, at least given the circumstances. I fought the urge to garnish it with ketchup and mustard, as to avoid adding even more shit I had to put inside of me. Even without condiments, the burger was nothing short of delicious, and I dispatched it into my chomping, viscous maw within eight minutes. As I was wiping grease off my hands and forearm, Maria resurfaced to check my progress. “Wow! You’re pretty far,” she said, obviously dulled to the gluttony by this point. With a look and tone I hope conveyed, “Please believe this isn’t the person I actually am!” I said, “Uh…thanks.”
I was already beginning to feel a mass of meat and bread take residence in my stomach, so I sipped a glass of water and quickly cut up/devoured the zesty breaded chicken breast—the highlight of the entire meal by far—within five minutes (again, eschewing BBQ sauce, as a space-saving measure). I had 10 minutes left, and the two largest components already within my person. However, the line that separates competitive eaters and gastronomical greenhorns was beginning to become more visible, as was the realization that I resided in the latter foodie phylum. I attacked the impossibly greasy fries as best I could, trying (and failing) to avoid the dollops of ghost peppers. Now, inane sports chatter about Peyton Manning’s “elite” status on the TV in front of me was a welcome escape from thinking about how gross and awful I felt. The melodies of mainstream country music was an acceptable respite to cover chewing noises and audible groans.
I wasn’t going to finish, but as the two-minute mark lapsed, I knew I needed to eat at least one wing to take in all elements of the ordeal. I like spicy foods (a lot, actually), but the wings were BY FAR the worst portion of the challenge. After 21-plus minutes of neglect, they were now dry, room temperature obstacles that also happened to be incredibly spicy. A mixture of indigestion, disgust, and filling any remaining air pockets in my stomach with water to kill the burn caused me to come up short as minute 23 came and went.
I’d eaten everything except five wings and about two-dozen fries—approximately three pounds of food and a staggering amount of calories in total. While I left without the free meal, and sans Red Rock t-shirt and hat I’d never wear or the respect of a woman whom I had thoroughly repulsed, I did leave with the knowledge that there are people out there who are capable of somehow-even-less-appealing eating feats than I. I failed The Unforgiven Challenge, but I won at life. Plus, I have leftovers.