An Unsettling Challenge

“It’s a seven pound stuffed sopapilla, dude.”

“I realize that, Zach.”

Zach Gould was the photographer who first embarked on this project.

“I mean, ” I said, mostly to myself. “I’m trying to get a physical handle on the mass of it. Just the mass.”

Zach drove his POS Truck up the north I-25 rush hour traffic shifting through slow, wide lanes of SUVs that dwarfed us.

“I brought 10 pounds of potatoes last night.” I said. “So I have that to go on. But that’s a bag of fatty madness.”

“Do you really think you can eat it?” Zach asked.

“I don’t know, man.”

“It’s seven pounds of food—

“—I know—”

—which means it’s probably three pounds of chicken…. three pounds of beef…”

I tried to imagine a single pound of meat. I summoned mental fragments of fleshy TV dinners and fatty grocery aisle meats.  My chances didn’t seem good.

Two hours before, Culture Editor Chris Quintana snapped around the Daily Lobo newsroom.

“Graham!” he’d shouted. “Do you want to eat a seven pound sopapilla?!”

What am I really supposed to say to that?

“Well yeah.” I said.

Chris was ecstatic. “Really! Will you seriously do it?!” He wouldn’t stop shouting.

“Fuck yeah, I’ll do it.”

Why exactly am I saying yes to this? I thought. What the hell is wrong with me?

My friend Pat compared the American phenomenon of  “Eat this blimp-sized lard bucket we pretend is food in 30 minutes and you get it for FREE!” to another disgusting American pastime

—Black Friday.

Injury and death from the deluge of human savings occur almost every year from that rushing of the gate as stores first open their doors, “stompling” (the combination of the words “stomp” and “trample” for this specific kind of stampede) everyone who falls to the floor.

Black Friday: a time in which the absolute worst of humanity and American is fully, consistently, and annually on display.
 
In Tallahassee, Florida, two people, a man and a woman, were shot in dispute over a parking spot outside a Wal-Mart.
 
In Kentwood, Michigan, police prepare sprayed shoppers throwing punching at a JCPenney store at about 1:30 am.
 
In Washington, two Wal-mart shoppers were run down in a parking lot at a Covington store. Local news reported a 71-year-old drunk driver hit the couple as they were walking toward the store. 
 
At a Sears in Texas, two customers reportedly got into a fight and sparked a stampede that injured another person. Police said a man with a carrying permit pulled a gun out to get to the front of the line.
 
And all that was just in a single year.
 
There are now endless youtube videos nary a week old after the fact of mass fights of people desperate for smartphones, grabbing boxes, shoving and screaming and snatching, seemingly for life itself. 
 
A woman from Altamonte Springs, Flordia was arrested after Police report she refused to get in line and “began screaming and throwing the merchandise she was carrying to the floor.” Samantha Chavez is now immortalized forever in a short and distressing video of her rolling around on the floor screaming “I didn’t do anything” as police cuff her. 
 
Like the certainty of drunk driving on New Years’s Eve, Black Friday is blessed with the certainty of violence. This is usually and rather uniquely accomplished in Black Friday Fashion through the stompling that occurs when the rushing deluge fight to enter one store or another.
 
Though really, it’s often Wal-Mart. 
 
2008 was the year a Wal-Mart employee was stompled to death during the 5:00 am accidental unleashing of the freezing, frenzied shoppers upon the glory of $200 TVs. The door was taken off its hinges and broken completely down by the crowd refusing to stop or acknowledge the man who became crushed beneath their feet. Emergency personnel attempting to save him could not reach him and were pushed aside and ignored. Other people were injured and hospitalized by also being shoved to the floor and overrun, including a pregnant woman. 
 
It’s so shocking as to resemble parody. The townsfolk of “The Simpsons” riot so often as a running gag that it shouldn’t so terrifyingly accurate.
 
 What is most terrifying though, is that it is not a fluke. It isn’t random. America is a large, young country where we are not unaccustomed to horrifying violence, from public shooting to hate crimes to serial murders. You can argue “The Law of Averages,” that with so many people, at one time or another, unreasonable acts will occur. There will always be someone crazy enough and eventually they will a gun and act. 
 
But the insanity of Black Friday isn’t random.
 
It will happen next year too.

Yet the economic reasons for eating challenges make sense; it’s all marketing. What’s really mind-boggling to me is the idea that it’s so popular.

American mentalities play into it in large part, surely. The machismo of competition and the reward of a free meal is too much to pass up for a fragile identity of the male mind. We like to think we’re part of an elite and that we’re smart and savvy enough to beat to system. The really shocking part to me is that that “elite” revolves around the manfully virile lard bucket.

And here I was. Getting ready to take part in that same tradition that encouraged and celebrated gluttony as a success and admirable goal when war and food shortages cripple nations and kill hundreds of millions.

As we drove, Zach continued to inform me about the other food challenges around town. 

“See, it’s not a matter of if you puke,“ he said. “It’s when you puke. If you really can get through the entire seven pounds of meat without puking, you’ll definitely puke after.”

“It’s not all meat though. Kinda hard to imagine.”

The view of the Sadie’s sign ahead conjured feeling of guilt, gluttony and dread. Or maybe just hunger.

“Why are you even doing this in the first place,” Zach asked as he pulled into a parking spot.

“Well maybe because I actually take Chris seriously.”

“Well, Fuck Chris!” barked Zach. “See, that’s your first mistake.”

We gathered our things and sauntered inside, looking like a couple of bearded college dissidents than stalwart investigative journalists.

“Welcome to Sadie’s,” mumbled the quietly bored doorman as we passed as though it was a hotel.

We identified ourselves to the two young barristas and they went off to fetch Jerry, our humble manager escort.

Jerry was remarkably friendly, leading us back to the thick New Mexican dungeon that was the 4th and Solano Sadie’s kitchen. The massive tin factory of heat and sound boomed as the factored armies packed the space with clamoring Spanish and physical weight.

“Would you guys like anything to drink?” Jerry had a few small visible tattoos and his name scripted in cursive on his collared shirt.

“Ice tea would be great actually,” said Zach.

My impending doom seemed enough to take in as it was. What kind of space did I really have to spare?

“I’m fine,” I said as cheerfully as I could. 

Zach pulled out his camera and we stood by two mountainous steel caskets I wouldn’t have been able to fit my arms around where the chile was made.

The sopa itself– the size of a small child– was first produced and laid out in front of us. It resembled a pizza in girth and shape and Zach snapped pictures as I laid back and tried to distract myself by taking notes about the mechanical activities of the old woman soldiery deep-frying towers of tortilla chips.

As gathered the ingredients, it didn’t seem that bad at all. The combined beef and chicken weighted about a pound. Piles of papas and frijoles appeared to stuffed inside, but totally seemed within a doable realm.

As the red chile began to be ladled en masse on one half and green on the other, my mouth started to water. The top flap of the sopa was placed over the top and down rained the blubbery layer of cheese. The cook lifted up the fatty beast and weighted it. My mouth dropped— “Six pounds.”

Image

“With the garnish and everything it’ll weight about seven pounds,” the cook said casually.  “It’s almost there.” He danced more cheese across the top and I watched in horror as the needle creeped toward the little red “7” and my ultimate fate.

“Is it true you tell people you’re not responsible for them if they puke?” asked Zach as he snapped a few last pictures.

“Yep,” said Jerry. “Unless of course they get it on someone.” The sopa was carried off on a pizza pan a placed in a heater for the cheese to melt. “I personally don’t really have much of a choice serving it,” he continued. “I just think it’s really obnoxious.”

I stood and stared at my bulging opponent, making peace with the gluttony gods. Its inflated hide of melting cheese thick over what I was told was actually food. I had seen manholes that were smaller, its sleets tubby grease sweating what I knew were families’ worth of sustenance and future heart attacks.

I burst out laughing as I walked out the kitchen doors with Zach.

“Why are you laughing?” he said.

There was no way to respond.

We found the beast waiting for us at table as we approaching the dining area. Garnished and horrid and smelling delicious, it waiting patiently for it’s purpose to be fulfilled.

Zach arranged the water glasses and took pictures of it and eventually it and me together, sizing one another up.

Image

I felt like it had a soul as I stared into it, its new life in my hands. I had watched every step of its emotional creation and all leading to this point and moment.

“Go ahead and eat it I guess,” voiced Zach in a flat tone.

Thinking of Africa, I took my first bite.

I was really hungry when I started wolfing it down. I hadn’t eaten yet that day and the smells of food in the kitchen were intoxicating, though not as much as the beast I watched form.

I hacked and sawed and chewed and bit and ripped and crammed and shoved and swallowed. And then repeated. I kept up speed, not knowing if it was a marathon or more of a Ironman triathlon, drinking water sparingly.

And yeah, it was tasty. The beef and red chile at the back forty of the beast where I’d started was good, but it was hard to really enjoy.  I was tearing out sections and eating them and segmenting out more.

The majority of it was gone when I started to slow down significantly, a pound or two left. I could feel it wanting to work it’s way back up, the pressure and nausea that occurs when your body is subtly trying to tell you you’re being a completely moron.

“I don’t know why you’re even still doing this,” Zach said to me as I slumped over table.

“It’s the principle of the thing.” I mumbled over the pile of cheese and bean tissue.

 “We already got it for free. Why does it matter?”

 “I feel drunk,” I answered.

Image

 This was it, I realized. Zach had been right. If I tried to finish it, I would certainly puke. There was no doubt. I felt uncomfortable about the entire scenario anyway. Maybe I could escape with some semblance of dignity if I didn’t turn into Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” in the Sadie’s dining hall.

 Suddenly a waitress appeared out of nowhere.

 “How is everything?” she asked.

 I laughed until I puked.

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