March is a busy month for sports, when college basketball reaches its maddening climax and professional baseball gears up in spring training. But our men's basketball team is already knocked out of the NCAA tournament, and the nearest Major League Baseball franchise is an ongoing national tragi-comedy.
That doesn't mean we can't enjoy other homegrown athletics, however. Thanks to Lawrence's DonDon Japanese Rice and Noodle Bowl Shop, 2223 La., the month of March will soon become synonymous with America's other national pastime: overconsumption.
To mark its recent opening, Dondon's management is throwing down the gauntlet from March 1 to April 15 for what they call the Sumo Challenge - they want to know if any Kansas gaijin can stuff down five rice bowls in under an hour. Being a red-blooded and artery-clogged patriot, I was more than willing to accept this challenge.
While the dishes are Japanese, competitive eating is as American as apple pie and the conspicuous snarfing thereof. We have elevated the fine art of gluttony to Olympic sport, from the old-timey pie eating contests of our county fairs to the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Challenge to "Man vs. Food" on the Travel Channel. The United States is No. 1. We are unrivaled. All you have to do is look at our skyrocketing obesity rate to know that we are a nation of champions.
It's with this sense of bursting pride and soon-to-be bursting stretch pants that I undertook the Sumo Challenge. Wanting to add an extra element of gladiatorial spectacle to the occasion, I asked my friend Eric Graves to compete with me head-to-head, bowl-to-bowl. Not only would we be competing against the clock, we would be competing with each other. Two gurgitators enter; one gurgitator leaves.
Eric approached this, as would any athlete, with rigorous training. The man was driven. In the week leading up to the challenge, on multiple occasions, he tried to expand his stomach by drinking a gallon of water in a single sitting. It should be noted that the world body who oversees competitive eating, Major League Eating (yes, that's really a thing), strongly discourages this kind of home training. Quickly drinking massive amounts of water can lead to water intoxication, a potentially fatal condition.
Being a weenie who didn't want to drown himself, I took a slightly more psychological tack in my preparation. Paraphrasing Yogi Berra, "Eating embarrassing and shameful amounts of food is 90 percent mental, and the other half is physical." I figured that in order to conquer the Sumo Challenge, I would need to think like a sumo wrestler. I would need to be a sumo wrestler. And so I did what any serious-minded competitor would do - I bought a giant diaper and a Geisha wig.
Rules of engagement
When Eric and I arrived at Dondon on game day, we were treated to the ground rules by manager Angela Liu:
- We had to eat five rice bowls in under an hour.
- We were not allowed to throw up during that hour.
- We were not allowed to go the bathroom during that hour (for fear we would cheat and throw up).
- Upon finishing the five bowls, we had to abstain from throwing up for 10 minutes (just to rub it in, I guess).
If either of us were successful in meeting these criteria, we would earn a spot on the DonDon Wall of Fame, get an exclusive T-shirt labeling us winners, and not have to pay for any of the five rice bowls.
In the event of failure, we would have to pay for all five rice bowls, and our unflattering, bloated mugs would be slapped up on the DonDon Wall of Shame. It was hard not to notice that there were eight fallen warriors on the Wall of Shame, none of whom had done better than three-and-a-half bowls. Tellingly, there was no one on the Wall of Fame. I slipped into my diaper with the intention of changing that.
Eric and I were shown to the arena of battle. A nondescript table with a white cloth and plastic cover waited for us. The plastic shield, no doubt, was there just in case we violated the second rule of the challenge.
Before we could proceed, we both had to sign a release form that absolved DonDon of any harm we might do ourselves. This isn't just a publicity stunt. Binge and speed eating has been linked to everything from stomach paralysis to ulcer perforation. Don "Moses" Lerman, a competitor in the International Federation of Competitive Eating (yes, that's really another thing), has been quoted as saying, "I'll stretch my stomach until it causes internal bleeding." The world's best-known professional eater, Japan's Takeru Kobayashi, was sidelined in 2007 after seriously injuring his jaw during training.
Once we legally accepted full responsibility for the trauma we were about to inflict on our systems, it was on. Two trays were brought out from the kitchen, each with five bowls of our choosing. To keep things on as even a footing as possible, Eric and I ordered identical bowls. Angela wound the simple kitchen timer to 60 minutes, and we were off.
I started with the Beef Curry bowl and dug in with gusto. Call me arrogant, but I was feeling pretty good about my chances. I hadn't eaten anything that day and was starving, am frequently accused of having a tapeworm, and was wearing nothing but a wig and an oversized nappy in public. How could I lose?
By the time I finished that first bowl and realized 15 minutes had passed, I found out I could lose very easily. At that pace, I would never finish everything in under an hour. I had to redouble my efforts. But then I felt the rice baby kick. Time and space began to slow down. That second bowl was suddenly looking a lot more menacing. Eric had polished off his first bowl well before me but was now also getting visibly rice-drunk.
The writing on the wall
Angela tried to buck us up and put things in perspective, telling us that Kobayashi had eaten 20 pounds of rice in less than 30 minutes. We barely had 5 pounds of rice and twice the time, she enthused. That wasn't necessarily encouraging considering that Kobayashi is arguably inhuman. The man holds numerous world records, including Most Cow Brains Eaten at 17.7 pounds in 15 minutes. It's like comparing apples to cow brains.
Forging ahead with the second bowl, I could feel every grain expanding in my stomach. Now I know what those pigeons from the urban legend feel like when they eat the rice thrown at weddings. By the time I reached the bottom of the second bowl, another 15 minutes had passed. Five bowls was quickly becoming the impossible dream. The hope now was that I could get to four, set a restaurant record and save some face.
The trash-talking and playful banter Eric and I had been engaging in faded into grunts and whimpers. His early lead diminished, and we both were slogging through our third bowl. At this point I had a nasty case of the food sweats. My metabolism was working so hard to process this onslaught that I was perspiring like a bad comedian with a glandular problem. I took off my wig and mopped my brow with it. Eric was just staring into the horizon silently. My jaw hurt.
And then the bell rang. We were both so wrecked that we hardly noticed. It's actually an act of mercy, because Eric and I were in an existential plane of suffering. Our official tally at the end of 60 minutes was two-and-a half rice bowls each, although Eric insisted he finished 2 7/8 bowls. Whatever helps him sleep at night.
Our photos were taken and immortalized on the Wall of Shame. For all of the training, all of the irrational exuberance, all of the diapering, we couldn't even get three out of five. On the downside, we let ourselves and America down. On the upside, we didn't suffer from any internal bleeding and had plenty of delicious leftovers.
You've won this round, Sumo Challenge, but your time shall come.