Some people are destined to be government leaders or world-class athletes. Some are destined to spend 25 to life in prison for slitting a banker’s throat. Others are destined to run a small gas-and-go in Calhoun County, Illinois, where the natives can spot deer at night with their naked eyes. Still others are hardwired from birth to get married in their 20s, have a lovely family, and make an honest living selling Ultimate Fighting pants in Denver.
Yet very few are destined to digest a 72-ounce steak in one sitting. I am one of those people. This is my cross to bear.
Until three Thursdays ago, I had failed to pursue my destiny, but I’d been aware of it since I played second base in Coach Pitch. Every couple of weeks or so, after practice, my family would dine exactly one block from home at the Wedgwood Broiler. On the wall near the greeter’s podium was a small plaque with a beige slip of paper inside, containing the following words in 1950s typeface: “FREE 72 OZ. STEAK DINNER IF You follow these rules.. ..” Notice that the part about the rules drifts into lowercase. Didn’t matter anyhow: I never read the rules. I just wanted a shot at that steak.
Trapped in a state of delusional prepubescent arrogance and boasting the metabolism of a hummingbird, I believed with all my heart that I could—and would—complete what is commonly known around Wedgwood as “the Sirloin Challenge” or “the Big One.” Neighborhood lore has it that only one man has toppled the Big One in the half-century that the Broiler has been in operation, and that was a good 30 years ago.
Now approaching middle age, the time had come to fulfill my childhood destiny. The time had come to take a shot at the Big One.
Sitting in the lounge of the Broiler three Thursdays ago at approximately 6 p.m., surrounded by friends and family, I quietly downed two glasses of bourbon. (Bourbon makes me hungry.) My father’s neighbor asked me if I was nervous. Indeed I was; I explained that normal meals are like practice, while the meal I was about to eat was a championship game.
Earlier that day, at a table outside Stan’s Drive-In on Rainier Avenue, I’d unwrapped what would undoubtedly be the most important bacon double cheeseburger of my life. For the past week or so, my “training” for the Sirloin Challenge had been to eat as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted, so as to expand my stomach capacity in the run-up to the event. This being game day, some had suggested that I break my routine and maybe have a salad for lunch. Not a chance, I reasoned: Stick with the regimen; the regimen was working. I inhaled the bacon burger like it was a Ritz cracker and confidently walked the two miles back to my office in the shining sun, a long day’s journey into the biggest of nights.
But behind the challenge of eating the Big One lurked another dilemma: how to make things interesting for the dozen or so spectators who’d vowed to come root me on. The solution: Invite the world’s two strongest men to dinner. In a bit of channel-surfing serendipity, I learned from ESPN that the world’s second strongest man was a gentleman named Jesse Marunde, and that Marunde lived in Sequim. The 320-pound Marunde and his peers don’t measure their strength via squat thrusts and bench presses, they do it by tossing full kegs over 10-foot bars on a beach in China, lifting 600-pound logs off the ground and pushing them into upright positions, and jogging around with 300-pound anvils like they’re briefcases.
Turns out, Marunde was already scheduled to be in the Seattle area in early April for a promotional visit, during which he and 1998 Strongman champion Magnus Samuelsson would pull a 32,000-pound antique fire truck through the parking lot of a Bellevue G.I. Joe’s. Better yet, neither Marunde nor Samuelsson—an affable Swede who’s slightly taller and more chiseled than his younger stateside counterpart—had plans for the evening of April 5, and they accepted my invitation to take the Sirloin Challenge alongside me.
But about those rules I’d always ignored: They’re a motherfucker. As if it isn’t enough to simply consume a 72-ounce steak over the course of an evening, the contestant must do so in under an hour without leaving his table—which he must occupy sans companionship. Worse yet, it’s not just the steak he has to put down; he must eat an entire “Winner’s Dinner” as well, a daunting assemblage of chow that includes a dinner salad, a cup of soup, a dinner roll, 10 French fries, a glass of tomato juice, a cup of tea, and a bowl of raspberry sherbet.
And what do you get for your trouble if you happen to plow through it all? You get what you ate, for free—no trophy besides the noggin-sized slab in your gut that might take days to digest. Fail and you forfeit the $75 per meal deposit that must be paid in full prior to service.
It was in processing this ludicrous rule book that I began to realize the difference between lil’ Mike circa 1984 and the potbellied Mike of today. Lil’ Mike would have played to win, whereas potbellied Mike, saddled with a double-edged sense of pragmatism, set the bar at half the steak and all the sides. That’s still a glutton’s holiday, to be sure, but it ain’t the stuff of destiny.
I emerged from the Broiler’s lounge at approximately 6:20 to greet Marunde and Samuelsson, fresh off a workout at the gym following their charity fire-truck pull. (Samuelsson said the rig was so easy to tow that he asked the fireman steering it to ride the brakes in order to give the crowd a better show.) The three of us quickly proceeded to the restaurant’s back room, which was cordoned off for our peanut gallery, and had a waitress fetch us some more bourbon, reasoning that if we were going to tempt surefire failure, we might as well tie a bag on in the process.
When he accepted my invitation, Marunde had harbored serious doubts about his own ability to make a good showing, explaining that he ate eight small meals per day and was therefore ill equipped to deep-throat a gargantuan feast in one sitting. The happy-go-lucky Samuelsson, however, revealed that he grew up on a ranch, and that the Sirloin Challenge represented something of a culinary homecoming for him. With this, we were instantly bonded as brothers in meat, the critical difference being that Samuelsson can lift a Volvo with one arm, while I occasionally struggle to disengage the key from its ignition.
At around 6:40, with Winner’s Dinners assembled in their entirety on each of our tables (save for the sherbet, on standby in the kitchen freezer), Broiler owner Derek Cockbain started his timer. My first bite was a gigantic forkful of fat, which almost caused me to choke. From there, I took small- to medium-sized bites of my steak and frequently intermingled my sides, while Marunde and Samuelsson were completely focused on their slabs, carving off what seemed like forearm-sized slices of beef and consuming them methodically.
While my large guests were clearly outpacing me, at about the 15-minute mark, I started to establish a rhythm akin to when a shooter finds his outside stroke or a pitcher’s slider starts nose-diving on batters. At the halfway point, my sides and beverages mostly taken care of, I summoned the sherbet as an intermezzo, and soothed into a spoonful-forklift rotation that welcomingly broke the meaty monotony.
It was around this time that Marunde and Samuelsson, who conceded that he might have made a mistake by ordering a pint of Mirror Pond 15 minutes into the competition, stood up to stretch and walk around—a no-no, according to the rules. This posed a quandary for Cockbain: Inform the world’s two strongest men that they were disqualified and risk getting his ass kicked, or look the other way and risk the integrity of the challenge. Cockbain wisely chose the latter course of action, and the two giants returned to their meals, following my lead in summoning their sherbets to balance out the beef.
But then, at the 20-minute mark, reality began to sink in: None of us stood much of a chance of completing our meals on time. For the next 10 minutes, we formed the opinion that if we were able to sit and eat for an additional half-hour, victory would be ours. But then, with 10 minutes to go, another reality set in: All of us were absolutely fucking stuffed. With five minutes to go, while my comrades soldiered on, I waved my white napkin, running out the clock with pigeonlike nibbles on a half-eaten dinner roll.
As we stood to assess the damage done, it was clear that I had done the best job of consuming the side dishes. Equally clear was how thoroughly I’d gotten my ass whipped by Marunde and Samuelsson on the meat portion of the meal. Cockbain claims Samuelsson, who probably came within 20 ounces of swallowing his whole steak, had gotten the closest he’d ever seen to finishing the challenge. Marunde, who probably had 30 ounces remaining on his plate, was no slouch either.
By comparison, I’d managed to consume maybe 32 of my 72 ounces. Both Marunde and Cockbain remarked that this was “a hell of a lot more” than they thought I’d finish, with Marunde adding the predictable “not bad for a little guy” quip to bolster my spirits and charm the crowd.
But little did Marunde know that it was actually a littler guy—Lil’ Mike —who’d have stood a better chance of conquering Meat Mountain so many years before. The version that stood bloated before him was the portrait of vanished ambition, of destiny unfulfilled.