I Almost Survived Thai Torture
Published in the Fall 2007 edition of Carpe Noctem, Duke University’s humor magazine
TWELVE WINGS IN THIRTY MINUTES. Eat them all, and you get your money back. No other food allowed. Water and soda are permitted, but milk isn’t. No vomiting.
Seems easy enough. So why are they making me sign a health waiver?
The scene is Chai’s, a pan-Asian restaurant, on a lazy Tuesday night in Durham, NC. I’ve just inquired about a dish called “Thai Torture.” The closest I’ve come to competitive eating is cheering for Kobayashi in Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest on the 4th of July, but I feel like trying this one out. Unless a restaurant fails sanitation code, comparing its offerings to The Rack is a little much, so I want to tone down the hype. The girl at the cash register is cute and hopefully 19 years old, and I have a yen to impress her. My summer was pretty boring, and I need some stories. Oh, and I’m hungry.
As soon as I sign up, and the hype machine starts churning. First, there’s the waiver, a nice example of a Duke Law student doing something for his community. Then my friends rub my shoulders, tell me they’ve heard horror stories, and give some requisite gastronomical gallows gags. The chef on duty gives me his advice (don’t drink water, and let them sit for a while to cool off) and tells me no one has finished the twelve all summer, so he’s cheering for me. This worries me a little, but then again, they haven’t had many college students, either. Everyone else is served their food at least fifteen minutes before I get my own. Things officially become ridiculous when the register girl sets up a chair behind our table to insure the propriety of the proceedings.
The wings arrive. They’re blazing red and much bigger than the usual, but they don’t smell much different from typical spicy fare. They’re fresh from the oven, though, and that calls for a lesson in the 0th Law of Thermodynamics. I keep my hands on the wings to cool them down, then place each of them on individual napkins so they’ll cool off faster. Five minutes is all I can stand to wait. Here’s how the first four go:
1: Hey, these are delicious!
2: They’re hot, but it’s nothing I can’t handle.
3: Hmm…it’s taking a while to swallow these, but I can wash it down with some water.
4: Okay, maybe I should stop.
I burp for the First Time, and almost everything comes up with me. The restaurant watches, horrified. I take a couple minutes to gather myself, and I have a moment of clarity. It’s all so simple that Freud could have explained it:
Superego: Oh, James, see how your friends cheer! How firmly do they believe in you! May you vindicate their faith!
Id: EAT THE FOOD. GET THE GIRL. WIN THE GAME.
Ego: Well, you’re both right.
Off we go. Now that my hunger is sated, the wings aren’t delicious anymore: the spice is so strong that it demolishes all other flavors. Not that it matters. I’m in a zone. All I have to do is chew and swallow.
Temperature, Spice, Size. My eyes and nose are running like Michael Johnson, and my stomach feels like a sinking ship, but so far I’ve handled three of the four horsemen of the Wingpocalypse. The last is what’s bothering me, though: the Strange Ingredient. The food’s sitting in my esophagus, trying to escape every couple minutes, because my body doesn’t understand what’s inside them.
“Get down there!” I say.
“?” it replies.
Nine. Ten. Eleven. The girl can’t decide if she could encourage or discourage me. My friends tell me I have plenty of time left, but I think they’re lying. Do I have three minutes left or seven? With the eleventh still in my mouth, I take a couple bites of the twelfth, but I need to swallow, breathe, swallow…
This burp is too strong. I’ve had a “reversal of fortune,” as they say in the world of competitive eating, and now my mouth is full of food I’ve eaten already. Heroic Kobayashi overcame this problem earlier in the year, though, so I can…oh, never mind. Ten, nine, eight, seven wings are all that reside in my stomach now. “Oh, gross!” the girl behind me says as she puts away my “I Survived Thai Torture” T-shirt. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” my friend John said sagaciously.
I feel pretty guilty about my mess, so I cover my plate with napkins, pick it up, and turn towards the kitchen – but the look of horror on the girl’s face indicates that that would rip the health code in half, so I forget it. As I wipe off my hands, a few frat friends walk in, see me, and offer handshakes. I look at my hands…at my plate…the wheels turn…and I pump their fists happily. Sorry, mates, but it was too good to pass up.
I may have lost, but my friends still love me. I have a nice conversation with the chef, too. What about the girl? The transcript would make Shakespeare weep:
“Hey, that was fun! Oh yeah, my name is James.”
“……okay, uh, see you later.”
“I’ve been at college less than 24 hours, and I’ve already seen someone throw up. This year is gonna be awesome!” I need two days to flush the poison out of my body, but the tale makes me laugh every time, and the legend is growing. For the Build kids, “Wing #12” becomes the moment when you just can’t take it anymore.
Throwing up on the last wing was better than winning. It creates interest while making the achievement possible. So I return a couple days later so a couple of my friends could try it. “If James ate 11, and I’m the spice master, then I’ll be able to finish it easily,” one says. The other is a tree: 6’4 and strong enough to bench his own weight and clear 21 drinks without stumbling. He can definitely fit a dozen in his belly. What happens?
The Spice Master: 5
The Tree: 1
I: Greatly enjoy my Korean Skirt Steak and throw in a wing for old time’s sake.
Now I pass the story on to you. So, ah, here’s to the spirit of adventure! Go forth and devour the wing challenges of your own lives.