To read about Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin vs. The Colossal Pancake Challenge, click here.
Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions — on a sesame seed bun — is a big sandwich in Ronald McDonald’s book.
Not in Rit Frederick’s book.
Frederick serves a 1-pound hamburger patty — about the size of a small pizza — at Wagon Train Barbecue, the restaurant he co-owns in Rotterdam. He tops it with two fried eggs, 8 ounces of pulled pork, 8 ounces of beef brisket and 8 ounces of macaroni and cheese. There’s more — four strips of bacon, 8 ounces of coleslaw, onion slivers, jalapeno peppers and a liberal splash of barbecue sauce. The foot-high monstrosity also comes with 1 pound of french fries and onion rings.
“We came up with the Graveyard Burger,” Frederick says cheerfully. “If you eat this thing, it’s going to put you in a graveyard.”
The gimmick is one of several that have appeared recently on menus in Capital Region restaurants. At Cusato’s Pizzeria and Deli in Rotterdam and Halfmoon, customers can order the Colossal Pizza, a 26-inch pie that looks more like the top of a bistro table. In Mechanicville, The Ugly Rooster Cafe offers the Colossal Pancake Challenge — two Frisbee-sized pancakes served with a pound of fruit and big scoops of butter and whipped cream.
Giants also wait at The Factory in Ballston Spa, where the Laborer is the restaurant’s 5-pound, $29.99 hamburger. Daurizio’s Pizza in Schenectady allows two-person teams for its Fatboy Challenge. The hungry must eat a 20-cut “Fatboy” pizza with two toppings, 20 chicken wings and orders of garlic and cinnamon knots, all in one hour’s time.
“No losing it,” read the blunt Daurizio rules. “Must keep it down.”
Fame and prizes await the victors — perhaps along with heartburn and a long nap.
Casual and gourmet food fans with more restrained cravings can blame the stunts on Adam Richman. The 37-year-old actor has become a star on the Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food Nation” reality show, which began in 2008. The affable Richman visits a restaurant or two for every show and tries to eat mammoth dinners as cameras catch every grimace, every drop of sweat, every bulging cheek. He has challenged 180 oysters in New Orleans, a 72-ounce steak in Texas, a 1-gallon milk shake in St. Louis — just a few of his culinary adventures.
The stunts can be hard on the husky Richman’s stomach, and tough on viewers’ eyes. It’s sort of like watching Paul Newman eat 50 hard-boiled eggs in the 1967 movie “Cool Hand Luke.” Luke achieved his goal — Richman doesn’t always win his feuds with food.
Restaurateurs with giant foods in their pantries are all hoping to attract Adam for a sit-down and national publicity. For now, they’ll settle for people who think their stomachs are indestructible. Whenever someone tries big portions in the Capital Region, they often bring friends for moral and aural support; there are generally cheers of encouragement.
“People watch for fun,” said Steve Capitummino, manager and cook at the Wagon Train. “Coney Island — look at how many people show up for that thing, to watch people gorge themselves with hot dogs.”
That “thing” is the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, held every Independence Day. Last year, Joey Chestnut of San Jose, Calif., ate 54 franks in 10 minutes to win the nationally televised showdown.
Only about 10 people have tried the $30 “Graveyard” with the clock running. All have failed, and have taken home leftovers.
“If you win the challenge, we’ll give you the meal for free, we’ll give you a T-shirt and we’ll give you your own private parking spot in front for 30 days with your name on it,” said Frederick, who opened his restaurant on Mariaville Road at Burdeck Street in January.
Some diners have been more confident than others. “One guy walked in here with a WCW world championship belt, he thought he was going to do it,” Capitummino said. “And he ate the least out of everybody. He thought he was going to be the champ, I guess.”
Not everyone orders the “Graveyard” for a new T-shirt and parking spot. “People will order it as a family and then take it home,” Capitummino said. “Almost every single person who has ordered it that way has called us on the phone and said, ‘That was amazing.’ It’s not just some freak thing, it’s a good sandwich.”
Ariel Pagan knows his pancakes are freak things. Every time someone tries to beat the house in the breakfast challenge, he carries a platter containing 5 pounds of cake and fruit from the kitchen with great fanfare. He announces to people seated at the Ugly Rooster’s 15 tables and front counter that another contestant has dared to battle the batter.
To read about Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin vs. The Colossal Pancake Challenge, click here.
As of last week, 118 people had tried. Nobody has won yet — photos of brave hearts are tacked to a “wall of shame” board near one of the Rooster’s front windows on North Main Street.
“The idea was to have a catch to bring people in for some reason,” Pagan said. “So it was let’s have a gimmick of some sort. I didn’t want to do burgers because everybody does burgers. I thought a pancake would be all right. I didn’t want to do French toast because you’d have to have a lot of French toast. Pancakes were easier to do.”
Easier for the chef, that is. Pagan said some people have come close to completing their gustatory tasks in the allotted 30 minutes, but Pagan has not had to dish out a free meal, T-shirt and $50 gift certificate.
“I think it’s the starch,” he said. “If I gave you a steak that size, you’d probably be able to finish it. But I think the starch gets to people. After a while, they’re like, ‘OK, this is enough.’ ”
Women have tried. So have 10-year-old kids. So has Joe Jaquez of Mechanicville.
“Let’s put it this way,” said Jaquez, 37. “If it was a mixed martial arts or a boxing match I would have been knocked out in the first round. I got hurt.”
Jaquez answered the breakfast bell with two friends in March 2010. All three men had a few beers the night before the test, hoping for ravenous appetites the next morning. “That didn’t help at all,” Jaquez said. “I haven’t had pancakes since the challenge.”
Pagan said the big cakes are the equivalent of about 10 regular-sized pancakes. The plate takes about 15 minutes to assemble, and challengers can choose fresh strawberries or fresh banana slices. The other fruit options are cherries, blueberries, apples — all pie-filling products.
“I think the wise choice would either be the bananas or the strawberries,” Pagan said. “The blueberries are from the pie filling, I think that’s way too thick and sweet.”
He offers another possible path to success. “Don’t bother with the knife and fork,” Pagan said. “I think you just have to go at it with two hands.”
An aggravated, annoyed and abused digestive system can cost extra money. “I will bring a bucket out,” Pagan said. “But if you use it, it’s $5 more.”
A giant pancake or hamburger may not be a heart attack waiting to happen. But it’s probably not the healthiest choice for breakfast or lunch, according to medical experts.
Dr. Jennifer Lindstrom, a clinical nutritionist at Albany Medical Center in Albany, marvels at some of the stunts in “Man v. Food.” And not in a good way.
“Some of the stuff he’s eating is 10 or 12 times the portions you would normally expect,” she said. “He’s eating 72 ounces of meat, that’s 10 times or more the amount of meat the average adult male usually needs, and he’s eating it at one sitting.”
At the very least, 5 pounds of food at once could cause a stomachache.
“You could just not feel well because you ate so much,” Lindstrom said. “People will say, ‘I can’t believe I ate all that, I think I’m feeling sick.’ How often have you heard that? It takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that you’re full. …When you eat fast, you’re more likely to overeat.”
The giant pizza at Cusato’s comes with 3 pounds of dough, 2 pounds of cheese and another pound of tomato sauce. Ten slices are about 12 inches long, 7 inches wide at the crust end. “If you’re successful, you walk away with a full tummy and you don’t have to pay for the pie,” said Joe Citone, who owns the pizzeria. “And you get a second Colossal, on a gift certificate.”
Citone was hoping Richman would notice, and put on his napkin in Rotterdam. But the program was not interested.
“We’ve had a lot of college kids, from Union and Saint Rose,” Citone said. “We’ve had people come from out of town. It’s an opportunity for us to promote and offer a challenge.”
One Saint Rose student made Cusato’s pay the price. He finished the pie under the time limit. “He pieced two slices together,” Citone said.
Mike Cintula, 57, of Rotterdam — a Cusato’s customer — said he loves pizza. But his personal capacity and stamina would never allow him to try the mission. “I just had two slices,” Cintula said. “I don’t think I’d be able to eat a third. I don’t know how anybody could sit down and eat even half of that.”
Some people want toppings for their tests.
“You want pepperoni?” Cintula asked. “There’s another pound of topping,” added general manager Emilio Cafaro.
Cintula believes the “Man v. Food” gimmicks are popular because they appeal to Americans’ competitive spirits. “And we super-size everything,” he said.
“Think of Thanksgiving,” he added. “You don’t eat anything in the morning, can’t wait for Mom to bring out the turkey and all the fixings, then you gorge. When you’re done, you end up on the couch in front of the TV, ready to pass out. If somebody eats the whole Colossal, it has to be the same feeling.”