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Redefining All-You-Can-Eat: Our 14 Hour Challenge to Ryan's Steakhouse photo

It is 1:38 pm the day after the event and the best way I can think of to describe the way I feel is: food hangover. I'm dressed in the loosest clothing I own with a throbbing, deep-seated headache and in spite of the disgusting amount of food I helped ingest yesterday from 7:30 am to 9:30 pm, my stomach still growls in a low, permeating kind of way. It only wants more, and the small bran bar I've just eaten is but a fleck in the onslaught that it now expects me to provide.

What's caused this quaint condition is September 3rd's visit to a Super Bar Buffet at Ryan's Steakhouse in Hiram, Georgia. The idea was to cause a scene crashing an All You Can Eat style restaurant with a posse and continue eating from open to close for a single buffet fee. We wanted to demonstrate to the proprietors how, perhaps, they should be more careful with their terminology -- that All You Can Eat might mean way more than they'd expected. And though yesterday we succeeded in 14 hours of a continuous 4-person chew (unless refilling or visiting the restroom), I can't help but feel that, in the end, the buffet won. Yes, though I alone ate 31 plates for $7.49 plus tax and tip, and together our group totaled 102, we never at any point came close to depleting the trough; not once did someone challenge our ambition; no one screamed, "Oh shit, they're killing us here!" In fact not once did any member of the Ryan's staff so much as grouse at what we were doing, except finally to wonder: Why are you doing this?

Our sense of accomplishment about the day was nonetheless immense. Just to give you an idea of what we went through, here is a list of various statistics:




NUMBER OF TIMES THE WAIT STAFF SANG THEIR VERSION OF HAPPY BIRTHDAY: 9 (Including one for either me or Farbod, which I lied about in order to receive)




NUMBER OF RACING and/or HUNTING-RELATED T-SHIRTS SPOTTED: I have no fucking conception

Our journey began 6 am Sunday morning. We picked a branch Hiram for its potential clientele -- we could expect our fellow patrons to be a spectacle unto themselves. Over the course of our meal, I witnessed an array of teeth that could only be described as maligned, from incisors the size of splinters to buck fronts that dented chins; we'd see a family of dwarves; a human incarnation of Humpty Dumpty; an enormous man wearing black leather pants and a cowboy hat with blue bandana bolo tie and egg in his mustache; a man with his whole head burned. But first, even just getting there proved a challenge. We had to be there on time, when doors opened, or we already would've failed. Mapquest ended up getting us off track and at fifteen minutes until 7:30, we were seemingly lost in the middle of nowhere, pissed and sweaty knuckled in anticipation. Another couple wrong turns stretched the desperation higher until finally, after somehow running across the road name in the restaurant's street address, we took off from the directions and followed our intuition, going 90 in a 45 down a road we weren't even sure of. This has to be it, we kept saying.

Our prayers still were in our eyes as the blood-red neon of the Ryan's Steakhouse Buffet marquee rose over morning Hiram highway. This was meant to be, I thought.

Later I'd think different.

As we pulled into the Ryan's parking lot with minutes left to spare, I was somewhat surprised to see it wasn't packed. Inside it was larger than the average restaurant, with dual chrome buffets lined down the center of the room, a dessert pavilion at the far end, and flanked on both sides by huge dining rooms. After hours the room could host a hoedown. We were numbers 5-8 rung up. Right behind me was a group of police officers who I had vague fantasies of being led away by, still certain that around the switch from breakfast to lunch we'd be asked to leave; I was prepared to fight with all my words. I would insist I hadn't gotten all I could eat yet. I envisioned a great moral battle. Indeed our receipts read 1 BREAKFAST ADULT, which seemed like clear legal wording to be used against us to say that we'd only paid for one meal, but there were no hours posted as to breakfast hours. I felt steadfast in our assumptions.

We were seated in a corner booth near the fire exit along the back wall, a speckled aquamarine table with sandstone colored seats. The room was cold, easily in the mid-60's. Our first of three servers, June, took drink orders. She seemed baffled by my friend Tom's request for water and repeated many times that drinks were included with our meals.

With that out of the way, we began to feed. I took a warm plate out of the seemingly endless spring-loaded receptacle of fresh plates and wandered along the canopied aisles. All manner of pastry and meats were to be had; eggs three ways and hash browns (either plain or in some bizarre casserole). Behind a live-order omelet station, a man stood with his spatula up in the air and repeated, no less than three times, directly to me that he could "make it any way you want" (a by-standing waitress reinforced this mantra for me, "any way you want," her eyes kind of gleaming as if she were intensely proud to accommodate all needs). Their diligence shied me. I had to proceed carefully, because, if I allowed myself to indulge as I normally would -- diving right in to all the glorious things my rumbling belly insisted on -- I'd be screwed in a couple hours. I had to pace myself, think about the long run; I couldn't go overboard on Belgian waffles and country ham. Of this mind, I selected carefully a tasteful arrangement of eggs, bacon and grits, as well as a greasy, bloated thing that I mistook for French toast, then headed back to the table where the others had already begun. 

At most any All You Can Eat bar I've ever taken part in, there's usually nothing spectacular about the individual dishes. It's not that they taste bad per se, but more that they are just there to get by. Even mac and cheese (which, who can fuck up mac and cheese?) often in these places has an earwaxy quality to it. It's quantity over quality, but that's exactly the point─if you get tired of fried fish, there's always mashed potatoes; if Ahh! Potatoes!, you can fill up on the bread; if not bread, there's salad, soup, spaghetti, soft-serve, and on and on until you're full. Occasionally you might come across something you would actually eat in a regular restaurant, at which point you look up at your table neighbor and say, Hey, the meatloaf's decent. It's about the small victories at the buffet. It's also about avoiding the repulsive.

For the first two hours, we were ambitious. We took our time building the plates, taking specific pleasure in making them aesthetically pleasing. Each plate was photographed and tallied before being eaten. One unfortunate mistake I made early on in our challenge came with the supposed French toast. On first entry, it would not accept my teeth. My teeth sunk in and stopped and I couldn't rip the bite off; when I took my mouth of and bit again I found the same problem, like I'd chomped down on elastic. For some reason, instead of giving up, I decided to bite a soft part near the other end and came back with a mouthful of saltiness that I couldn't help but imagine like the end product of a man. Fatback, Lee suggested. Horrified, I ran to the bucktoothed girl who'd rung me in; she looked at me pitifully and confirmed, as did a larger black man passing by, chuckling in derision, "Yeah, that's fatback."

I wasn't the only one delving into food-firsts that morning. Farbod announced over a helping of sausage and bacon that he'd never eaten pork. I hoped Ryan's wouldn't scar him for life. He ate both in a thoughtful concentration and proclaimed sausage the victor for its spiciness, though the bacon lived up to what he'd imagined after years of aromatic expectations. Farbod made quite an interesting addition to our group in that people in semi-rural Georgia weren't exactly thrilled to have a Persian around for breakfast. They made no attempt to hide their mouths hanging open. One father/son duo openly giggled.

At 7:50 AM, only twenty minutes in, Farbod found the first hair in our food, which went by remarkably without much fanfare. I'd come prepared to overlook my usual inhibitions of dining cleanliness. I had to; it came with the territory of a public help-yourself. I turned a blind eye many different times throughout the day while watching children put their fingers to the spigot of the soft serve, old men sneezing in the vicinity of the somehow discomforting sneeze-guards, ladies rooting through the biscuits with their fingers to find the just right one. At one point in the day I met near nausea in the men's room over an unidentifiable mess in the sink, which looked like someone had shaved and left it, only the slivers were too fat to be hair.

The hair in the food was the inaugural instance of many noted "firsts" throughout the day. Another first was noted at 8:20 AM, when Lee took our group's first crap. Farbod noted after his own first trip a little later that inside the handicapped stall someone's carved: SHUT YOUR ASS. Coincidentally, both Lee and Farbod suffer from a condition known as IBS, or Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Though most of the literature on the subject defines the symptoms as abdomen cramps and painful diarrhea or constipation, under this state, in this context all that it seemed to mean is that they have to use the restrooms more frequently than those of normal bowels. By midday I couldn't help but feel jealous of their ease, as it seemed food sluiced right on through them, while I just kept filling up.

Our group's 4th member Tom's case was a sensitive one in a completely different way, as due to a severe case of acid reflux, he's had his stomach stapled. Resultingly, he's physically unable to throw up, and so has to eat quite a bit slower than anyone else I know, taking it as carefully as he can. At some point nearing noon Farbod said that Tom's condition for some reason reminds him of the enormous snake in the water in the trash compactor in Star Wars, which we noted as the first food-hallucination. Promptly after, as if to mock Tom, Farbod had our group's first vomit at 9:30 AM. He came back looking refreshed, which thereby refreshed me. We continued.

Hairs 2 and 3 arrived forthright, along with a couple of other unwanteds, including a piece of plastic in Lee's poached eggs, which formed the eyes of a smiley face on his most notably accomplished plate design.

I saw our fist Confederate flag at 9:35 AM, wrapped around a man's head, as neither a hat nor a bandanna, but more just a thing that hugged his hair.

By 10:30, together we'd eaten 20 plates. Among these included a full plate of brownies by Farbod (and I mean a dinner plate, absolutely heaping─I was impressed) and an equally large plate of cottage cheese by Lee, a food he realized he didn't like. He made a quite remarkable attempt anyhow and only gave up near the end, at which point he decided to hide his waste from the staff by scooping the excess into his coffee cup and taking it to the bathroom to be flushed. The act was deemed our first "food illusion," a method of raking and/or redistributing the remainders on our more undesirable plates so that we couldn't be accused of wasting. The "food illusion" ended up becoming quite a complicated process, though; on taking it into a stall, Lee informed us later, red-faced and sweating, he decided to balance the heaping cheese cup on the toilet-paper dispenser so he'd have his hands free while utilizing the facilities. At some point, though, the cup fell and shattered, splattering cottage cheese on the man in the adjacent stall. Even back safely at the table, Lee couldn't get over the idea that he should go back and clean up the mess, paranoid that somehow the Ryan's staff would link it back to him and put an end to our marathon, now already several hours deep. There were so many ways they could break us, we realized: What if they refused to fill our drinks? What if they stop clearing the plates from our table, forcing us to stack higher and higher until we can't see each others' faces? Or what if the manager ordered arsenic in our water? What if the soft-serve machine went down? Though none of these things ever happened, we couldn't help feeling the creep of some certain paranoia, we couldn't help but feel a strain: some strange sensation no doubt fueled by our newly chubby bellies trying to sabotage our wicked brains.

We hit our 30th plate at precisely noon. There was a brief celebration, but we didn't let the small goal distract us; we continued, determined now to hit at least 75 by the end of the day, a goal which we later extended to 100 in some masochistic fit of accomplishment. 

There's most definitely a continuum to the way the body responds under a continuous influx of food. At first it seems enjoyable—I was pretty easily able to shirk my typical conscience's concern with eating unhealthily (as an eighth grader I weighed 260, and though I now only weigh 175 I still think about my diet like a desperate teenager trying to lose weight). The buffet's delights seemed like mediocre indulgences, a series of foods I rarely allow myself, even if not cooked with by the most delicate of chefs. Near the end of the first hour I experienced an endorphin-rushed giddiness not unlike a caffeine high, in which I felt kind as if I was floating, sated, indulged. It doesn't take long, usually, especially with an endless trough, to begin feeling comfortably full, a state wherein each further bite is a step towards uncomfortably full. You may continue eating for taste or pleasure, but it's no longer because you need it. You seem to literally be able to feel your body growing; your clothes feel like someone else's, someone smaller. You can literally feel the food building inside you, your body courses with excess energy. You may even break a little sweat. 

It was somewhere between the hours 1:00 and 5:00 PM that I started to want to die.

In the lunch rush, Ryan's Steakhouse began changing. The room began to take on some new smell; describable in retrospect now only as a mix of overcooked vegetables and bird shit. The place became swollen with people as the local churches began to let out. Many were dressed in their Sunday's best as they perused the fixin's. Soon the line extended out the front door. I began noticing people that'd been on shift during our breakfast were now in line with their own plates, which simultaneously confused me and made me feel better about the cleanliness of the food. 

Around the time of our 39th plate, I scribbled in my notebook something that might suggest the first signs of the mental deterioration that results from excessive overeating: "BRAINS HAVE BEGUN TO HURT-- ALL BLOOD IN HEAD. OUCHIES. FUCK MY BIG BOY BRAIN FOR THINKING RYAN'S STEAKHOUSE ALL DAY WOULD BE 'NEAT'. I AM AN EVIL GLUTTON." 

At this point I could feel my stomach beginning to hang off of my belly as if it wanted to secede; with both hands I could pinch a new bulge in my gut that hadn't been there when I came in. I immediately regretted not having submitted the four of us to weighing before and after. I began feeling pangs in my bladder that could not be attributed to the need to urinate. At 1:18 PM I noted that I felt literally drunk. 1:29 Lee claimed to have lost all hearing in his right ear. 1:49 Farbod announced how cool it would be if he could turn into a bat and fly around the room and out the door, which in our delirium we found infinitely hilarious.

We were feeling the inertia by now; we had to act with extreme caution. Food selection soon became of utmost importance. The general pattern during the midday hours was to alternate between plates of fresh fruit and sugar-free Jell-O, with sojourns into lighter choices on the hot buffet. Also safe was the soft-serve, of which there were two machines to choose from: orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream (which could be swirled) and chocolate/toffee/French vanilla, though more than once when I went for the toffee I ended up with a big squirty goop of liquid on my plate. 

As a counter measure to our care, the first loaf of Ryan's warm dinner rolls arrived. We'd been avoiding the bread and other starches thus far, for obvious reasons set in guidelines discussed days prior to the event as a method of managing to make it to the end. The bread, though. You had to see this bread. June delivered it in a foot-long basket arranged with individual cups of Country Crock, glistening in the sunlight and rising steam with a subtle scent of honey. It was with an acute sense of impending doom that I lifted the first roll, knowing that I might be throwing to the wind all hopes of endurance and temperance. I promised myself I'd just have one bite. That one bite, though, offered sweet realization: Ryan's Steakhouse makes the best fucking dinner rolls around. It was warm and sweet and salty and went down almost without chewing. It was a golden bounty. I immediately ate another. The rest of the table did the same. We looked at one another in horror. This would be our undoing. We were already so, so full, so bloated. My body was bulging even bigger, the dough swelling through my insides. I felt sure the end was near. 

Strangely though, the rolls seemed to bring new energy. Instead of weighing us down, suddenly we were smiling again. We were giddy. The rolls had kissed our brains. 

When June asked if we'd like another basket, we immediately said yes. 

I think that's about when we began eating steak. Steak seemed a raucous choice in such a marathon event, but hell, it's steak. How could we not? To get a steak you had to stand in line. A live cook in a chef's hat, his brow wiped with sweat or grease or both, served them up with a weird smile, the first one coming off into my hands as I watched a woman feed bits of greased blubber to her baby, waiting. The meat was decent though; they were hot and kind of lean. By the end the group as a whole had consumed thirteen 8 oz. servings, including one very rare slab that served as our 100th dish, complete with a sprig of spinach and two cherry tomatoes that spelled out the milestone digit. 

From about 4:00 to 7, we coasted pretty much without the help of any wait staff. June had gone home and because we'd been there so long no one else realized we needed a new lady, thus we had to fend for ourselves, drinking only what we had left in the cups already, and dumping off our plates onto other tables or stacking them into round pyramids. 

What happened around the 9th hour was what I now recognize as a key moment of transition. After the 2nd hour, I'd felt browbeaten and stone-bellied, like nothing I could do would stop me from at some point reaching the inevitable collapse—soon I'd become so full and sick of eating that I'd have no choice but to forfeit the fork. Rather than chewing the food, it seemed the food was chewing me. Beyond that, the realization that I'd been eating for ten hours without stopping suddenly seemed more grotesque than I'd realized, and that we still had five more to go (300 minutes, 2-4 bites a minutes, Jesus Christ) seemed inhuman, strange and wrong. On an average day, a person probably doesn't even spend a total of one hour eating, and I'd already done that ten times over. Another delirious note: "I HAVE OVERSTEPPED THE BOUNDS OF GOOD TASTE AND HARMONY ON THIS ONE. MY STOMACH IS A LARD VEIL. I AM GOING TO CRY INSIDE MY TUMMY. PLEASE STOP THIS." 

Ryan's was winning.

It was in the midst of my third plate of banana pudding, though, that something near to magic happened. A snap. A spark. Literally in mid-bite, I felt my brain twist and I fell out, as witnessed by my seatmate Tom in the form of what looked like I'd fallen asleep while sitting up. I had not fallen asleep. What it was more was a juncture, a spastic thrust resulting from the birth of a new consciousness. At that point I literally felt myself become not a human ingesting food to sustain life, but a mere entity, a blob. I was taking on mass like any entity subject to physical law - I was attracting nearby matter. This sudden brain-blip (something like the clipping of too high volumes) caused me to enter a state of delirium akin to death. I mean my human stomach died. As evidenced by a sudden switch to irrational optimism (I overspoke Tom in midsentence as he poopoo'd how long it seemed we'd been there to say that No, it didn't feel so long, in fact it seemed like no time at all), I'd reached the point of supersaturation and had bypassed the moment of morality that just moments before had me questioning that what I was doing there was wrong—it was no longer a question of gluttony, but now just a procedure, an act on par with breathing.

You might imagine how this brain trajectory might be the result of a hallucination from overeating. Indeed this claim would be supported by my sudden urge to run across the street to the Sonic fast-food restaurant just across the street outside our window and order a cheeseburger value meal to sacrifice to my stomach's flames, an urge only suppressed in fear that leaving Ryan's property would negate my claim to All I Could Eat. From that point forward, I swooped upon the great larders of subpar food with a new ravenousness. I had become a thing. A fat, fat thing that like a massive planet, wanted to absorb all that came near me.

My tiny, near illegible note on the page following the most recent rant clearly demonstrates my succumbing to the New State: "Okay. Let's eat."

Significant occurrences from our dinner hours:

- A woman ladling melted nacho cheese onto an already quite cheesy pile of mac and cheese for her Sunday-suited son who danced a jig while waiting.

- A child crying while shitting in the men's room.

- A family of 8, five of which were young boys all who looked exactly the same, with a mother who had on a midriff shirt that showed her love handles and pierced navel, and whose decorum took an odd turn when the only daughter, maybe three, cried over her ice cream and was taken away by her father, in reference to which when one of the clone sons asked where she was, the mother said, "Your father is teaching her a lesson."

- A repugnant casserole made of only peas, shredded cheddar cheese and mayo, which for some reason Lee took a dollop of.

- Our sixth hair in the food somehow threaded through the middle of Farbod's steak, which he tugged out and continued eating.

Dizzy for entertainment, we began prank calling any phone number we can read off of billboards through the window, including a five minute call to a Carl Black car dealership, who hung on me after I asked the manager of internet sales something lewd about his girlfriend.

We were finally picked up by a new waitress, a young Brazilian by the name of Angel. The only ethnicity represented all day other than white and blacks and Farbod were a single trio of Koreans at 7:12 PM, so Angel was somewhat of a rarity. She seemed to like me. She flirted in her broken English, explaining her love of "hip-hop" (her favorites being Beyonce and Mariah Carey) and mentioned that she'd like it very much if I'd bring her a tape of Tupac so she could hear him. I did my best to play along with Angel as she'd become our new source of fresh drinks and clear space on the table. For a few hours, conversation amongst the table leveled off to a kind-of delirious spit-and-spat, the four of us all more focused now on the science happening in our bodies than corresponding with one another.

At 7:24, we had our first run-in with the management. He was a large but fit black man who comes to stand at the end of our table. He was not smiling.

"I know ya'll been eatin' since this mornin'," he said. "Are ya'll doin' some kind of research?"

Everyone at the table was nervous; we didn't know what to say; there is a problem. Finally I spoke up and said that yes, we're doing gastrointestinal research, and that we're neck deep. After a moment of funny hesitation, the manager shook his head incredulously, without the premonition of a smile, and tells us to keep it up. He then left us to our devices.

From here on we were coasting. In the last hour we slowed down a bit in pace, though we still continued always eating, now sticking with cookies and plates of our favorite items from the day such as the fried shrimp and the mac and cheese, which by now were less like food and more like things to play with as we put them in our mouths. We breached our final goal of 100 plates via the aforementioned group steak just before nine o'clock and Farbod and Tom, now accomplished, sit back in caloric daze. At 9:05 PM, Lee came back from the bathroom to announced he'd shat blood, then he and I went back for what must have been at least my 8th bowl of banana pudding (one thing these places can always get right) and ice cream stacked with cookies for Lee, putting us at the final tally of 102.

As she realized what we'd done ("You bin heah aw day? Weawy?"), Angel started bragging on us to nearby tables. Families gawked in confusion on hearing we'd been eating there all day. A jovial mother of two began interviewing us with random questions while her husband gnawed a chicken leg and stared at me with a look that said only, I do not understand. The couple in the booth behind us confirmed again that yes, we've been here since 7:30 in the morning. They couldn't seem to figure out whether to laugh or spit. Angel made us promise more than a few times that when we're on NBC we'll say her name, which I promised her we would.

I felt nothing as I stood up from the table. The time to leave had come. We did not jump up and down in celebration. We did not high-five. We huddled in the direction of the door, mouths stuck open, beyond dazed.

On our way out, we hugged Angel and shook hands with another manager who kind of stood there looking at us with his arms crossed like a weird uncle, who listened with an air of distracted interest, nodding, while other workers explained to him what we'd done. Why? he asked. Why did we do this? What's the reason? What's the point?

Standing there with his confused eyes on us, I had no idea what to say. People had been asking us all day, and days before, in explaining the event to our friends. The only answer that seemed apparent is the one we'd offered each time with a shrug: to see if we could. Even then, as we repeated it, it didn't seem completely true. I can't put an exact name on why, but perhaps in the end, really, it's just something to talk about. If we could spend a Sunday at a backwoods Ryan's eating until our brains are about to bust instead of sitting around all afternoon and ending up in some dumb bar, then what other reason could we need? Made sense to me. Maybe it made sense to them also as a couple smiling waitresses followed to let us out through the now locked front doors, pausing only to take our picture with a ribboned bouquet under a trellis laced with plastic kudzu, inexplicably set up in the lobby like some tiny chapel in case any of Hiram's All-You-Can-Eaters felt like tying the knot on a full stomach. We drove home happy, if newly blubbered, with a sense of having done something, not quite sure what. When we split it was in silence, as if our whole brains were overheated with digestion.

And yes, now 14 hours and 102 plates of food later, somehow I really feel in a way a different person. The morning after, back at home, I can still smell the cooking oil in my hair though I've had a shower. Though I ran 3 miles when I got home (the guilty ex-fatty in me coming out), I still feel impregnated with lard. And now just a few hours after I'm actually sort of (help me) hungry. When I breathe in, I swear to God, I can taste the sugar-free cake I ate at least five bowls of during our merry morning, afternoon and eve.

Though I've always dreamed of breathing cake, right now it's beyond nauseating.