Before I begin a humorous story about fish, here’s a more somber article about the shark attack that killed a triathlete back in April. It’s a much more detailed account of the victim’s joyful life, the people he knew, and the woman next to him at the moment of the attack. But since Julian requested it, why the hell would I eat 8 Filet-O-Fish sandwiches? In some ways, for the same reasons I do triathlons.
Some months ago my wife and I were visiting friends down in Redondo Beach. We passed a McDonalds and they had a sign up for “Filet-O-Fish Fridays”. My wife and I have fond memories of the Filet-O-Fish. Growing up in households that kept kosher, it was one of the few acceptable fast food meals because fish are considered parve, which means it is the only meat you can combine with cheese. Cheeseburgers were verboten, so much so that in my case it was a delicious Hardees cheeseburger that created an explosive flashpoint during my parent’s separation and subsequent divorce. I’m not saying that it was the cheeseburger that caused their divorce, but traif is a taste so powerful the Japanese believe that it deserves its own category of flavor. Thus my early years were spent eating the Filet-O-Fish until the Cheeseburger Crisis of 1981. My wife’s much less violent childhood had happy memories of the sandwich, meals grabbed on the way to piano lessons, Jewish youth group meetings, and study sessions; food consumed in the point-to-point existence of the microcosm her parents created for her and her siblings. McDonalds fulfills that role for many parents now as we have all become dotted lines connecting our pod-like lives. We move from point to point in our little car cocoons, eating passively between spheres. It is part of our disassociation from one another, hiding in our protected spaces. We want cars that seal out the sound of the world around us because we have given up communicating with each other except by middle finger. We pilot ourselves from place to place while talking on cellphones desperately saying, “can you hear me?”, the crappy reception barely hiding our whimpering pleas to be recognized. “Can you hear me?” is what we say as we entomb ourselves in routine, trapped in cars or cubicles that so much resemble coffins.
This makes the Filet-O-Fish a relic of the past. The brief campaign to remind people of its existence seemed to sputter out when Filet-O-Fish Fridays came and went, replaced by some new gargantuan cheeseburger designed to satisfy the beastly demands of our consumer culture. As we talked about our relationship to this sandwich my wife asked innocently enough, “how many Filet-O-Fish sandwiches do you think you could eat?” Juxtaposing the happy memory with a current trend of extreme consumption. I thought about it, rolled the memory of flavor across my tongue and pondered the dollop of tangy tartar sauce combined with the tender, steaming fish patty. The yellow cheese had cloaked itself from my mind, but the tender, spongy bun softly protecting the crisp microslab of pollock, or cod, or the mystery fish known as “white” was bringing back happy, hungry thoughts.
I thought I could eat 10. My wife is slender, a natural mesomorph, and is not known for her ability to consume large quantities, whereas I was known for quite a time as “the finisher” at meals. She really felt like she could eat 5. I laughed, there was no way. She was being ambitious. This is a woman who as a youth could eat an entire pizza by herself and then burn it off by overachieving something the next day. But 5? Hah! When we got to our friend’s house we asked them the same question. Mike thought he could do at least five. Craig thought even more – but he had worked at a McDonalds as a teenager and was repulsed immediately by the idea. Mike was a professional chef and Craig has become an amazing gourmet in the last several years, once having cooked almost everything in a full year of Cook’s Illustrated. But indulging goofy ideas is in part why we love them, and Mike said this was something we needed to do. And thus, the Filet-O-Fish Challenge was born.
As soon as it was declared I wondered what sort of hell I’d just signed myself up for. I was deep in training for my first half ironman race and was getting serious about my nutrition and eating. I hadn’t been to a McDonalds in years, having sworn off them completely after reading Fast Food Nation, amongst other screeds. As an iconoclastic punk I’d eschewed anything mainstream and McDonalds represented the epitome of pop consumer culture. I mean, the shit is foul stuff. (It’s barely fowl these days, too.) Once a year, tops, I’d get an urge to eat a Big Mac for some mysterious reason. Maybe a chip in my head that gets activated. The last few times I dared to indulge the craving I felt nauseated for the rest of the day. My wife hadn’t been in well over half a decade, and even then it was for the beef-flavored fries. Those were long gone, having been proven to kill truck drivers in lab tests. I was able to beg off the contest until Off-Season Max could figure out how to avoid it.
Off-Season came faster than I anticipated and with it came the reminder of the Filet-O-Fish challenge. I was so unprepared for it I kept thinking they were called “Filet O’Fishes” as if they were some Irish cuisine crated in revenge for the potato famine. As I threw myself into tri bike research I cunningly agreed to the Challenge in the middle of a big bike mileage weekend.
It did not help to read that the Filet-O-Fish of my youth underwent some body modifications since last we met. In the 1990’s its mass was increased by 50%, and then scaled back by 10%. The same could be said for myself, so I chose not to hold it against the sandwich. It would definitely change my original estimation of how many I could eat.
Mike and Craig came over and we photographed ourselves pre-meal. I did not opt in to weigh myself, and pedaled extra hard that morning on my test ride of the Specialized Transition Comp. Still, the GPS said I had only burned 1,000 calories. This was going to hurt.
I am amazed by my wife’s abs. She says she does stomach crunches in the car while driving. I wish it were that easy for me.
We stepped to the counter and my wife ordered 5 sandwiches. Helga Manager (for that is what was printed on her name badge) rang it up, even though my wife said “we’re going to eat a lot”. Helga Manager did a double take when I stepped up and ordered 10. And two drinks. And fries. (For Craig, who declined participation.) Helga Manager keyed it in and said it would be a little while, they had to make them. Did she actually say, “make”? I don’t recall. Because really, these things aren’t made as much as resurrected in the Lazarus Cave they call a “kitchen”. “Making” something requires the incorporation of ingredients. This is assemblage, heating, and serving. It is as close to “making” as Dr. Frankenstein came to “creating” life by reanimating the dead.
We carried our catch to the tables, engineered to become uncomfortable after 15 minutes. We surveyed the bounty before us and I thought for one more moment what a horrendously bad idea this was. And yet, once the transaction was complete and my complicity in the industrial food complex condoned for another year, I have to admit it smelled good. And that first bite into spongy bread yielding through tangy tartar into something close to fish was not just okay, but good. A flood of food memories, of dopamine receptors firing as the swirl of savory protein and carbohydrates made its way across my palate. No steam, these had already succumbed to McDonalds entropy and had lost significant heat, but even that was a conjuring of the right memories. Too hot would have been a corruption of the hallmark mediocrity that is the Filet-O-Fish. That first sandwich was tasty, feisty, and satisfying. There can be only one.
Mike ate his first sandwich in under two minutes, and his second almost as fast. Since we had not set a time limit, this was a contest of quantity without speed (though it had to be in one sitting), I chose to go slow and steady. I am a bundle of slow twitch muscle fiber, and that includes my stomach. I would not make the mistake of my first marathon and take the heel of a faster group – it would hurt later.
I paused a moment before digging into number two. It held its flavor, the consistency remarkable. This is one of the many things McDonalds counts upon, the lack of change and consistency across all its locations worldwide. This flavor is the same flavor I enjoyed as a child. It reinforces their brand with every bite. So when you are doubled over in some foreign country as the alien E Coli ravages your system, the one thing you can count on after you recover is that there is a McDonalds somewhere nearby that will not kill you. I have friends who have crawled on weakened legs for a Coke in unpronounceable lands. I know people that have laid in bed for days with stomach destroying parasites and they dream of something as dumb as a Big Mac. Because it is familiar, unchanging, even as their guts turn inside out from someone’s idea of “curry”. This is what foodies are fighting, and it is a powerful American virus.
By sandwich number four I was feeling like I was getting the whole Filet-O-Fish experience. Like a Phillip Glass arrangement I was finding new things in the repetition. But like an insistent background oscillation the tartar sauce, which at first balanced the blandness of the fish, now was a horrible irritant. It was the wrong kind of creamy, an invader of mayonnaise. Worse, was the consistent way it leaked onto my goatee every other bite, like some pornographic act. This unexpected money shot over and over again became less funny with each unloading. As if the sandwich was releasing some pent up anger at being awakened from the rear for something as mundane as a gluttony contest. It wasn’t going to create a new memory, it was going into a charnel house of waste.
Mike ended his torture at four. The speed at which he consumed backfired and like the Team In Training novice who moves too far forward from their pace group, he paid the price. My wife had slowed but was determined and as she began to break her sandwich apart into pieces I could see she was nearing her end. I took my first drink of water at sandwich five, knowing that it would weigh down the bread and create problems. I think that another of Mike’s errors was his choice of a carbonated beverage, whose gas would expand in his stomach creating a false full feeling. Here is the lesson of marathon and triathlon nutrition – stay lean and light. Unless you’re cramming in FIlet-O-Fish sandwiches.
My wife’s face had taken on a terrible furrowed brow. She was definitely not lovin’ it. As I tore into my seventh sandwich she had slowed down to a nibbling method that was causing her as much pain as a runner having torn their achilles tendon and beginning the internal bargaining of reducing miles to inches. With endurance sports the finish line has less to do with physical ability and more to do with mental focus. Everyone has their breaking point, the place at which you can override your limbic brian no more. When you begin to bargain your way down, it’s damn near over.
She asked me, with two small pieces left in her hand, if she could count them as a finished sandwich. For the first time in our 10 years together I cut her no slack. “No” I growled as I shoveled smaller pieces into my mouth, feeling the bread stick to my teeth as unwelcome stragglers reminding me of their dismembered brethren taking up space in my stomach. She held the limbs of number five in her hand as I stared at the horrifying remains of sandwich number eight in mine. I had thought I could do eight, but every bite was more vile than the last. Every ejaculate of tartar on my chin a stain of shame like the final days of the boys who get off the bus in West Hollywood eager to make a name for themselves in porn. This is what it came down to for me and those boys, the final moments of shoving something into my mouth that once was fun but now is just work. The joy, gone.
I muscled in and found the same grit I need at the finish chute of every race. Those last two bites had to be turned into bites of victory. I could not let that last bit end my race. I popped them in and finished my eighth sandwich.
I sat and allowed the sensation of being jammed full of food settle. This was no fish, it was now a white whale and Ahab was dead. From hell’s heart I spit at thee, Lou Groen.
I waddled to the counter and asked if Helga Manager could come over to our table for a photo. But for a Filet-O-Fish? When told I won by eating eight, she guffawed and said, “you suck and are weak!” No finisher’s medal for me, she had seen better. This I was fine with.
As I started to move again I felt less like ass. I still felt like an ass, for I had just ingested over 3,000 calories of pure garbage. But just as it is important to keep moving after a race to prevent cramping and injury, I found that moving prevented me from motion sickness, or the nightmare I had just endured. For this was an endurance test, for all of us. Mike, at four sandwiches, still had to digest over 1500 calories. My wife, a petit woman who can dine on a single can of soup for dinner and feel full after eating half, finished five!
The deadly pile of boxes remained, a pyramid we had conquered. The first and last Filet-O-Fish Challenge. And yet, because I was there, I had to have dessert. No one who knows me now realizes what a chazzer I used to be. They see this new athletic man and don’t know how I got to be 220 lbs. This is how – I ordered a vanilla shake. I got three sips out of it, but could not find any takers. Craig even found a way to eat get over his Filet-O-Phobia and consume two of the fishy bastards. But even he declined the cool frosty beverage. I was on my own, again, for the post-race ice bath. Completing our wasteful experiment I threw out the rest.
So for those that wonder what is done in the off season, I offer this as an option: embrace the crap. Do the dumb, frivolous things you’d never do while training. It’s liberating to do idiotic stunts like this because one day of eating like a pig is not going to ruin the race in six months. Spending time with friends, laughing, trying not to puke – this is quality time. American style.