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.
TO BE CONTINUED....