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Broken by the Big Elm

I tried to cheat but it didn’t matter.

The Elma Town Grille’s food challenge – the six-patty, 30-ounce Big Elm burger with bacon, cheddar, pickles, onion rings and a three-pound mountain of fries – has broken another man.

It left me slouched in my booth next to the fake flowers, unable to meet the grin of my waitress with wit or reproach. Bacon grease seemed to fill a pocket behind my left eye.

Daniel C. Britt stares down his challenge: The Big Elm. (Daniel C. Britt/Special to The News)

Daniel C. Britt stares down his challenge: The Big Elm. (Daniel C. Britt/Special to The News)

I thought I had this one. I was a finalist in pie-eating at Camp Fantastic in Front Royal, Va. in 2012 and 2014. I skipped dinner the night before. I had a shot of apple cider vinegar and a few juicy pieces of pineapple in the parking lot to boost the acidic power of my stomach while I took a long look at the architecture of the grille.

It was two barns stuck together under white siding, a true temple of Southtowns’ glory, one of the few on par with the Ice House bar in East Aurora, the Strykersville Pub and the remodeled but still defunct Holland Hotel.

In addition to the acid trick, pro-eater websites tell you to dunk chunks of food in your water for fast digestion. The grille rules give contestants a tight 45 minutes to polish it all off, so every second counts. Winners get the $20 meal for free and a T-shirt.

What they don’t tell you is that the Big Elm is impervious to conventional logic and the Internet. It’s got a grease-shield layer that rendered the patties and 90-percent of the bun waterproof.

By the time I made it through the first pound and a half of ground meat, peristalsis betrayed me  -- a syndrome competitive eaters call “flavor fatigue.” I had to tap out.

Now four years old, the nationally known contest wasn’t always a burger challenge.

“First it was a giant macaroni and cheese. Then it was a giant burrito,” said Grille co-owner Kevin Barczykowski.

Barczykowski said the idea came out of the food challenge craze that swept the nation in 2011, in step with the final season of “Man Vs. Food,” the Travel Channel show that dedicated airtime to Atlanta’s 13-pound pizza.

Barczykowski knocked ideas back-and-forth with the regulars who pulled up in classic cars and hot rods for Monday Cruise Nights in the summer. Before long the evolution of the challenge was complete. The Big Elm has been crushing amateur eaters ever since.

In a few days, my optimistic-expression in the pre-challenge photo will adorn the Wall of Shame in the hallway behind the bar, three forlorn and cluttered bulletin boards overflowing with the photos of a hundred guys and girls, good sports and cheaters alike, who reached for grille glory but hit a wall, literally, somewhere inside.

By contrast, the Wall of Fame is an airy, white expanse, neatly framing a handful of seven winners, a one-page rap sheet of freakish appetites.

Stephanie Wu, 35, of Orinda, CA, was the last person to successfully house the Big Elm with all the fixins’ and the fries on May 11. The Dunkirk native returned to the area on a cross-country loop from food challenge to food challenge.

A closer look at the Big Elm from Elma Town Grille. If you eat it all, the $20 sandwich and fries are free. (Daniel C. Britt/Special to The News)

A closer look at the Big Elm from Elma Town Grille. If you eat it all, the $20 sandwich and fries are free. (Daniel C. Britt/Special to The News)

According to Wu, a semi-professional eater who has won 114 contests in 29 states, victory takes preparation, thought and mental fortitude. A quick shot of vinegar won’t cut it.

Every morning for three months before she hit the road, Wu timed herself forcing down two gallons of water -- 16 fluid pounds -- to strengthen and expand her stomach. She can drink that amount in four or five minutes as long as she’s quickly treated with electrolytes for hypernatremia, she said.

“Burgers and fries are the hard to compete on,” said Wu. “That kind of food doesn’t lie well. It piles up in your stomach and you can feel empty spaces in between the bites.”

Wu prefers burrito contests because masticated burrito fills the stomach in layers of airtight strata.  Eaters have been known to stand, dance around or kneel in booths to encourage food to settle correctly, she said.

Guinness World Record breaker for speed-eating hot dogs, pasta and pizza, Takeru Kobayashi typically jumps up and down to create gut space.

That night in May, with less than 10 minutes left on the clock, flavor fatigue set in on Wu. Her body was slipping into autopilot, subconsciously chewing more and swallowing less to protect itself.

The only way through that three-pound wall of fries was to force herself to chew faster – to tap into her animalistic desire to store nourishment, the desire that made her a competitor.

“I was nervous, but it was the only challenge around, I had to make this one count,” Wu said, crediting the win to mental focus and the ability to override her body’s natural defenses.

It was quiet when Wu packed up her T-shirt and started the victory walk to her car that night, said waitress Leah Cooney. Wu was the only person at the bar. She left without applause.

Around here, glory is a full stomach and a long drive ahead.

Info: Elma Town Grille, 6650 Clinton St., Elma; 651-4619; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sun. through Thurs.; 11 a.m. to midnight Fri. and Sat.

Daniel C. Britt is a freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared on the websites of The New York Times and Time Magazine, and in The Washington Post and Playboy magazine.

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