Image: Shelby Tsika

My server at Mel’s Country Cafe in Tomball tells me how it goes: I’ll order the Mega Mel, and about 10 minutes later a woman will shout “Yee-haw!” and bring out the 15-inch burger. The clock will start, and I will start eating. I will have two hours to finish the thing. In return, I will get my name on the wall, admiration from my peers, and…a T-shirt.

It doesn’t sound so bad, actually. Having had just a few crunchy vegetables for lunch, I’m starving, and in photos the burger looks delicious, if enormous. I start to fantasize about finishing the thing in just an hour. If the photographs of Mega Mel survivors surrounding me prove some can eat it in just 17 minutes, who says I can’t?

I willfully put the message I read about the challenge earlier, on Mel’s website, out of my head: “To get your name on the wall you must eat everything on your plate in under 2 hours without help, and be able to walk and talk without getting sick. (Note: You may be stopped if we feel you are going to get sick.)” Never mind all that. I’m ready.

“Yee-haw!”

Everyone whips around to glimpse the 15-inch Mega Mel: five beef patties; 10 slices of cheese; a pound of bacon; a head of shredded lettuce; a chopped onion; two sliced garden tomatoes; a full jar of pickles; a standard bun. I could’ve swapped out each veggie for an additional patty with cheese, but I didn’t, and looking at the glut of lettuce and pickles on my plate, I’m instantly regretting it.

As the photos attest, hundreds of people have finished the Mega Mel since it was created around 1994 to satisfy a customer wanting a real burger. So many more have failed, though: Marybeth Blackerby, daughter of co-owners Jeff and Melody Henry, estimates that for every success there are 10 to 15 failures. I tell myself that if I get about 70 percent of the way through, I’m going for it all. My wife, who came with my daughter to witness this stupidity, chuckles.

Before I remove the skewers holding up the burger—I know, right?—another customer rushes up to me with her smartphone. “Can I get a picture of you with the burger?” she asks. “I want to send this to my brother.”

I open my mouth to imitate a big bite, holding the goofy face as the woman takes the photo, and I realize I’m a clown over here, a silly sideshow. Will I finish? Will I puke? This is what really matters, so why not lean into it?

I remove the skewers and tilt the burger on its side, breaking it up over two plates. The strategy is to eat it like a huge salad; each forkful has a little of everything. I start strong, my stomach like a machine as I chomp my way through, even taking small moments to savor the meat—it’s a good burger! I’m careful to down some bun with each bite, reminded that it’s the ingredient that slows challengers the most.

“I try to always tell people about the bun,” says Blackerby. “Don’t forget it’s down there.”

Twenty minutes pass. Thirty minutes. All is going well, until … I start to feel like a helium balloon. I grimace, I continue, I pause. I wait it out, I sip a little water, I take another bite, but I can feel my belly reaching capacity. Who knew chewing could be so damn annoying? And then there’s the pickles—seriously, who puts a jar of pickles on a burger? I start eating them by the handful, just shoveling them in, but it’s just too much.

A couple leaving the café passes by. “Don’t stop now!” the wife shouts. These people are cruel.

At 45 minutes I’ve slowed down to eating random single pieces of beef. I give my daughter a pickle. These pickles will haunt me.

Finally, I call over the server and tell her it’s time. Her response feels like a slap in the face: “Do you want a box for it?”

I laugh it off. The staff at Mel’s Country Cafe is terrific, warm, and funny. My wife loves her chicken-fried steak sandwich, too. I’ve made it through about half of the Mega Mel, which means I can purchase a shirt advertising that it has defeated me. No thanks. I’ll keep my dignity, or at least what remains of it.

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