11 November, 2012

The Brains Challenge

Unusual as our being out in the middle of the afternoon may have been, several aspects of our togetherness on that particular day were quite typical for Brahm, Kelly, Carol, and me. Perhaps most obvious to an outsider would be that all four of us entered the diner wearing head-to-toe black, but this was irrelevant, save for in its scene-setting value to a lazy writer (who does not now need to provide you, his reader, the ages and various descriptive particulars of his friend, girlfriend, girlfriend’s friend, nor himself, since you will have taken this shorthand, perhaps rightly so, to mean that these were the sort of kids sometimes seen in public spaces, like ink spots on a nice shirt, where “normal” citizens give them a wide berth while simultaneously pretending to ignore them, as if averting their eyes might keep them from catching whatever sickness causes the kids to mutilate their deathly pale skin with all those silver piercings). The diner was just a diner, as diners all looked, thirty years after their last renovation. Of course, there’s no extraordinary relevance in telling you these things; what I think was extraordinary was how a sort of third-rate local tradition was born at our faux-woodgrain Formica table mere minutes after our dark foursome was seated.

It happened something like this. Inveterate cheapskate that he was, my friend Brahm perused the diner menu not from left to right, like most people in the Western world, but from right to left — price then description. Whether or not he did this every time we went out to eat, I can’t be sure, but he always had his eyes open for a bargain. He was still scanning for agreeably low figures on the menu when the waitress came to take our orders. After Kelly and Carol had placed theirs, he said, “I mean, I’m hungry, just not three-dollars-and-forty-cents-for-three-pieces-of-fried-chicken hungry, you know?”

Carol, installed beside him in our booth, rolled her eyes — often the only part of her that moved. She laughed with Kelly, my girlfriend, however, because Brahm’s pathological unwillingness to part with money frequently took strenuous efforts that never stopped being comical. Our waitress was less amused, almost certainly wishing we’d wandered instead into a Denny’s, or at least into a different server’s section. She nevertheless stood by, armored with the thick skin formed from decades of table-waiting in shabby establishments, her ballpoint pen hovering steadily above the pad, while the long-haired tightwad made up his mind.

In an effort to prod Brahm along, Kelly floated a couple of suggestions. “What about an omelet?” she tried. “That’s only two eighty-five.”

Brahm pursed his lips. “I’m not really in an omelet mood, though.”

“Pancakes, maybe?”

“Hmm,” he mused. “Yeah, except they probably use a premade batter mix, so their markup is huge. Besides, I’ve got Aunt Jemima at home.”

Brahm and I knew the patterns of this diner’s brown-and-orange tile work and drop-ceiling stains by heart, yet until that moment, somehow, one item on its menu had escaped our notice. Spotting it was a revelation. Wide-eyed, I looked up at my friend and said, “What about brains and scrambled eggs?”

The waitress leaned in, causing an intensifying of the odors of stale cigarette smoke and onion rings in my airspace. “That’s not really on there, is it?” she asked, as though I was the sort to just make up menu selections, as though I’d further delay, for the sake of a jokey hypothetical, the placement of my order. I pointed her to “Eggs and Such” on the laminated sheet. She said, “Well, I’ll be damned!”

Brahm responded, “I’ve never eaten brains before.” Grinning, he was visibly intrigued. “But if I won’t pay three forty for the fried chicken, which I’m sure I’ll like, then I’m certainly not gonna gamble three thirty on brains, which I’m pretty sure I won’t.”

Carol elbowed him. “Oh, come on, be adventurous! Look, they come with toast and hash browns.”

Turning down a novel meal ran as counter to Brahm’s values as did expending personal funds. Kelly made his choice easier by producing a few folded bills from her purse and asking, “Okay, so how about if I’m buying?”

“Buying me brains and eggs?”

“Yeah, sure. Except you have to eat the whole thing,” Kelly said. “Otherwise you’ve got to cover it yourself.” This reminded me of the time, in a different, far nicer restaurant, Kelly offered five dollars to the young women at a neighboring table to stop giggling so obnoxiously — a confrontation that evolved into a near-brawl between myself and the women’s angry boyfriends in the parking lot. Fortunately, Kelly’s pet cruelties could also be funny.

“What about a drink?” Brahm asked. Haggling now, she had him on the ropes.

“No drink.”


“You’re already getting hash browns and toast.”

“Yeah, but what if brains turn out to be, like, completely unpalatable?”

Kelly reached over me for the condiments. The bottles and shakers in the wire caddy rattled to a stop directly in front of him. She fingered each container in turn: “Salt, pepper, mustard, ketchup, A-1, syrup — that ought to be enough to get you through.”

The order was placed. If the anticipation of seeing this mystery meal came close to killing us, the smell of it traveling across the diner came even closer. A light stink, like warm pond water, wafted over our table before the waitress was halfway from the kitchen. Then the plate of brains and scrambled eggs was set down, and Brahm said, flatly, “I was hoping somebody had ordered fish sticks or something.”

The waitress set our table’s other, better-smelling plates before us; though, it was the brains and eggs that held our collective attention. Chunky and gelatinous, with an oily sheen, they steamed like the remnants of a disintegrator-blasted alien in a cheap sci-fi film. The waitress, departing, said, “Enjoy.” She laughed. No food-service employee should ever laugh that way on the job — it does not instill comfort.

Poking and prodding the pale yellow-gray mess before him, Brahm sniffed, then hefted a forkful to his mouth. He made a spasmodic shrugging motion and put the back of his hand against his lips. He chewed with his eyes squeezed shut. “Oh man,” he finally managed to moan. “This is awful.”

We each sampled a tiny bite; we each gagged and spat into a paper napkin. It was agreed that Brahm faced a challenge.

Spectators turn out by the thousands to watch people eat competitively — hot dogs, watermelon, pie, anything — and in the coming years I would see the debut of TV shows like Fear Factor, on which contestants ingest bugs, blood, and bull penises for a chance at a cash prize. But we four teenagers were mostly oblivious to food’s potential as vicarious entertainment until Brahm gave us an epic dinner show. Gagging, gasping, blinking back tears, taking frequent breaks to drown the squishy mass of befouled eggs with sluices of steak sauce, picking out fragments of skull, then tucking back in with soldierly resolve, he put on such a performance that a bystander would have been forgiven for thinking there was far more at stake than three dollars and some change.

The fork clattered noisily as he dropped it on his plate, a kind of victory gesture, and belched. His face immediately twisted. “Ugh, it tastes even worse coming up.”

“I can’t believe you finished it,” said Carol, long since having forked up the last of her French fries and retouched her blood-red lipstick.

“It was like eating mushrooms and cartilage… marinated in fish sauce.”

Belying her usual poise, Carol’s hands flailed, as though to shoo away the sensory memory of her sample. “God,” she said, “that’s so gross.”

Brahm belched again. “Hey, you asked.”

“Braiiiiiins!” I groaned, zombielike, but no one else laughed at how it sounded just like Brahm’s burp. Perhaps mockery was in bad taste, considering how my friend was suffering.

With the matter of indigestion relief foremost on Brahm’s mind, and with a change of venue on everyone else’s, we paid our bill to the smirking waitress at the register and left.

The interesting thing about rituals is always their origins. All the best ones develop naturally, gradually, as the events that inspire them marinate in people’s minds, like so much cartilage and mushrooms in fish sauce, over a period of days, weeks, or months, until someone gets the bright idea to stage a re-enactment and recapture the spirit of the earlier events. In the case of the brains and scrambled eggs, the catalyst was a night visit to some friends’ house, regaling them with a vivid retelling of Brahm’s heroic overcoming, when naive young Robert took a long drag from his cigarette, scratched his four-day stubble, tipped back his fedora, and said, “I think I could do it; I think I could eat the brains.”

Within the half hour, Robert, his two housemates, and Brahm packed themselves into my car and we sped off, diner-bound. To cheers and claps, Robert retched his way through the plateful of gray matter — beef or pork, no one knew — and unfertilized chicken ova. A good time was had by all. Except, of course, by Robert. But even he attained a state of joy the next week, when he witnessed one of his housemates attempt and fail to complete the Brains Challenge (as it had come to be called), as well as the week after that, when Tara, Brahm’s ex-girlfriend, chewed her way through the disgusting dish like a veritable garbage disposal before chugging a full glass of ice water, cubes and all, offering as her only comment on the experience an understated “Ick.”

The Brains Challenge became an institution. Rules were established. Someone thought to print and frame certificates that read, This Is to Certify That _______________ Successfully Completed the Brains Challenge at Nichol’s Lunch, on _______________,1999, in the Esteemed Presence of the Previously Challenged Witnesses _______________ and _______________. Take Pity. Many of those challenged, myself included, failed to clean their plates, but none ever demanded a rematch. Pride is only worth so much.

An occasion arose, more than a year after Brahm was fooled into thinking he was getting a free lunch, on which it occurred to me that someone enjoyed the diner’s brains and scrambled eggs, or else why would they be on the menu? I happened to make this observation aloud in the presence of Mike, a mutual friend of Brahm’s and mine, while the three of us were whiling away another evening at the coffeehouse. To this, Mike responded, “Oh, brains and eggs aren’t bad. I’ve eaten them lots of times.”

We doubted. (Who wouldn’t, honestly, after eating that phlegmy mush?) However, we did wonder: might the diner’s brains and eggs be representative of all brains and eggs, instead of being the aberrance we believed them to be? We challenged Mike then and there. His acceptance of the Brains Challenge, to be taken on the following night, would prove to us that the brains in question were empirically worse than just about any other foodstuff, thereby validating our bravery and endurance.

The next evening, Mike and his girlfriend joined Brahm and I in a booth, squeaking across the vinyl bench cushion too casually, in my opinion, for the momentous adversity about to be met. The orders arrived. Mike’s girlfriend scarcely watched as he took up a fork and ate of the infamous entrĂ©e, chewing without effort, swallowing without histrionics, biting a corner off one triangle of toasted wheat bread, sipping his water, and obliterating our tough-guy pride with three little words: “Not too bad.”

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