U.P. for the (food) challenge

Food-inspired cable TV networks have been trotting out shows featuring people trying to devour seemingly impossible amounts of food. These food challenges have become popular viewing. But in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, these challenges exist in real-time, on any given day, in any number of bars and restaurants. Maybe it's because of the U.P.'s rugged terrain and fierce winters, but its residents are tough, loyal and, evidently, hungry. We have highlighted some of the more notable food challenges.

Hudson's Classic Grill and Bar
Big Daddy Rig Burger Challenge
Marquette


Over the last five years, competitive eaters have been trying to overtake the monster hamburger in the Big Daddy Rig Challenge at Hudson's Classic Grill and Bar in Marquette. This 1950s-themed bar and grill, with clientele mainly from nearby Northern Michigan University, presents a food challenge that requires contestants to take down one of the bigger burgers on the Peninsula.

Those seeking burger immortality here must consume a burger that consists of a solid-as-a-rock two-pound beef patty, stacked generously with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and onions, along with five ounces of French fries. The goal is to clear the plate. For this, winners get a T-shirt, their photo on Hudson's wall for six months and permanent placement in the restaurant's Book of Fame, which contains roughly 200 past winners.

Hudson's manager Rick Overbey says the keys to winning the challenge are relatively simple.

"It takes an empty stomach and a strong will," he says, laughing. Past winners have ranged from burly fraternity brothers to those with body types not generally associated with food challenge champions.

"We had a skinny little waitress win this competition," Overbey says. "Some people are surprised to see girls up there."

Burger Challenge
Bessemer VFW

Bessemer

In Bessemer, Aaron Kopnick owns Paula and Son Catering, which operates out of the VFW post there. His burger challenge involves such a monstrous plate of food, that it has never been conquered. And there is a good reason for that.

Kopnick requires a week's notice for anyone interested in challenging his burger and the competition is open to the public. He also hosts a burger challenge every Fourth of July at the VFW. For the non-Fourth of July burger contest, diners must clear the plate. For the Fourth of July event, a winner is declared to whoever finishes the most in an hour and 20 minutes. That holiday winner gets a $100 cash prize. Since nobody has won the ongoing contest, it has no name. Kopnick says the first winner gets to name it.

And what a feat it is. This burger consists of five, one-third-pound beef patties (70/30 ground ground chuck), a quarter-pound of cheese, a half-pound of veggies (lettuce, tomato, onion) and one solid bun from Jackson's La Panetteria Bakery in Bessemer.

"It's really a loaf of Italian bread," Kopnick says. Once the competition starts, diners can't leave the table. And with no winner, Kopnick says he has seen some interesting strategies.

"Some try to dunk the bread in water to make it go down easier. Some try to eat the veggies first," Kopnick says.  "One guy drank a gallon of milk the night before to stretch out his stomach. It didn't work."

Stucko's Pub and Grill
The Dog Burger Challenge
Marquette


Also in Marquette, at Stucko's Pub and Grill, owners Mike and Sonia Stucko offer a burger challenge with a concoction big enough to choke a rhino, but this is with a decidedly different component--customers have a clock with which to contend. Whoever clears their plate in the best time, not only wins, but the competition is then named after them until someone else beats that time.

According to manager Brandon Johnson, for the last two years, the dish has been named The Dog Burger, a nod to the past winner with the best time (5 minutes, 34 seconds) and his canine-inspired nickname.

At first blush, 5:34 might not seem like a gauntlet of a challenge, until one takes a look at the plate they have to clear to win this thing. And it's not easy. This is a one-pound burger with three strips of bacon, three slices of cheese, a one-quarter-pound all-beef hot dog on top, sandwiched between a locally baked Kaiser bun from the Marquette Baking Company. The burger is accompanied by a pound of fries and a 32-ounce "shoop" of choice beverage.

With a massive pile of food in front of them and a clock ticking away, Johnson suggests that any strategy should revolve around the same idea.

"Some people try to stretch their stomach out, or get up and dance around while they're doing it, but, really, you just have to shovel it in as fast as you can," Johnson says.

Wings and Things
Sudden Death Pizza Challenge
Marquette


While Marquette appears to be the epicenter for burger-inspired food challenges, one local eatery provides a respite from the patty and bun. In this college town, it is a mercilessly hot pizza that stares down customers with the mockery of a cocky prizefighter.

At Wings and Things, the Sudden Death Pizza Challenge awaits. The rules are basic; competitors must remain seated during consumption but they have no clock working against them, so they can take their time.

According to manager Amy Manning, the challenge is to devour one, 12-inch house-made pizza. Sounds easy enough, until that bad boy hits the table, covered in Sudden Death Hot Sauce, habanero and jalapeno peppers, and mozzarella cheese. Manning said only one woman has won the challenge since its inception in 2009, with the majority of winners being 20-something men. Those winners get their photo on a wall of fame, four free games of bowling and the pizza is on the house. In watching numerous contestants, Manning has pretty much seen it all.

"Some people try different strategies," she says. "Some will eat all of the toppings first, then come back for the crust. Others will fold it into a pizza sandwich, so the toppings are inside. I do know this; once they pause to take a break, it's over. They never come back from that break."

Jasper Ridge Brewery and Restaurant
Blast Furnace Burger Challenge
Ishpeming


Marquette isn't the only Upper Peninsula community with a daunting burger challenge. At Jasper Ridge Brewery and Restaurant in Ishpeming, the Blast Furnace Burger Challenge is like the angry bull staring back. And while other burger challenges resort to thickness and density in the patty and toppings to conquer diners, Jasper Ridge takes a different, but equally effective tack, by turning up the heat.

At the heart of this heat-inspired contest is a one half-pound burger. Seems doable, right? Well, the patty itself is mixed meat with jalapenos and cayenne, smothered in a secret house sauce (made with ghost chilies) that one would swear is part lava.

According to manager Heather Thompson, the burger is topped with a jalapeno pickle and arrives with a massive side of waffle fries. And Thompson adds that there are rules--contestants have 30 minutes to finish it and cannot drink anything in that 30-minute window. And they can't leave their seat, either.

"Some eat it like it's nothing, some suffer through every bite," Thompson says. "We tell them, 'Hopefully you don't have any plans for the rest of the day. Or tomorrow.' The kitchen celebrates when someone fails."

Thompson says for every seven contestants, one actually finishes and wins. For all that, the winner earns a photo on the "Wall of Flame" and a T-shirt with the Jasper Ridge logo on the front and "I'm No Wimp" on the back.

It's not just T-shirts and Hall of Fame placements on the line here, it's the challenge between the kitchen and the consumer, and the reputation that comes with it. Everyone wants to be the one to beat the plate. And while burgers seem to dominate the U.P. food challenge landscape, hungry folks should keep their eyes on the Country Village Grill in Ishpeming. They are expected to introduce the newest--and very U.P.-- food contest; the Lumberjack Challenge, a pancake-eating contest. Batter up!

John Horn has been a journalist for nearly 20 years, including 12 as a freelance writer. He has covered city government, crime, real estate and sports for both community newspapers and large, metro dailies. He has written extensively about dining and drinking in and around Detroit for numerous clients, locally, nationally and internationally. He loves the city. He loves up north. He loves his wife Kerry, their toddler daughter Maeve, their 80-pound Labradoodle, Lamont, and the Detroit Tigers. In that order.
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