I just ate the most expensive free meal in town. "You've just got to get it in your mouth by the time the clock hits zero, and then you have to swallow it," said Kanki restaurant manager Rick Stanford, coaching me on the 40 Pieces of Sushi in 40 Minutes Challenge. With that, he clutched a digital timer, peered at my plate and counted down the last few seconds.
Fighting my gag reflex, I shoved the remaining rice pellet into my mouth and chewed indefinitely, hoping for the grains to dissolve.
I should have known it would come to this.
Before competing, I had signed a three-page waiver and medical release form that stated in part: "Contestant acknowledges that there are risks of personal injury, illness and possible loss of life, and risks of damage to or loss of personal property, which may result from participating in this contest. Contestant voluntarily enters Kanki Japanese House of Steaks and Sushi Sushi Challenge and assumes all of these risks."
Once I knew the risks, then I had a strategy: Eat the biggest pieces first and the deep-fried pieces second. Leave the nigiri, the cleanest tasting and most enjoyable pieces, for last. And most critically, order ice water and hot green tea to alternate temperatures and coax the fish down the gullet.
Of the 10 people who attempted to conquer the sushi contest that night, only three prevailed, and two of them have the last name Schwartz.
My brother paced himself and finished with 15 minutes to spare. But a gentleman with a ballooning belly threw in the white napkin after 32 pieces and quickly declined a to-go box. He didn't want to hear the word sushi for a month, he said, let alone eat another piece.
A man seated at the bar opted to ignore his egg allergy and suck down the tamago (egg) nigiri when told no substitutions were allowed.
The meal costs $40 if you falter—failing to finish all 40 pieces in the time allotted, or, as the contest rules read, "vomiting or regurgitating during or immediately after the 40 minutes."
How soon is "immediately"? Moments after I completed swabbing the sushi boat deck, I ran to the bathroom and put my face in the sink. I looked up, sweaty and queasy, and thought, "This is the face of a sushi contest winner."
Lesson learned: A solo boat ride can cause seasickness, but a solo sushi boat attempt is far more offensive to the stomach.
So I emerged victorious, a highly relative term considering basic survival would qualify, and the meal was on the house. I also won a shirt emblazoned with "sushi freak" in hot pink, the color of choice for sushi gluttons, apparently. The other fish-filled phenom, to whom I wasn't related, lamented that he had to settle for a 2XL, the largest size, but it was still too snug.
"I guess I'll just have to wear it at the beach," he said.
The beach is the only place I plan on seeing raw fish for a while.
Correction (March 21, 2012): The print version of this story omitted "2 salmon nigiri" from the list of 40 pieces of sushi.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bust a gut."