This is Matt Trexler, a few pieces into a boat-load of sushi that he has 40 minutes to finish if he wants a free meal. The 40 piece Super Sushi Challenge was dreamed up by the folks at Kanki Japanese House of Steaks and Sushi to celebrate, you guessed it, 40 years of business. Mr. Trexler was quite confident in his ability to consume all the sushi laid out before him, including the wasabi. His girlfriend, Arielle, decided to celebrate her birthday by cheering him on. “Oh yeah, he’s got this,” siad Arielle after watching the manager start the timer. “He’s eaten the 4 1/2 lb. burrito at Bandido’s, so this should be easy.”
Having documented the start of Mr. Trexler’s challenge I circulated through the restaurant to meet more fine Americans taking on the glutinous challenge. There were several groups college students, a trash-talking father and son with a visibly embarrassed mother and a group of oncologists from Duke Hospital. By the time I came back to the bar Mr. Trexler was gone, a clear violation of the rules set forth in a four page contract and waiver each contestant had to sign. Arielle looked upset and turned away from the pile of napkins covering the half-finished boat. “Yeah, he’s not going to finish that,” said Arielle, possibly re-thinking her birthday outing. There was a slight funk in the air and I then noticed that napkins were doing more than signaling defeat; they were covering up a very bad scene.
Based on casual observations of the remaining challengers, there seemed to be a success rate of 40 percent, with many folks overcoming their physical discomfort with shrewd economic reasoning in order to avoid paying the $40 cost of failure. Some might prefer to call that courage. Either way, the scene left me reflecting on the world’s greatest invention, a process which turns air into bread and now supports nearly half of all the life on our planet.
It’s called the Harber-Bosch system and it’s a complex chemical process wich produces synthetic nitrogen fertilizer from air, a discovery detailed in fascinating book The Alchemy of Air. In the early part of the 20th century it looked as if the planet would not be able to produce enough food to feed a population of 1.75 billion people. Now we have just passed the 7 billion mark and we are dealing with an obesity epidemic. There is still hunger in the world to be sure, but mostly because of conflict and failed public policy. Interestingly enough, the same invention also led to rise of the Nazis and fueled the arms race. It’s a story worth learning. In the meanwhile, let’s see how our other contestants faired.