All You Can Eat
Ron Karpinski ©1995
A Pizza Inn restaurant once stood on Victory Boulevard at the traffic circle in Columbus, Georgia, near the main entrance to Fort Benning. In the late 1970's, they charged two dollars and eighty-nine cents for an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet.
No other cafeteria in town offered as much food for the money. As a result, the noon hour at Pizza Inn attracted some very heavy eaters. The atmosphere did not lend itself to the faint at heart, certainly not the kind of place one took a date.
With each fresh pizza delivered to the line, eager patrons sprang from their seats and raced to the buffet, scooping up slices. Slower, less aggressive customers were left with crumbs. Some complained that "those army guys" were hogging all the food.
Management soon awoke to this passion for pizza and hired a second cook. The normal buffet remained well stocked after that, and each diner found enough to eat. Better yet, a private area had been set aside for the army guys.
As army guys are wont to do, Zach Doppel and I fell to flirting with Trudy and Heidi, the two waitresses. The girls may have been sweet on us, as well. One day, at the cash register, Zach mentioned our all-time favorite pizza toppings, and Heidi wrote it down.
Thereafter, when Zach and I walked in the front door, Trudy gave the cook a high sign, and he tossed a new batch of dough in the air. We could dispense with taking orders. Minutes later, a Doppel-Karpinski special arrived at our table.
The D-K special stood as a classic among pizzas. It began with a thick layer of dough added to a standard pizza crust, followed by a generous application of tomato paste and cheese. Huge mounds of Canadian bacon and sausage were piled on top of that, finished off with a plump garland of extra Mozzarella.
Not many people have a pizza named after them. One day at the office, the subject got around to food, and I mentioned our good fortune as preferred customers of the Pizza Inn restaurant chain. Major Larry Hagan said, "One of these days, I'll have to come down there and show you boys how it's done."
Mild-mannered Zach replied, "Don't bother, you're not in the same class with us." He meant no harm; but Major Hagan, a man of honor, took offense.
At six-feet, four inches tall and two-hundred and forty pounds, Larry Hagan cast a huge shadow. A classic steak-and-potatoes man, he could stow some food.
Zach stood a tad over six feet tall and weighed around one eighty, with a wasp-like waist. Whatever he lacked in size, he made up for with an iron will.
Scott, five-feet-nine and one-sixty, grew up in boarding schools; there, he learned, only two types of people leave the dinner table: the quick and the hungry.
Lastly, at six-feet-two and a scant one-hundred seventy-five pounds, I had surprised a few people. Some who saw me eat swore that I had two hollow legs.
Actually, there had never been any doubt as to who among us three could eat the most. Zach had often proven that point. The real question lay in where, exactly, Larry fit in. After much good-natured bantering, we agreed to a showdown.
At noon on the big day, the four contenders gathered for lunch at Pizza Inn. Larry showed up last, filling the width of the door frame as he ducked to enter. One look at Larry, and the cook threw another pizza in the oven.
The rules were simple. Each slice of thick crust pizza must have at least two toppings. Only full slices counted. Whoever ate the most pieces would win.
Someone alerted management to the contest. They agreed to supply a steady stream of fresh pizza. Other patrons were warned to stay out of the way.
The four of us sat at a square wood table. Each had a napkin upon which to record the amount of pizza eaten, one mark from a ball point pen for each slice. As gentlemen should, we wished one another good luck. A voice said, "Go!"
At the outset, each man piled his plate high. Before long, though, the thick slices began to weigh heavy. The pace slowed, with only one or two slices per trip now. Frequent trips to the buffet line allowed one to stretch his stomach.
Smiles faded, and the mood turned somber. After ten or twelve slices, I glanced about. No one seemed to be in danger yet. Who would be first to give in?
The answer to that came a short while later. Stuffed to the gills, I threw my napkin in after seventeen slices. The room spun round and round.
Ten minutes later, Scott peaked at twenty-one slices. That left just Zach and Larry facing each other across the table in a test of wills -– and stomach linings.
Eyes riveted, neither Zach nor Larry said a word. They just stared, eyeball to eyeball, stuffing down one slice after the other. The crowd grew quiet.
When plates emptied, a bystander rushed to the buffet and brought back a pepperoni and olive for Larry and a D-K special for Zach. Each man thrust out a hand, took a new slice, and marked his napkin. The drama played on.
In the end, Larry blinked first. After twenty-eight slices, he could eat no more. He fell back in his chair and conceded defeat. "Damn, Zach," he said, "with your appetite, you ought to turn pro."
Zach kept eating, while a small crowd watched. After polishing off an even thirty slices, he looked up. Pushing away from the table, he wiped an ink-stained napkin across his lips. Then, smiling across at Larry, he asked, "That all you can eat?"