MONDAY: DAY ONE
It is Wednesday now as I type these words, and it will be Thursday when the eyes of Eater readers (and the players of The Contest) will alight upon them. The participants are, at this point, a harried and beat-down bunch. (Those that are still with us, that is.)
But return, won't you, to a simpler time: Monday morning, July 13, 2015. A morning that commenced with the kickoff of Eater's annual Cheap Eats Week. A morning when a bushy-tailed crew comprised of (as best I can tally) 10 Eater editors, half a dozen Vox Media employees who don't directly work at Eater, and 20-ish intrepid Eater readers, awoke to find $10 in their pocket—all the money they would have to spend that day on their entire food intake, per the rules of The Contest, of which they are, now and forever, a part.
They did not know it at the time, but the players were greeted that morn not just by the rays of the summer sun, but also with the first point bestowal of the game: +1 to everyone for showing up, as explained in my quasi-official scoring guide.
[Crucial aside: I'm also going to be scoring the non-Eater Vox Media team members who are heroically participating in The Contest, as well as the Eater readers crazy and amazing enough to play along too. But to get this going, I'm focusing first on the Eater team participants. Everyone else, sit tight. Your Judgement Day is coming, sooner than you think.]
My desk at Vox Media HQ sits adjacent to the Eater compound, so I'm privy to the daily team chatter (and editor-in-chief Amanda Kludt's trademark Full Album Fridays—let me just say, our office's Spotify game is stronger than yours). In the month or so leading up to Cheap Eats Week, there had been debate about what constitutes optimal strategy for The Contest. Besides the simple act of, you know, surviving, how epic of a game might the players play? Might some even dare to adopt...a theme?
Money talks and bullshit walks, as my dad used to say, which is why it is completely fantastic to see Vince Dixon, the newest member of Team Eater—he's a data and visualization reporter, aka The Future of Journalism—come out and throw down HARD with a great theme in his very first meal for The Contest: "My goal for the week is to buy from a different type of quintessential New York eatery each day of the week. Day 1 is the Delicatessen." Oh yes. He did. I'll be tracking themes across the week and mostly scoring them at the end (retroactive, yo), but +10 to Vince for getting a very promising theme started straight from the get.
Vince's deli theme scored him an everything bagel slathered in butter, a breakfast delicacy also selected on Day One by the person ranked as The Contest's prohibitive favorite by Ladbrokes, Robert Sietsema, Eater's cheap eats critic/expert/sage. Honestly, I love buttered bagels, but no points to be found here.
Similarly, no points to be found in mediocrity, like the midtown Halal truck carb bomb disappointingly scooped up by Amanda Kludt, or Eater NY editor Greg Morabito's anemic eggs on a roll procured somewhere in Brooklyn. Moving up the flavor scale, Jarret Meskin's East Village bodega bacon-egg-and-cheese looks kinda good, but I'm not sure how to measure his observation that it's "significantly higher quality than I was prepared for." Eater features editor Helen Rosner's jerk chicken patty from Little Miss Muffin ‘n' Her Stuffin appears to be the best single foodstuff procured by anyone in The Contest this morning, but with no look at its interior — and, inexplicably, no commentary from Helen — it's impossible to know. Helen! Don't leave us hanging like this.
I'm expecting Morabito, our house quipmaster, to roll up the points on the languaging side of the game this week. Right off the bat, not disappointed. "These guys are nice, but they got no hustle," he says in a moderately stinging critique of his Greenpoint bagelmongers, good for a One Liner +5.
+10 to Hillary Dixler for her inspired breakfast of six — actually seven! — Dunkin' Donuts Munchkins. I grew up in Massachusetts and the fact is that Munchkins are pure deliciousness, as well as a reminder of the power of the judge to force the outcome of this game in whatever capricious way he/she sees fit.
Finally, rounding out the morning, -1 to Eater NY's Devra Ferst for eating a banana. (More, much more, oh my god so much more, about bananas to come.)
The Contest is very much a game of endurance. That means different things for different players. For Eater managing editor Sonia Chopra, it's been manifesting over the past few weeks as an actual fear of contracting scurvy (or, to speak her language, ~scurvy~). She won't mention this concern of hers until dinner tonight, so I'll hold off on my ~critique~, but as part of her banh mi lunch, we do learn that Sonia's also selected a theme for the week: "I'm trying to stay vegetarian and only hit each type of cuisine once." Interesting #strat; let's keep an eye on it.
Across the board, lunch is a tepid affair on this Day One. Notable exception: Sietsema's "Rice Noodle w/ Buddhist" from a joint in Chinatown. "Need I say it was delicious?" he asks. Why yes, that is a best practice when angling for deliciousness points. A well-earned +5 to the master and teacher.
One other lunchtime transaction of note: Amanda purchased, but did not eat, three bananas. Close shave.
From the chatter in #the-contest Vox Media Slack room—you didn't believe me when I mentioned overhearing Eater editors talking, did you? We only talk in Slack now—two of the more controversial Contest rules are (1) unlimited alcohol purchases not counting against budget; and (2) that it's okay to eat free food if it's available to everyone, even if only because alcohol has been purchased as part of the transaction.
These two rules collide in the wooly world of bar food, specifically a contestant's ability to order alcohol and receive discounted or free bar food in return. As The Contest turns, that's a perfectly legal move, and perhaps even an advisable one. Exploit the loopholes where you find them, you know? (Also, get drunk. Calories!) On Day One, Jarret becomes the first Eater editor to go there, scoring five $1 fish tacos at Cooper's Craft & Kitchen in the East Village in return for buying an $8 beer. The tacos actually look pretty good, and Jarret confirms that he was "pleasantly surprised" by them, so +3 for deliciousness, with a points assist to his savvy cheap bar food strategizing.
In another Contest first, Sonia and Devra pooled their remaining monetary resources (a glorious $8.55) for a Chinatown food crawl. Deeeelicious-looking move, +5 to both, even though Sonia, as promised, raises the specter of scurvy — we will get to that — and seeks credit for having walked "just over four miles today in searches for food, if that counts for anything." It does not, at least not on Day One. Ask again later. For now, +0 for multiple miles traveled.
In Koreatown, Eater news editor Daniela Galarza's dinnertime feast at Woorijip, plus a dessert cookie shaped like a fish from Delimanjoo Bakery, could have run up the deliciousness scale to a full +10, but given she's saving most of the cookie for tomorrow, let's throw +5 for the main course and +1 for the fishy cookie nibble, for a very nice overall haul of +6.
Props to Amanda for hitting a cocktail party and not eating whatever "such beautiful food" she encountered, as well as for finding $1.19 in her budget for a hot fudge sundae at McDonald's. If you know Amanda, you know of her sundae obsession (I am not joking when I tell you she runs a Tumblr about it), so for scoring dessert in such an on-brand way, +2. But Amanda also reveals that in the course of the day she...ate a banana (-1). Oof.
Speaking of personal obsessions, Greg has spent much of the last few months Slack-shaming all of his work colleagues for not watching AMC's Halt and Catch Fire, a show about the personal computer industry of 1980s Texas. Sounds amazing. Greg wore me down enough that last week I gave in and binged all of seasons one and two. Verdict: It's a pretty good show! But not a great one. I'd say Halt and Catch Fire is the Uncle Boons to Mad Men's Pok Pok, if we're talking that way. But actually we're talking about bananas again, because Morabito rounds out Day One by dropping $1 on a bunch of fucking bananas. "I'm not actually a banana fan, but they did whatever bananas do," he writes, which, first, no one is a banana fan, and second, for scoring purposes, I'm going to have to assume that "they did" means he ate them and that "a bunch" equals, charitably, two bananas. So, -2 for Morabito's banana stand.
Finally, our Day One main course.
Coming into The Contest, we all pegged Robert Sietsema as the man to beat. Tonight, he shows everyone why. Not only did he land what looks to be the most delicious dinner — three tacos from Bushwick's Izucar, in his words, "the best taqueria in town," +5 — and not only did he finish the day spending exactly $10 (+1), but then he took The Contest to an entirely new level when he sat to reflect on it.
"After day one of The Contest, this is beginning to feel like a philosophical exercise as much as a culinary one, and I'm already very glad to have undertaken it," he writes. "As Shakespeare said in King Lear, ‘Take physic, pomp!' We could all use a dose of humility." Amen, and without question, Line of the Day, +15.
THE CONTEST STANDINGS AFTER DAY ONE
Robert Sietsema +27
Hillary Dixler +11*
Vince Dixon +11
Daniela Galarza +7
Sonia Chopra +6
Devra Ferst + 5
Jarret Meskin +4
Greg Morabito +4
Amanda Kludt +2
Helen Rosner +1*
* Did not file dinner reports and appear to have tapped out of The Contest. Developing...
More info: Please go here to read more about the rules of The Contest and go here to read more about how it is being judged. Editors are tracking their Contest meals here while readers are tracking meals on social media and in the forums.