On Monday, we learned of a sandwich, the name of which is not just a metaphor, but a taunt. Its legend was whispered across the internet in reverent (and not-so-reverent) tones, by those entranced by its wonders and those who saw doom in its crags and at its zenith. I'm talking about Arby's Meat Mountain.
Here is its wretched geology:
Two chicken tenders, 1.5 oz. of roast turkey, 1.5 oz. of ham, 1 slice of Swiss cheese, 1.5 oz. of corned beef, 1.5 oz. brisket, 1.5 oz. of Angus steak, 1 slice of cheddar cheese, 1.5 oz. roast beef, and 3 half-strips of bacon.
The secret-menu sandwich came about after Arby's patrons began requesting a concoction made of the items in a promotional photograph. Arby's had meant to trumpet the individual constituents of its meatly bounty, but true heroes often see galaxies where others just see a star.
My editor asked if I had the mettle to match Meat Mountain. Like Starbuck being tested by Ahab, I believed that I was "game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too."
I quickly found that traveling to the closest Arby's from The Wire offices near Union Square would require a journey that would take me all the way to Queens. Armed with headphones and a bottle of water, I took the M train all the way to its terminus at Metropolitan Avenue in Middle Village, Queens.
Middle Village is perhaps best known for its cemeteries. Exiting the subway, I now saw the augurs of my own mortality. Nearby were the graves of some of Queens' most notable residents — Geraldine Ferraro, who broke crucial barriers, and Charles Atlas, who performed great physical feats. I wished for a fate like theirs, rather than that of Lucky Luciano, who was buried in a crypt nearby after living too hard.
I approached the Arby's cautiously and from the west. Outside was an all-caps sign that read "WE HAVE THE MEATS," an invitation to my own demise.
I approached the counter intrepidly and called for Meat Mountain to come out and face me, but the Arby's cashier had no idea what I was talking about. None. I struggled to explain its origins and she shouted for back-up.
"You mean the Facebook thing?" another clerk said. "I saw that!"
Despite this glimmer of hope, the sandwich wasn't in the system. He asked a manager, who also said that my request was impossible. Conspiratorially, the clerk said I should come back tomorrow: "The day manager is cooler about this stuff." And so I left.
Just kidding. I did what any mere mortal would do in the midst of a vision quest. I ordered everything required to make a Meat Mountain of my own.
I would reserve roast beef from a Junior Roast Beef sandwich, draw bacon, cheddar, and steak from a Angus 3 Cheese & Bacon, corral corned beef and swiss from the Reuben Super Stack, take turkey and ham from a Club Stack, bring in brisket from the Smokehouse Brisket, and top it with two chicken tenders from an order of three.
The bill came out to just over $29, nearly $20 more than the vaunted sandwich is supposed to cost. It was then that the cashier asked if I wanted to donate a dollar to help end children's hunger and, in need of goodwill to battle both the sandwich and now my editor who would be seeing the receipt, I said yes.
"For here or to go?"
With malice in my eyes, I proclaimed "For here." The cashier could not have cared less.
5:13 p.m.: I pull up at a table where the FX Simpsons marathon is underway. The volume is on, but is being drowned out by either Sara Bareilles or Juliana Hatfield. I can't tell the difference.
5:17 p.m.: I ask for an enormous glass of water.
5:21 p.m.: The cashier calls my number and seeing that my food stuffs extend onto two separate trays, I begin to tremble. I get to work.
5:25 p.m.: I'm halfway finished with the assembly of my Meat Mountain. Using the Smokehouse Brisket as my base means I'll end up with an extra slice of gouda and a few fried onions, but since I'm eyeballing the portions anyway, I'm happy to overcompensate.
5:27 p.m.: I realize I've erred by putting the chicken tenders in the middle, the culinary version of a Jenga misstep.
My ersatz Meat Mountain wobbles upon a breaded plateau...unless I'm just woozy from the sodium chaff entering my bloodstream.
5:29 p.m.: Why does everything have so much mayonnaise?
5:30 p.m.: Assembly complete. With turkey and bacon on top, I crown the mountain with a bun that could never have known what duties man would impress upon it.
Above, Bart Simpson scrawls "Butt.butt is not e-mail address" on the chalkboard as another episode ("When You Dish Upon a Star") begins.
5:31 p.m.: As a fast-food aficionado, my lifestyle choices have long been maligned by loved ones. However, critiques of my personal gluttonies and self-abuses are usually based on the so-called quality of what I eat rather than the quantity. To best Meat Mountain, I have to doubly transgress. And how. I measure the sandwich; it's one and one-third iPhones tall.
Pressing down, I take the first bite. I hit every layer. Pastrami and bacon and chicken and cheese and corned beef. And suddenly, oh god, there's turkey. It's phenomenal, bordering on religious.
5:32 p.m.: The sandwich is doffing its cap at me.
I take another bite and am overcome with another pleasure rush. There's nothing like it. The Simpsons are at the beach, but I am in paradise.
5:34 p.m.: By my third bite, the bun starts to collapse. Part of a chicken tender has wiggled out. I forge ahead.
5:36 p.m.: I'm starting to slow down, even as the world speeds up. Homer is parasailing out of control. Snapping turtles are after him. My mouth is incredibly dry. Homer knocks over a sandcastle built by Apu in the shape of the Taj Mahal. Natalie Imbruglia or Edith Piaf is sounding from above. I take another incredible bite.
5:38 p.m.: It's going to be okay. I'm going to be okay. There are three bites left and, while I can't take deep breaths, I'm beyond the point where I'd give up. Meat Mountain may be a different story. The center of the sandwich cannot hold. The corned beef cannot hear the swiss cheese.
5:39 p.m.: Homer is in bed with Kim Basinger and a svelte Alec Baldwin. She has her Oscar from L.A. Confidential, which should have crushed Titanic for Best Picture. I take a break.
5:41 p.m.: I am taunted by back-to-back Reese's and Hooters ads. I take a feeble nibble. At this rate, there are still three bites to go. I resume my truce with Meat Mountain.
5:48 p.m.: Swig of water. Bite. Swig of water. Groan.
5:50 p.m.: There is little oxygen at the top of any mountain. Meat Mountain is no different. But the final bite is rich and my mission ends in bliss.
Throughout the ordeal, no one gazed upon the wonder of Meat Mountain. I return my trays and tell the cashier that I'd done it. I'd eaten the whole thing. She laughed, but only out of uncomfortable politeness.
When one accomplishes a feat, however utterly absurd, one can't help but crave some acknowledgement. Despite my best efforts, conquering Meat Mountain may be a victory that I am meant to savor in solitude, somewhere among the graveyards of Queens.
According to Google Maps, the Arby's in Queens was 5.5 miles from my Brooklyn hearth. I trudge home, arriving at my doorstep gleaming from the meat sweats. Meat Mountain was a worthy foe.