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Serious Eats Guide to Surviving Food Crawls: Or, How to Eat Like We Do (and Live to Tell the Tale)
Sometimes, at Serious Eats, each of us eats a lot more in a day than any one person should.
We don't need to tell you that. It's probably clear from our tendency to do things like eat half the tacos in Texas; or eat enough in Korea and Japan to produce a seizure-inducing video; or eat 24 po' boys and a damn sight else on a day trip to New Orleans.
Overeating is, in fact, a requirement of our jobs.
We call our all-day eating sessions "food crawls" (or research trips, which, joke away, they are). I'm not sure if Robyn Lee actually coined the term "fooding," but it sums up what goes on well: picking a place and/or a food and going on an edible exploration. It's not just stuffing yourself. Just as "going shopping" means that you're browsing and trying things on, not necessarily buying up everything you see, "fooding" implies a spirit of discovery more than a day-long binge.
I feel like, more and more, I hear about people who aren't professionally obligated to do so—my software engineer and formerly picky-eater brother, for one—taking a day, or half a day, to dive headfirst into eating, with no regard for silly things like normal mealtimes.
But I can't lie: eating at 22 spots in a day is hard on you, physically. Really hard.
As often as we hear "That sounds awesome!" in response to our tales of taco-crawling and dumpling-scouting, we hear, "How do you do it?" Sometimes it's in the guise of a crude joke, sometimes as a query of genuine concern. Sometimes it's "How do you spend a week eating at 12 taquerias a day and not gain 10 pounds?" (A valid question.) More often, though, it's not about the calories; it's about the sheer challenge. "How do you eat like that and not get sick?" "How do you eat like that and wake up the next morning to do it again?"
They're questions that, as a food crawl veteran, I've spent hour after hour thinking about. So here are my top 16 tips for surviving a food crawl.
Remember: it's not a sprint. It's a marathon.
Disclaimer: We hope this is obvious, but we feel obliged to let this be known: in no way do we recommend eating this way from any sort of nutritional or dietary standpoint. Clearly. Don't push your own limits. But if you've already decided you're going to eat way too much, here's our advice for making it through.
Stop At Two Bites. No, ACTUALLY, Two Bites
How do you try 55 foodstuffs at 22 restaurants in a day? You don't take more than two bites of anything. It sucks, because you've mapped out and researched all these amazing things to eat and odds are they're all going to be so much better than average and man, this burger is awesome but seriously—two bites. One, if the first bite tells you it's not to your liking. Two, if you're loving it, or if you're thinking critically. In which case the first bite's all about overall impression, and the second bite is attention to particular nuance--how well-salted the beef is, how buttery the bun, how sharp the cheddar, how prominent the pickle.
Other poking and prodding can supplement. Not sure what you think of that sauce? Don't chomp down another bite of burger, do a little sauce fork-swipe and see how it tastes on its own.
There are more than a dozen more rules, but it all comes back to: two bites.
For all sorts of reasons. One, all-day eating is a physically arduous process, and you want your system to be in fine digesting form. Two, it's imperative that you don't eat too much at any one place (see: two bites), so a feeling of water-fullness can help you convince yourself you're satiated after just a little.
Three, drinking keeps your hands doing something when they want to be eating more more more. Four, being properly hydrated helps you avoid what I call "salt hangovers." Just about any restaurant food is going to be reasonably salty (assuming that you're more likely to do a burger, pizza, or ramen crawl than, I don't know, a spinach salad or kale juice crawl). And when you eat more salt than you realize and go to bed not quite hydrated, you can wake up with a dizzy, nauseous, head-spinning condition I can only characterize as a hangover. I speak from much, much experience. Lying down on my bathroom floor, one terrible morning about four summers ago. "I only had one beer at Meatopia, why do I feel so ghastly ill?" "Because, self, you ate 17 kinds of heavily salted lamb parts for dinner."
Eat Smart Early
Did you wake up hungry? Use it. A true feeling of hunger is a godsend when you're attempting real food crawls. I try to knock out three or four places (eating judiciously at each, of course) while that hunger feeling sticks around. Just don't confuse "Mmm, I'm hungry" with "Hey, I should eat this whole plate of eggs!"
Front-Load Your Day
If you're eating at twelve places, it's infinitely easier to do four in the morning, three around noon, three around 4pm, and two around 6pm than it is to procrastinate, start around 11am, and find yourself at dinnertime with six left to go. Pacing yourself is paramount, and the easist way to do so is to start early.
When I'm done eating by 6:30 or 7pm, I find that I feel like a normal, digested-all-my-food human being by midnight or so, and in the morning, I'm even hungry. If I eat three "meals" after 9pm, though, I wake up feeling like a gut-weighted blob of a human. And going to bed that night isn't pleasant at all.
Pace Eating into "Meals"
If I eat little bites of things more-or-less continuously all day, I never feel full, never feel hungry either, and generally have a hard time assessing whether I'm doing okay. So I try to cluster eating stops into "meals," knocking off 2-4 at a time then taking breaks in between. If you're traveling around, try to plan your longer journeys in between meal clusters. If you're in an unfamiliar place, do something else! Walk around. Sightsee. The food will be there when you come back.
Eat Healthy Food Where You Can Find It
If your day is filled with burgers, get a side salad at one stop. If your sixth sandwich comes with a pickle, eat it. Spending some part of your caloric intake on less fatty, salty food, I find, makes me feel an awful lot better later on. And I'm not going to get into any nutritional science here, but I do find carbohydrate-heavy (particularly sugar-heavy) food tours the most difficult to maintain. I never think I'm quite full, then I'm really full, then a few hours later my energy plummets and I can't tell if I'm hungry again or just crashed out. Speaking personally, I find more protein-rich food tours far less difficult, keeping me on more of an even keel energy-wise. Give me a taco tour over an ice cream crawl any day.
No Snacking, Ever
Your single worst enemy on a taco crawl? Tortilla chips. Don't do it. Just don't. Even though they're hot and crisp and agh, I miss good tortilla chips and whoa, that salsa: you're not there for the chips. If you've got the restraint thing down, have one chip. If you don't, avoid altogether. Consider telling the server when you sit down that you don't need the bread/chips/etc., so that you're not tempted and so that they don't go to waste.
Maybe it's kicking up my energy to keep on eatin'; maybe it's the way it makes my stomach feel a little more alert and ready to digest; but I find proper and continuous caffeine consumption essential on longer food crawls. (Though to be honest, I find proper and continuous caffeine consumption essential most days.)
And Don't Forget Alcohol
The French and Italians are onto something with their digestifs and such: alcohol does wonders for a full stomach. I'll lean anecdotal here, rather than medical, but I know that, for me, nothing settles my too-full stomach like a spirit on the rocks.
I can't handle beer after or during big meals, and wine doesn't do much for me in those moments but facilitate the grogginess. But hard liquor feels like it's cutting through the great mass of food in my stomach and bringing me right back to life. I can't deal with any added volume, in these cases; bourbon straight does it for me. (Sadly, my longest food tour to date was in Salt Lake City, where I didn't feel quite as comfortable ending a few eatings with hard liquor.)
Just don't overdo it, should yours be a multi-day adventure. Nothing (I repeat, nothing) is worse than having to carry on eating foods not of your choosing when you're nursing a hangover. (I offer a morning full of fermented shrimp paste-laced eats in Malaysia, and a morning seafood fish market tour in Italy, as two experiences I hope none of you can relate to. "Good morning, Hungover Carey! Don't you want to eat this live, still-wriggling crustacean?")
Bring Friends (And Rotate Them)
You know what's awkward? Walking into a restaurant alone, ordering a burger, taking a single bite (well, photographing the hell out of it; then taking a single bite) and asking for the rest to go. Food crawls alone are incredibly difficult. I've managed a few, notably a madcap day flying from New York to Denver, eating at a dozen places in Denver and Boulder, and jetting out to San Francisco that same evening. But having two people makes it much easier. I particularly endorse the method of bringing along your athletically built, six foot tall boyfriend, who's usually overjoyed to be a food disposal. But having anyone to share the eating helps things along.
Of course, what's easier with two is easier still with three or four. The problem is that if you're stopping by sit-down restaurants, the more people you bring, the more you're going to feel obligated to order. So keep that concern in mind. But if it's a takeout-only dumpling crawl or cheesesteak tour? The more the merrier, as long as you don't mind sharing messy bites.
Advanced method: Bring different friends along at different parts of your journey, to ensure a staggered flow of hungry bellies.
Don't Be Afraid Of Doggy Bags
Doggy bags are a food crawler's best friend. First, they prevent you from wasting perfectly good food; they offer you an easy way out if the server asks if you didn't like your meal; and, if you're comparing like items (such as pizza slices or cheesesteaks), they let you bring along part of Sample A to try against Sample B later.
Of course, you're likely to have more leftovers than the average person, if you're eating all day. So come with excuses. "Wow, I guess my eyes were bigger than my stomach!" "Oof, I ate a big breakfast and couldn't quite finish that sandwich." Maybe they're not strictly necessary. But they keep me from feeling like a jerk, sending back a ¾-unfinished sandwich.
Have A Game Plan For Your Leftovers
In my line of work, of course I don't finish all the food I order. I'd get sick to my stomach, and that's no good for anyone. But at the same time, I'm aware of the value of the food I don't finish and want it to find a home.
It's best to go in with a game plan for your leftovers. Maybe you're on a pizza crawl and know that your roommate will appreciate those half-pies later. Maybe you've got nothing to do tomorrow and will eat 'em yourself. (Rarely the case in the pro eating world.) It's trickier if you don't live in the city in which you're food-crawling. But even then, something can be devised. I spent three days last August driving around New Orleans, and every two hours or so, we'd drive by a friend's apartment—that friend, a grad student with a meager monthly stipend—and deliver a huge pile of leftovers to his doorstep. He got a po' boy tour of his fine city without leaving the house. We got to go about our day knowing that the food we ordered didn't go to waste.
BYO Doggy Bag
There are times, depending on the restaurant, when it doesn't seem feasible to ask for enough doggy bags... or when it seems like they may not offer them at all. Or it's looking like you're really going to take a single bite of 6 different tacos and leave an embarrassing amount behind.
In such cases, I have in fact kept Gladware, plastic bags, or even styrofoam containers in my oversized purse so that, when the waitress isn't looking, I can sneak the extras into my waiting containers and the kitchen is none the wiser.
Look, I know that's weird. I don't do this often. But when you're facing down your tenth plate of tacos before 1pm, the restaurant is sit-down only, the staff is charming, the tacos are fantastic, and you neither want to offend them nor take another damn bite? Surreptitious food-sneaking might be your best option.
Look Beyond The Tables
As a lover of restaurants, I hate putting any eatery in an uncomfortable position; I'd feel extremely uneasy walking into a crowded diner with 3 other people and ordering a single plate of pancakes. It shows a lack of respect. So look for other options besides seated service. If there's any kind of food that can be ordered to go: do it. You'll be able to photograph, taste, scrutinize, and leftover-ize at your own speed.
Other good options? Look for casual seating areas or a bar; I don't want to occupy a two-top just to split a burger, but splitting a burger (and having a few drinks) at the bar seems much more reasonable to me.
If you can walk or take public transport around, do. If a restaurant is on the third story, climb those stairs. "Working up an appetite" sounds trite, but the more I'm able to move over the course of a day, the less oppressive the food itinerary feels.
I endorse some kind of more aggressive workout in the morning. I do not recommend the same after you've been eating. I've learned that one the hard way, too.
... But Break Any Rule If You Have To
The whole point of fooding is to hit upon something wonderful. Something better than all the rest. And if after diligently nibbling your way through a dozen po' boys, you bite upon a sandwich of true beauty, the one sandwich to best them all, a sandwich so perfect for that place and moment in time—toss all those rules aside.
I two-bited my way through most of New Orleans, but I ate a full three-quarters of a dressed oyster po' boy at Domilise's, a cheery yellow ramshackle shop just north of Tchoupitoulas. I think of that sandwich with curious affection to this day. I feel emotionally toward that sandwich. And even at the time, with the specters of Sandwiches Past and Sandwiches Future hovering around the edges of my vision, I didn't regret a crumb.