It started out as a team bonding thing, nothing more. With Steve and Sam off-and-on traveling as they looked for the Winter Soldier, Natasha trying to find herself and Clint recovering from having lost himself, Tony and Pepper's commitments to SI and to each other, Bruce's charity work and Thor's exploration of Midgard (which mostly consisted of following Jane around to conferences and fellowships), it was tough to really feel like a team. Even though technically they lived together, it was rare more than three or four of them were there at any given time.
So Steve had taken the problem to Tony, and together they'd come up with team dinner -- hopefully once a week but at least twice a month, no exceptions, everyone came back to Manhattan and they went out to eat, with Tony footing the bill. They tried to find new places each time, to keep things interesting, and sometimes they had a great meal and sometimes they had a disaster, but at least the experiences were shared.
It had been Clint's turn to pick, and he'd suggested a little barbecue joint in Hoboken that he swore did the best vinegar barbecue outside of Kansas. When they arrived, they found out that Louie's Smokehouse also offered a "special" -- if you could eat their five pound pulled-pork sandwich, your entire party ate free, and you got a souvenir t-shirt.
"What's the point of it?" Steve asked, looking at the menu in confusion.
"It's an accomplishment," Clint said. "It's, you know, a challenge to conquer."
"It can't be...comfortable," Pepper said.
"Comfort isn't really the goal," Tony replied. "I mean, if you've got eight college kids eating here and one of them wins the challenge, everyone eats free. You could make some money doing that -- winner takes five bucks from everyone who would normally spend ten bucks on a meal, kind of a thing."
"You could make a dollar out of owing someone ten cents," Steve said, amused.
"My secondary mutation is greed," Tony replied.
"That's only if you manage to eat it," Natasha said. "Otherwise it'll cost you twenty dollars for the pleasure of making yourself sick on pulled pork."
"Well, all investment has risk," Tony said.
"I just don't see why anyone would find it appealing," Steve said. "Honestly. Four pounds of pulled pork topped with a pound of slaw on a special-made bun, and half a pound of shoe-string french fries," he read. "Water will be supplied. Must be eaten in under an hour. Void if you puke." He wrinkled his nose.
"Well, some people are competitive," Tony said, with a wink at Clint and Sam.
"If you're not up to the challenge, you're not. Get some ribs instead," Sam suggested.
"Oh, I could do it," Steve said. "I just don't see why anyone would."
"Easy when you're not putting your money where your mouth is," Clint put in. "Anyone can say they can eat five pounds of sandwich."
"You think I couldn't?" Steve asked, eyebrow raised.
"I think you're scared to try," Clint replied.
"Are you afraid of a meal?" Thor asked, looking at Steve curiously.
"I'm not afraid! What's the sense in being afraid of a five pound sandwich? It's just a sandwich."
"Sez you," Sam said. "I saw Riley try a four-pound cheeseburger challenge when we were on leave in Boston once. He gave up halfway through."
"Don't listen to them, Steve, they're just being macho," Natasha said, hiding a smile behind her menu.
"I'm willing to put money on it," Tony announced. "I'm paying anyway. If you fail, I'm only out a little more than normal."
"I'm telling you I could do it," Steve retorted.
"I believe you," Thor said loyally. "It is a mighty feat to attempt. Worthy of your stature."
"So are you gonna order it, or just sit around talking about it?" Sam asked, a challenge in his face. Steve set his jaw.
"Ma'am?" he called, and the waitress sauntered over. "About the five pound challenge. Is there any special setup or anything?"
She looked him up and down. "You sure you wanna try, string bean?"
Tony made an oh no she didn't face at Sam, who looked like he was about to lose his shit laughing. It had taken them ten minutes to accomplish what she did with a single sentence.
"Yes, ma'am," he said, sitting up straighter.
"Well, it'll take a few extra minutes. I'll put in the order now and let you all decide what you want," she said, and headed for the kitchen. Steve had a steely look in his eye.
His meal arrived with everyone else's, but on a special tray, with a timer next to the plate. A pitcher of water was set in front of him, and the waitress, with great ceremony, leaned over and started the timer.
"You got an hour. Nobody helps," she warned, as Steve started to eat. "You gotta finish everything on your plate. When you're ready to give up, you just yell and we'll get someone to roll you out of here."
Steve, mouth full of slaw and pork, nodded agreeably. The rest of them barely ate as they watched him go.
"I should have ordered one as well," Thor said mournfully. "We could have raced."
"That is the worst idea in the history of ever," Tony replied.
"Totally doing that next time," Clint agreed.
Forty-nine minutes later, Steve -- with his belt loosened two notches and a slight flush on his cheeks -- took a sip of water and waved to get the attention of the waitress. She approached, a gleeful look on her face, and then paused when she saw his cleaned plate.
"That was really good," he said politely.
"Hot damn," she replied. "Well. Meal's on the house, folks."
Steve took a photo with the owner of the restaurant, wearing a souvenir shirt a size too small for him (per usual). Once he was done with the photo, he took the shirt off and offered it to Tony. "Your idea," he said. "You should get to keep the shirt."
The shirt read I GOT SLAWTERED AT LOUIE'S SMOKEHOUSE, and underneath, PORK PULLIN' CHAMPION. Tony looked delighted.
"You're gonna swim in that," Bruce said.
"He can get it tailored," Pepper replied.
"No, I think it'll fit," Tony said, holding it up to his chest. "Steve and his painted-on fashion sense, I swear to God. He genuinely thinks he and I are the same size in clothing."
"He does appreciate a tight shirt," Pepper agreed, looking as if she appreciated them, too.
"I should have joined," Thor repeated, as they headed for the parking lot. "A chance for glory has been missed."
"Hey," Sam said. "There's a place in Brooklyn that does an eight pound pizza challenge."
Thor perked up. "Truly?"
"Sure. We could go there next week." He glanced at Steve. "Unless once was enough for you. String bean."
Steve narrowed his eyes. He opened his mouth, presumably to answer the challenge, but instead an epic belch emerged. He clapped a hand over his lips, looking mortified, while half the Avengers fell down laughing.
The eight-pound pizza actually did require some preparation -- you had to call in a day ahead of time and let them know to have one ready, since it took extra time to bake. When they called in and placed an order for three, the man on the phone said, "You're kidding, right?"
"I wish," Tony sighed. "It's kind of a matter of honor."
"You want three eight-pounders."
"Well, there's gonna be nine of us, so three eight-pounders and probably two large regulars -- make it one meat special, one vegetarian. And a big salad," Tony said, when Pepper elbowed him in the ribs.
"Is this like a birthday party or a bachelor party or something?"
"I wish. Strippers would probably be cheaper," Tony said.
"We're gonna need a credit card to charge in case you guys are no-shows."
Tony gave him the Stark Industries corporate card number they used for Avengers business (it was held in the name of Jarvis Potts) and set the time for six o'clock the following evening.
When they actually arrived at the pizza place, one of the waiters put together the Stark Industries corporate card with the goatee'd guy in the trucker cap and figured out pretty quickly that the Avengers were the ones who had placed the order. When they were seated, he said, "I'm sorry, I have to ask...are Captain America and Iron Man going to be competing to eat an eight pound pizza? Because we really should try to get that on film."
"Do I look fucking crazy to you?" Tony asked. "I just want a slice of the meat special. Cap's going up against Thor and Hawkeye."
"There is honor and glory at stake," Thor said.
The waiter looked at Clint skeptically.
"Under this calm exterior beats the heart of a raging glutton," Clint told him.
"I've seen him eat. He might make it," Natasha added.
"So...is this a yes on the filming?" the waiter asked.
"Let's go with still photos only," Tony said. "Stark Industries needs to approve any you use for publicity purposes."
"Ah -- yes of course, sir," the man agreed quickly. "We'll have your food out in about five minutes. You all know the rules?"
"No helping, no puking, two hours," Clint said.
"Hey, for us mortals, can we get a pitcher of beer?" Tony asked, indicating the rest of the table. "And whoever finishes gets a t-shirt, right?"
It didn't take long for a hush to fall over the entire pizza parlor, or for curious diners to stop hiding their interest and turn their chairs around to watch.
Thor ate like he did everything -- boisterous, loud, and full of enjoyment. Steve, grimly determined at first, started smiling after his first bite.
"I didn't expect it to taste this good," he said to the waiter, who snapped a photo of him with sauce smeared on his cheek after his second slice.
Clint ate more casually than either of them, joining in the dinner conversation and just steadily, constantly plowing through slice after slice. In fact, it looked like he might actually beat both Steve and Thor, until he hit slice number five, when he started sweating. Halfway through slice number six, he groaned, letting his head drop to the table, and pushed his plate away.
"I'm cashing out," he said, one arm around his stomach, the other pillowing his face. "I owe you for the pizza, Stark."
"Don't worry about it, this was totally worth it," Tony replied.
"It was well attempted," Thor told him, patting the back of his head. Clint moaned. "Had you been eating the sandwich of last week, you may have triumphed!"
"Aw, food, noooooo," Clint said, breathing deeply, visibly working on not throwing up. "I never wanna eat pizza again."
"It's really good. We can box yours up, I'll eat it tomorrow," Steve said. He was halfway through, and when Thor saw him pick up his next slice, he started eating hurriedly to catch up.
"Fatal error," Sam murmured to Natasha, nodding at Thor. "Forgot to pace himself. He's out."
"Five bucks says he makes it."
"Ten says he pukes."
Steve was still eating, steadily but much more slowly, when Thor stopped completely.
"I do not surrender," he declared, waggling a finger at Steve. "We have two hours in which to complete this task. This is merely a pause."
"Yeah, you got another half an hour. You can do it," Steve said encouragingly. Maybe a little too encouragingly; Thor looked slightly green. Steve started in on his last slice.
"You know, I wish they'd put some mushrooms on this," he said. "A little variety would be nice."
"Yeah, that's what the eight pound pizza needs," Bruce drawled. "Another topping."
"I'm only saying, some vegetables or maybe some fresh garlic would be a nice addition to all the meat. On the other hand, I suppose I shouldn't be choosy," Steve said thoughtfully. "We didn't even have pizza when I was a kid, and I couldn't have afforded it if we did."
He stopped and smiled for another photograph, then bit into the slice, licking some melted cheese off his thumb.
Thor, valiantly, picked up his last slice and began nibbling on it. Steve took another bite. The Avengers watched, enthralled.
With three minutes left on the clock, Steve swallowed the last of his pizza. A cheer went up from the onlookers, but it was subdued; everyone was watching Thor, who was growling at his food as if it were a personal enemy.
Thor's slice was still only half-eaten when the timer rang. He threw it down on the pan in disgust and roared, "I am bested!"
Sam held out his hand. Natasha put five dollars in it.
"You bet against me?" Thor asked Sam, aghast.
"Sorry, man, I gotta support my boy," Sam said, clapping Steve on the shoulder.
After that, there was essentially the same process as the week before at the Smokehouse -- Steve was given a shirt to wear and had his picture taken with the owner. This time, the Avengers (except for Clint, who had passed into a food coma, asleep and drooling on the table) signed autographs and posed for photos with fans. The shirt -- I BEAT THE MEAT AT ALFIE'S! -- somehow found its way to Tony again.
Thor staggered out under his own power, but Natasha and Bruce had to carry Clint out of the restaurant. Steve strolled out, whistling, and asked if anyone wanted ice cream for dessert from a nearby food truck.
A few days later, Alfie himself sent Steve a photo of his store's new banner for approval:
CAPTAIN AMERICA BEAT OUR MEAT MONSTER CHALLENGE! CAN YOU?
They didn't do the food challenges every week, but after that, whenever a particularly good one hit someone's radar, they'd make a point to try it out. Thor, after his failed first attempt, swore off any further ones as pride-wounding foolishness, but Clint sometimes joined in if he thought he had a chance.
Steve usually managed to conquer what was put in front of him, unfailingly polite and enthusiastic about the taste, as if it were just another meal. He didn't seem to put on an ounce of weight, which annoyed the less chemically enhanced members of the team, and he started to enjoy the requisite photo-session-and-autographs after the meal.
"It's nice," he said to Bruce once, after a hard-fought battle with One full vertical foot of grilled cheese!. "It's good publicity for the restaurant, and it entertains people, lord knows why."
"It is hard to describe," Bruce agreed solemnly.
The only time Steve failed against the challenge was the Hot Wings Incident, possibly because it wasn't based on volume. The wings were fried and then baked in a sauce made from ghost peppers, and it was clear from the start that Steve didn't really understand what a ghost pepper was.
"Is this it?" he asked, when a basket of chicken wings was put in front of him. There were six wings in the basket.
"It's the spice, honey, not the size," the waiter said, setting another one down in front of Clint. "Whenever you're ready, gentlemen."
Clint gave him a nod, and so did Steve, albeit with some perplexity. The waiter started the thirty minute timer, set down two glasses of milk, and withdrew.
The noise Steve made when he bit into his first wing was one of pain and betrayal.
"You okay there, big guy?" Natasha asked.
"Hot," Steve managed, panting a little. Given the circumstances, it was a pretty restrained response. Clint, across from him, was apparently trying to swallow bites without letting it touch his tongue, with middling success. He sipped the milk between bites, face flushed. Steve was wincing with every movement of his jaw.
"Are you sure this is actually safe to eat?" he managed, after the second wing. Clint was on his third.
"If you start hallucinating, you should put the chicken down," Bruce suggested. Sam elbowed him. "What? That's my considered opinion as a doctor."
"You're a doctor of physics," Tony reminded him.
"Which means I spent a lot of time in grad school, eating trash," Bruce replied. Clint started his fourth wing.
"I'm worried my fingers are going to burn," Steve said. He picked up his third wing. "Clint, how are you doing this?"
"Ten years of eatin' carnie chili," Clint mumbled around another gulp of milk. He bit into his fifth wing like he had a personal grudge against the chicken that it came from.
"Poor baby," Natasha said. "Steve finally found something hotter than him."
Steve managed a few more bites, face flushed, but every time he picked up the wing for another, he flinched and set it down again. He looked at his fingers as if he were considering licking them, then shook his head just as Clint finished his last wing. Steve reached for the wet-naps sitting between them, wiped his fingers off, and chugged his entire glass of milk.
"I'm out," he gasped, pushing his wings away. "You got this one, Clint."
"I win at ghost peppers!" Clint yelled, throwing up his arms in victory.
That time, the banner read HAWKEYE LOVES OUR HOT HOT WINGS!
Tony still got to keep the shirt, which had a picture of a sexily posing chicken on it captioned BREAST OR THIGH? GET SOME AT CHICKIE'S SPORTS BAR. By then he'd amassed a diverse collection of them, which he enjoyed wearing to press conferences.
All of that paled, however, in comparison to the last challenge the Avengers took up: the Bobbi's Backyard Barbecue Fourth Of July All-American Feast.
It was a special challenged issued only once a year, open to everyone who could pony up the $50 entrance fee. Entrants had the dubious honor of attempting to eat a twisted homage to American cuisine -- a three pound hamburger patty with four hot dogs cooked into it, topped with chili cheese fries, cradled (as well as it could be) in an oversized hamburger bun. For dessert, there was a quarter of an apple pie, baked into an enormous slice of spice cake.
"It's monstrous," Steve said, horror and awe in his voice, looking at a photo of the sandwich on his phone.
"Sounds kinda good, if you toned it down a little," Clint replied. Everyone looked at him, and he shrugged. "I mean, I'd eat a quarter pounder with a hot dog and a small fries on top."
"Will you enter?" Thor asked, studying the flyer Sam had brought back to the Tower.
"Nah, it's just a little too much spotlight for me," Clint said, leaning back. "You?"
"I think I may," Thor said. "I am intrigued to taste this pie-and-cake concoction. Captain?"
"Hot dogs inside a hamburger," Steve said thoughtfully. "That just...it's just not right."
"Does that mean you're not going to join in?" Natasha asked.
"Well, I want the winner's t-shirt," Tony added. "But Thor can always win me that."
Steve set his jaw. "No, I'll give it a try," he said.
"It's not even a challenge anymore," Tony said to Sam, who grinned.
"I think I'll enter too," Natasha announced.
"Are you sure?" Steve asked, into the startled silence that followed.
"Worried about going up against a girl, Rogers?" Natasha asked.
"N -- no, I'm sure you'll...have a lot of fun," Steve stammered. Behind Natasha's back, Clint mouthed Good save!
The news that Thor, Captain America, and the Black Widow had signed up for the annual All-American Feast drew a huge crowd. Bobbi's Backyard Barbecue was stuffed to capacity; the televisions at the bar inside were broadcasting a feed from the cameras in the "backyard" portion of the restaurant, which was jammed to bursting with spectators.
Tony had leveraged a little bit of wealth and fame and gotten the Avengers a table down front, right across the "puke zone" (charming) from the table where a dozen brave souls, three Avengers among them, were preparing to tackle the Feast.
"This may have been a little more than you bargained for," Pepper said to the owner, who seemed both pleased and overwhelmed to be sitting at their table.
"Well, we're doing pretty good sales," she replied, beaming. "Best publicity we've had in years. Even better than the time someone put one of the Feast burgers on Reddit. We're hoping to get the Food Network down for it next year. If Captain America doesn't get their interest I don't know what will."
Steve was already at the competitors' table, introducing himself and shaking hands with his star-struck fellow challenge-takers. Natasha was talking to the only other woman, apparently to prevent one of the pushier guys from bothering either of them. Thor, austere and grave, was watching the grill with a determined gleam in his eye.
"Steve should get this one, no problem," Tony said, eyeing the burgers, which had already been cooked and were staying warm on the grill, waiting for the fries to be brought out. "He did that five pound hamburger and pound of fries in Williamsburg the other week."
"I dunno," Clint said. "I think the chili might seal the deal."
"What the hell is Tasha thinking?" Sam asked. "I mean, I've seen her put away a meal, but that hamburger's the size of her head."
"Ever seen an eating competition? A real one, I mean? It's always the tiny ladies who get the most down," Clint said. "I wouldn't bet against her. Might not finish first but I bet she gets at least as far as Steve."
"I'll put some money on it."
"Hell no," Sam said. "I don't bet against Natasha."
"Fair enough," Clint agreed, as the grill master started dishing up the burgers. He passed the plates to the fry cook, who put them on a scale and topped them with fries, cheese, and chili, then put the bun on top. Together they loaded up a tray with the twelve sandwiches and carried them to the table. The timer was set, and as soon as it started, the eating was on.
Aside from the Avengers, there were three fraternity brothers whose house had sponsored their entry, four eager amateurs, and a man and a woman who were both professional eating competitors. Thor was in with the frat brothers, all four of them having a very loud good time, and Steve and Natasha were down at the other end of the table, eating and talking. The pros were ignoring all of them, eating with a single-minded intensity that seemed to intimidate the other amateurs.
"Hey, how's the monstrosity?" Tony called.
"It's all right," Steve allowed, wiping some chili off his chin. "You barely notice the hot dogs."
"I could've done with a little more chili, burger's kind of dry," Natasha said. She was picking the fries out of the bun and eating those first, strategically.
"Sorry, lady, we gotta cook 'em well done or the health department gets on our case," the grill master put in. "Come back some time, I'll do you one rare."
"I'm holding you to that," she said, as one of the frat brothers choked on a french fry and Thor whacked him on the back hard enough to scoot his chair forward several inches.
"I feel like we've crossed some kind of line," Bruce said. "Some point of no return, foodwise."
"You're just freaked out that Natasha's having this much fun," Tony said.
"That too," Bruce agreed. Natasha winked at him as she started in on her burger.
The competitors had ninety minutes to finish their food; after an hour, two of the amateurs had dropped out, both of the pros were signalling for their dessert, and Steve and Natasha were just about finished. Only one of the fraternity brothers was still in; he and Thor were lagging behind the others, but not by much.
"Captain America wants his apple pie," the fry cook yelled. Natasha held up her finger. "Scratch that, gimme two!"
A waiter emerged from the kitchen carrying two plates, each with a slice of single layer cake, a pie visibly entombed inside it. Steve glanced at Natasha.
"Ready?" he asked.
"Can't be worse than getting blown up in an ammo bunker," she said, and Steve laughed.
Thor, somehow, caught his second wind as soon as he finished his burger, and caught up to them with fifteen minutes to go. The pros had finished and been escorted off to collect their prize; Thor and his new best friend were still going when Steve ate the last scrap of cake, put down his fork, and leaned back with a heavy sigh.
"How you doing, Natasha?" he asked, not looking at her.
"I could go for a beer," she said, and he groaned. "Just teasing."
Down the table, Thor let out a roar of triumph.
"Yay," Steve managed, waving a hand vaguely.
"And I'm done too," Natasha said, letting her fork clatter onto her clean plate like a mic-drop. "I like the pie in cake idea. Getting one of those for my birthday."
"I'm never eating again," Steve said.
"Good, I'll eat your slice."
Having crowned his achievements with the Bobbi's Backyard Barbecue monstrosity, Steve declared he was retiring from food challenges. Thor agreed that one win was enough for him. Natasha pretended to consider becoming the new Avengers champion eater, then pretended the horrified look on Steve's face had convinced her not to.
"I think I came out the best of this," Tony said, sprawled on the couch in a shirt that read CHAMPION SAUSAGE EATER - FRANK'S KIELBASA DEPOT on the front. "I got a new wardrobe and I paid for like, half the meals I normally would."
"You did have to pay for Thor and Clint's pizzas that one time," Pepper said.
"Worth it to see Clint collapse from mozzarella overdose," Tony replied.
"Thank you," Clint drawled. "I feel so loved around you guys, I can't even tell you."
"So how do we pick restaurants now, if nobody's doing the challenges?" Bruce asked.
"I was thinking of learning to cook, actually," Steve said. "We could eat here sometimes, you know. Family dinner kind of a thing."
"That might be nice. Where'd you come up with the idea?" Natasha asked.
"Oh, I really liked that spice cake apple pie," Steve said. "I'd like to learn how to make that. And I was looking at recipes, you know, and they linked to this other recipe, seemed like something the Avengers would enjoy."
"What's that?" Sam asked. "Spaghetti for twelve?"
"No," Steve said. "It's called a turducken."
Sam cracked up laughing; a few of the others looked amused. Clint groaned and threw a pillow at Steve, smacking him in the chest.
"I think that sounds delicious," Natasha said, a glint in her eye. "How much turducken do you think you can eat, Thor?"