"Apparently, it smells like death," said Mark McKinney, Dollar General Distribution Center trainer.
"It" here refers to surstrmming, a Scandinavian canned, fermented herring dish hailed as a treat in its homeland. In Fulton, the pungent fish formed the foundation of the "Stinky Fish Showdown," a fundraiser for the Super Sam Foundation. Local businesses can pay a $250 donation for an opportunity to eat the smelly delicacy; there are additional penalties for spitting the fish out, vomiting or giving up altogether.
On Monday, McKinney and his boss, Allen Huggins, took on the challenge. Huggins seemed confident.
"As I told Mark, it's all in your head," Huggins said. "And I have relatives in Norway and Sweden, so this is in my blood."
Meanwhile, McKinney was psyching himself out — he'd made the mistake of looking up videos of others trying surstrmming for the first time.
The two were happy to volunteer, however, and the corporation was more than willing to pay up.
"Not only is Super Sam Foundation here to support the kids going through the fight, but their families also," DGDC director Steve Gibson said.
SSF was founded by the family of Sam Santhuff, a local 6-year-old who passed away after a 13-month battle with a rare childhood cancer. During his fight, he and his family grew frustrated at the lack of federal funding for childhood cancer cures. Sam said again and again he wanted to "help all the kids," his mom Cassie Santhuff recalled.
The foundation has a two-pronged mission: Support cancer patients and their families with "comfort packs," and fund research grants to make up for the deficit caused by insufficient federal funding. According to SSF, only 4 percent of national cancer research funding goes specifically toward finding cures for childhood cancer.
Huggins pointed to SSF's care for a Dollar General employee whose son also fought and succumbed to a childhood cancer.
"I have three little ones, and you never know if something will happen," McKinney said.
At 11 a.m., Huggins and McKinney squared off at a table set up outside. The two kept bottled water and mints close at hand. Fundraiser organizer Krystal Stegemann presented the plastic bag holding the sloshing fermented fish and spooned out two portions.
"We've had such a great response to the Showdown that this is the last I have — I had to special order more from Sweden," she said, then paused to wave away a curious fly. "The flies come really fast."
If you've cooked much Thai food, you may be familiar with fish sauce — a powefully funky fermented fish sauce added to many Thai recipes. That's what the surstrmming smelled like while the bag was still sealed. Take its odor, multiply it by about 10 and add a note of rot, and that's what it smelled like with the bag opened. The sight didn't help, either: a grayish, opaque liquid dotted with slimy chunks of fish, sloshing around in clear plastic cups.
Onlookers took a step back, tucking their noses into their shirts.
After a countdown, Huggins and McKinney swigged down their portions. Huggins didn't so much as flinch.
"It was like salty sardines," he said with a shrug.
McKinney, meanwhile, struggled — he'd made the mistake of chewing, and the odor taunted him with every breath. Before long, he was simultaneously cramming his mouth with soft mints and gargling mouthwash provided by a sympathetic coworker.
"Like I said, it was all in your head," Huggins said.
"And in my mouth," retorted McKinney, fighting his gag reflex.
Dollar General is far from the only local company taking on the challenge. Stegemann said others who've committed to the showdown, completed it or helped out in another way include: the Fulton VFW, Tacos and Tequila, Central Mo Drywall, Bev & Co. Realty, Olive & Grace, Nine Mile Cabinetry, the Fulton Fitness Center, Express Yourself, Crane's Country Store, Hodges Roofing & Siding, Precision Precast, Greg Kolb Agency, GoPo, CalAir, Dave Shively and Jeremy Polston.
Separately, Champs Chicken and parent company PFSbrands have recently added information about SSF and how to donate to the cause to Champs' signage, packaging and marketing. The campaign coordinates with Champs' new tagline: "Be a mealtime hero."
"We are proud to support and help raise awareness for the Super Sam Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in our home state of Missouri that helps fund research for childhood cancer nationwide," PFSbrands CEO Shawn Burcham said. "With less than 4 percent of all research dollars given to pediatric cancers, we hope to bring even more visibility to this underserved cause and help fund this major gap in pediatric cancer research."
To those committed to the challenge, Huggins has this advice: "Don't chew, and don't breathe."
For more about SSF, visit supersamfoundation.com.