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The Olive Garden Pasta Pass Journey: Pasta, Dreams, Limits and More Pasta

Its time has ended

Sanmarti Family Manufacturers Pasta Since 1700 Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

As summer becomes fall, 22,000 Americans are delighted to find out they’ve won an unlimited pasta pass from Olive Garden. To win requires determination, a quick internet connection and a willingness to go down a path someone may come to regret. I had all three; I won a pasta pass.

The Olive Garden pasta pass is a simple card that entitles patrons to 55 days of unlimited soup or salad and unlimited pasta. The pasta options include one of a few noodle choices, and then the addition of a meat topping. For $100, the holder of a pass can enter an Olive Garden as many times as he desires and eat as much of the unlimited pasta as he desires.

From 10,000 feet, the pasta pass seems like a good deal. Most people could find a way to eat at Olive Garden eight times over the course of 55 days and come out ahead with their investment.

But this isn’t an era for good ideas. The pasta pass sells out in less than a second. I did not win a pasta pass to make $20 off the idea. I won the pass to try and eat Olive Garden every day for 55 days.

As I began the journey of trying to eat Olive Garden every day for 55 days, so many people asked why. That was a very reasonable question. 15 days ago I didn’t know why. 15 days later, I really don’t know.

Maybe the pasta pass was about the idea of doing something crazy with a great payout. Joel Embiid has just earned a $148 million contract extension. He’s immensely talented and if he’s around for the playoffs in the last years of that contract, the 76ers will have made an excellent investment. But Embiid has played 31 games in three seasons. He’s a 7-foot man with bad knees. The 76ers have taken a wild shot. Sometimes that works. Sometimes taking a shot like that ends up very poorly:

The pasta pass journey didn’t seem daunting to me. I ate at Raising Cane’s over 100 times in 16 months. That gave me hope I could condense the schedule and add a few items. This couldn’t possibly be tough.

The first few days were glorious. The Olive Garden is a simple restaurant. It eschews the seven pages and an appendix menu that the Cheesecake Factory uses to drive suburban homeowners wild. Instead, Olive Garden just keeps offering more and more of the same product. Enjoy that bowl of soup? Here’s another. Thought breadsticks couldn’t be a meal? Take that expectations. Over those first few days, I mixed in a few options and enjoyed everything. The soup was good. The fettuccine was loaded with delicious sauce. And the spaghetti and meat sauce was better than anything I had at Olive Garden in years.

The Iraq War is one of the two moments in the 21st Century that will probably be forever impossible to understand. And by making that statement, I really don’t mean for it to be political about the war itself or the Bush Administration or the opposition to the war or anything like that. After all the casual dining pasta I’ve had, I wouldn’t re-litigate any of that. But the war is seismically important and made up of a million decisions on all sides that are difficult to understand. Why did the Bush administration and most of the foreign policy apparatus in the United States decide invading Iraq was a good idea? Why did I think it was a good idea? If it had been fought differently, might it have been a good idea? Was the evidence of WMDs really so strong to those that evaluated everything? Should the media have pushed back harder on the belief Mohammed Atta had been in Prague and met with Iraqi personnel? Did the media fail in other areas? What really made George Tenent think the evidence of WMDs was a slam dunk? How could so many people have been wrong about so much relating to intelligence and how the war would play out? How did the opposition to the war fail to make a compelling case on any of these points? Would a status of forces agreement have changed how any of these questions are asked or evaluated? Would things have inevitably gone south anyway and required intervention?

That’s just a small list of questions that barely wades into the discussion. Decision-making for the best—when neutrally evaluating a major question—is difficult. I failed to ask even basic questions as the days built up on the pasta pass.

To counteract the influx of Olive Garden, I planned to skip breakfast (which I normally do anyway) and eat a very light lunch. The lunches I had were not healthy. There is nothing healthy about my diet or this journey. But I would eat a small bag of Doritos and drink a can of coke. That totals 300 calories. That left me 1,700 calories to eat at dinner. I had plenty of calories left for dinner.

The problem with having so many calories left for dinner is that going through a day on 300 calories is miserable. You get hungry. You get headaches. And you get really sick of a small bag of chips and a 12 ounce can of Coke.

The advantage to eating so few calories was that I prolonged how long I could eat the same things without growing tired of it. But after eating Olive Garden over the first few days, I quickly grew sick of the meals. Fettuccine, spaghetti, angel hair pasta and rigatoni may seem distinct. They are really just distinct noodles without a difference. As the days piled up, the entire menu looked the same. The pasta tasted the same. I felt the same nauseous feeling. The journey seemed over.

That impression was correct. The journey is over. I made it 15 days. I started having nightmares. Maybe that’s totally unrelated to the pasta pass. I’m willing to find out if it is though. I started finding every trip to Olive Garden was a struggle—finding parking is never easy, people at the bar sit way too close to me and I’m not about that life. And worst of all, the $7 fireball shots somehow flow to enough people to make the place too noisy to look at Twitter in peace.

I actually lost three pounds by eating Olive Garden for every dinner for 15 days. I learned about the limits of what I could do. And I learned that anyone that can eat at an Olive Garden for 55 straight days can do something that I can’t. That’s okay. I have given it my best shot and radically misjudged my limit. That’s happened to the best of us throughout time when faced with difficult decisions. My decisions to eat at Olive Garden no longer fits that category. I am done.