There’s only so much fun you can have at a party where you don’t speak the language. A few years ago, on a visit to Sicily to visit an Italian friend, I found myself at her good-sized apartment, surrounded by a dozen or so of her friends. None of them spoke much English, one of them was her understandably skeptical boyfriend, and all of them kindly smiled and nodded as I smiled and nodded, the mute American sipping wine and repeatedly slipping out to the balcony to take a breather from saying nothing.
My value-add as a guest at your typical wine-and-laughs party usually involves offering up quips, unspooling ridiculous anecdotes, or asking the sorts of disarming questions and follow-ups that pair well with a bottle of Italian red. On this night, my only remaining move was to unfold a paper sack I found in the kitchen. I explained to my friend: “There’s this game. It’s called Bite the Bag. I’ll show you all how to play. It’s simple. And it’s easy… at first.”
What followed was a couple of hours of goofy fun that cemented, for me, Bite the Bag’s status as the greatest of all drinking games. A bunch of us 20- and 30-somethings stood the bag on the floor and took turns, one after the other, balancing on one foot and picking up the bag with our mouths, making the bag shorter after every successive turn. You don’t need to speak Italian to understand the agonized yowls of a person struggling to keep their footing, arms wobbling like a tightrope walker’s pole, kissing at air as they reach down with their entire body. It’s farce; it’s tragedy; it’s good clean fun at the going rate of 5 cents per Trader Joe’s grocery sack.
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Truth told, Bite the Bag is not per se a drinking game. File it with pool and darts and bowling as games best informed by, though not reliant upon, a recreational beverage. Like those games, Bite the Bag is a physical activity open to people of many ages, abilities, and sobriety levels. If you were choosing your optimal intake for a round of Bite the Bag, in fact, you’d probably peg it a notch above bocce but about half of karaoke.
Where Bite the Bag triumphs as a drinking game, though, is its implicit encouragement for you to push your physical and mental boundaries in a social setting. It’s competitive without being punitive. And it rewards a concept that yogis speak of, called drishti, or focused gaze: the ability to concentrate, keep your calm, and hold a pose — elements made just a bit more ticklish if your particular gathering has pulled a cork or two. “Test your limits with fun,” my Italian friend WhatsApp’ed me when I asked what she remembered about the game. “Also if you have drunk some alcohol it could be mission impossible.”
If you’ve never played Bite the Bag, it’s time. Grab yourself some kind of paper sack. Full-height 18-inch grocery bags are perfect (sans handles). Any sack with a flat bottom on which it can stand will work. That could be the brown bodega bag that doubles as tallboy camo, the white bakery sack still flecked with poppy seeds from your bagel run, the quarter-peck sack you got from apple picking. The bag that held your bottle of Etna Rosso doubles as the correct bag. The wine itself may even whisper the idea to you.
Stand the bag upright on the floor. Now stand on one foot and pick up the bag with your mouth. If you have some spring in your knees and some torque in your haunches, you’ll find this isn’t terribly tough. You lift a foot behind you or swing it to the side, turn your arms into a glider, and lean down. Chomp down gently. Crane yourself back up. Congratulations on biting the bag.
Now, administer difficulty. Take the rim of the bag and fold it down on itself one full turn, like rolling up your sleeve, taking care to keep the top edge even, or nearly, on every side. The bag just lost a couple of inches of height. Set it back down on that flat bottom, now with that rumpled edge. Again lift one foot and pick up the bag using only your mouth. You’ll lose your balance; your second foot will touch the floor. You can count these fails as three strikes and you’re out, or just let people struggle till they yield their turn. Either way, repeat the process with your closest friends. The person who can pick up the shortest, most rolled-down bag wins.
What you’ll find, I’m certain, is that two things happen over the course of the bag-shrinking. The first is, yes, biting the bag becomes tougher. But players also get extremely creative. Instead of swinging your foot behind you, say, you might fold that spare leg into the crook of your planted leg. I favor an attack that has me balance on the ball of my left foot, propping my right knee across the back of my upraised left heel. This pose has zero practical use in any other setting. But anything to keep that right toe an inch off the ground, and to crank my center of gravity lower … lower … l o w e r …
The second thing that happens as a result of these rounds: You wind up compressing yourself so much further down than you would expect. Surely, you think, having barely picked up the bag on the last round, you can’t grab it this time. Yet you try again. You tap the ground with that pesky second foot, to keep from crashing. You massage the air with your useless hands, hovering and correcting your balance. You feel coarse brown paper on your lips and nibble at it futilely, desperately, as your friends make noises that would suggest you are instead leaping toward the goal line in the Super Bowl. You continue to find just a little more in the tank. It doesn’t make any sense. But it’ll happen.
You also might do what my buddy Dan did on a dudes’ ski weekend in Colorado a few years ago. Picture a lanky, scruffy man in pajama pants, arms outstretched, in an unnatural hover-crouch. A half-dozen guys cheer him on — Bite the Bag always crowns a winner, but you root for everyone, like a soccer mom or a communist. The bag gets closer to his outstretched mouth, because yes, somehow you can feel your very teeth straining ahead.
Then, gravity. In the slowest of motions, Dan tips forward. In defeat, he rests, cross-legged, the bag mushed around his face, his head on the carpet. Dan has a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia. Bite the Bag is nothing if not a hell of an equalizer.
Where this game originated, I have no idea. A friend of mine showed it to me at a dinner party in Little Rock where, after an epic battle royale, two guests managed to pick up a fully rolled-down bag, a mere 2 inches tall. That friend tells me she learned it from her ultimate Frisbee buddies. Where they learned it, I can only guess. But now you know it. You can try it with your own co-ed sports team. You can try it at a cabin weekend where your cell reception is zilch and Euchre isn’t cutting it. You can try it on a third date after a second cocktail. You can try it with a crowd of up-for-whatever Sicilians who you hope carry it to some other party somewhere and to explain this strange American invention to new friends, and who will enjoy it until those new friends, too, are half in the bag, waiving off the next person to give it just one more go.