Recently I spent a year traveling around the country to watch large men and skinny women gorge on food, in public, for cash prizes. My book about this experience
was released in April. When I tell people about the book, they tend to ask the same couple of questions. How does that 100-pound woman eat all that food? (Really, 46 dozen oysters in 10 minutes?) Does she throw up afterward? Also, why did you write this book? (Really, competitive eaters?)
Questions one and two are easy enough. One, the skinny eaters train by stretching their stomachs with large volumes of water and food; two, the eaters do get rid of their calories in this and other ways, including the proper digestive channels. Question three is a little tougher to answer. A few weeks ago, Powells.com blogger Chris Ballard mentioned that he once wrote a magazine piece about competitive eating without ever thinking "there might be a book in there amid all that stomach acid." I do remember reading Chris's story when it was first printed, back when I knew nothing about high-level gurgitation. I liked the story. It was quite good. But I don't think I came away wanting to read much more about the topic ? certainly not 300 pages, which is what I ended up writing.
So why the change of heart? Why did I decide that pro eaters were worth writing about, aside from the fact that if you're a journalist with some ambition and some bills to pay, most anything a major publishing company will pay you to write is worth writing about? More broadly, how do you know when you've hit on a good idea?
I got lucky. I met a vivid guy with a story to tell. He did a lot of the work for me. By the time I met him, he'd been telling his story to everybody, but I think I was the first person to show up with a tape recorder.
The guy was Bill Simmons, also known as "El Wingador" here in Philadelphia. At the time I met Wingador, in the summer of 2004, he was the four-time champion of a yearly chicken-wing-eating contest called Wing Bowl that draws 20,000 spectators to Philly's Wachovia Center, which is the same place the 76ers play. I had called him one day after reading a few short newspaper clips about him. He invited me to his house. I visited the next day. The guy was huge, 320 easy, a bit of a mullet, built like a linebacker. Wingador took me into his kitchen and didn't stop talking for two hours. He showed me the contents of his fridge. He gave me a taste of the sauce he bottled and sold to local grocery stores, "El Wingador's Sauce." He talked about his appreciation for chicken in all its forms. The love of his life, he said, was his two daughters ? "that, and chicken." He wasn't joking. He said, "Chicken is my lobster of the land." It sounded like lobster ulla lan', a Steinbeckian folk saying for a man who was essentially a Philadelphia folk hero, a man who could get free drinks at any celebrity bartending event from Roxborough to South Philly and yet a man who had been driving a truck for a living since he was 23. "I screwed up," he'd tell me later. "My life." I learned that Wingador could have been a ballplayer ? major-league baseball teams scouted him when he was a teen ? but instead he was a pro eater with acid-reflux issues who had lost his most recent Wing Bowl, Wing Bowl No. 12, to the famous 100-pound woman, Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas.
Bill had grudges. Bill had regrets. Bill had a branded specialty sauce. He was a great character. That was enough to get me digging into pro eating websites and thinking about the topic's hooks into larger themes that might make a book kind of interesting. There was a mythic component: America, Land of Plenty. There was a news component: the obesity epidemic. There were food icons to play around with ? the American hot dog, the American chicken wing ? and people with silly names like David "Coondog" O'Karma to poke fun at. I also felt, in a way that was hard to articulate back then, that a book about pro eaters could speak (indirectly) to the ugliness of the 2004 presidential election and the Iraq War, and this sense that America was becoming too stupid to live: creating nothing, selling everything, flooded with trash culture, dangerous to itself and the rest of the planet.
Now my opportunism kicked in. I'd never written a book before. I was curious if I could do it. One year, 100,000 coherent words. Boy is Mary Roach right when she points out the blue-sky terror/blessing of writing your first book. "Book editors don't give you this pamphlet 'So You're Writing a Book,'" Roach says. No they do not. They assume that since you knew enough to pitch the book, you know enough to write it. Of course this isn't true. So you've got to fake fake fake fake until you figure out what you're doing. Early on, I sent a lot of sheepish emails to writer friends along the lines of "Are footnotes lame?" and "How long is a chapter?" and "Should I ever use the word 'fuck' outside of a quote?"
I think what got me past this self-doubt, besides the encouragement of a very patient literary agent (Larry Weissman), was another kind of opportunism that was a little more familiar to me: the excitement of finding uncharted narrative territory. The feeling is a greedy one, kidlike and giddy. You've been unexpectedly left alone with some big sugary thing that's now yours for the taking. (The kids in Jurassic Park just prior to the Raptor attack, loading up on cake and jello.) Because pro eating was so disreputable and overblown, no one, Chris Ballard excepted, had written about it seriously. Eating was something you'd see on late-night TV or read about in the "News of the Weird." So I had it to myself. (Almost. Another writer was working on an eating book concurrent with mine, but we only crossed paths a few times.) Fresh tracks. That was exciting, and rewarding. Pro eating was a crapulent spectacle, sure, but the rim of the spectacle was unexpectedly vibrant because the eaters had built a community there. The community was worth writing about even if the spectacle was exactly as dumb as it looked. The community generated conflicts, sacred controversies, moments of joy and mercy. I thought it would be good to honor that ? not the spectacle itself but the life that had sprung up around it. And I figured that even if I fell short of that goal, at least my book would contain some entertaining facts, such as the best way to eat a lot of hot dogs and buns really fast. Here is the proper method. Eat a hot dog, then a bun, then a hot dog, then a bun ? and so on, and so on, until time's up. Dog, bun, dog, bun. This is as close as you get to a natural law in the world of gurgitation. The method can't be improved upon, as one of my book's protagonists, Tim "Eater X" Janus, discovered, back in 2004, at no small personal cost.