That’s the very question I pondered on the Fourth of July as I perched atop a police barricade outside the Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand on Coney Island . . . along with 50,000 other gawkers. That barricade was the best seat in the street for watching Joey Chestnutt devour precisely that many hot dogs and buns (HDBs to competitive eaters) in precisely that amount of time in the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest.
Watching people ram hot dogs into their mouths then hop and wiggle to pack it all down isn’t my usual pasttime. I was on a research trip for my second novel, Big Mouth, which stars a fourteen-year-old boy who aspires to be a competitive eater. Because of my pending novel, I flew to New York to see Chestnutt out-eat the legendary Takeru “Tsunami” Kobayashi, who’d won the contest six years in a row and whose previous record of 53 and three-quarters HDBs had seemed insurmountable.
I certainly hadn’t come close to beating it. And I’d tried . . . sort of.
Last summer, as research for Big Mouth, I stuffed myself with hot dogs and buns. (I know, being a writer leads me down some strange alleys…) Only, I’d been afraid of choking to death, a very real fear considering the fact that a Japanese schoolboy had done just that a few years earlier when he’d tried to out-eat his buddy in a speed match. Competitive eaters understand this risk, so they never engage in eating contests without paramedics standing by. (Kids, take note.) When I did my HDB research, it was just me and my napping 17-month-olds in my house. There were no emergency personal in the loft with me, and the boys weren’t going to wake up in their cribs, see me choking, and dial 9-1-1. So I decided to just go for the feel of Tsunami’s and Chestnutt’s feats. To do that, I ate as many HDBs as I could, at a fairly leisurely pace, to see how long it would take my stomach to be overloaded. I wanted to have a base number for my character’s hot dog training, and I wanted to know what it felt like to overindulge in the salty things. It took me 50 minutes to reach my capacity. Or perhaps I should say, my sodium tolerance level. Turns out that the more hot dogs you eat, the saltier they taste. By the end, I could have been chomping salt licks.
So how many HDBs do you think I ate? 15? 20? 30?
Try 8. Yeah, that’s right, 8. In 50 minutes. Far short of Chestnutt’s 66, I know. I could’ve forced down 10, I think, but I just felt so crappy by the end of that 8-pack of nuked dogs that I refused to trudge down to the kitchen to cook the second package I’d bought. Wait now, before you get all judgmental on me, consider that the very first Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest winner only downed 13 HDBs in 12 minutes. 13. So maybe I don’t seem so pathetic anymore? Okay, I hear you: his 12 minutes versus my 50. Cut me some slack, will you? I’m researching competitive eaters, not becoming one.
You see, in eating 8 in 50, I’d reached my personal goal, which wasn’t about numbers. It was about sensations. I want Big Mouth to be sensual, evoking the flavors and textures of food, conveying the joy of eating and the queasiness of over-eating. I wanted to know what it would feel like to eat so many hot dogs and buns that my stomach positively ached. My chicken-scratched notes from that research session say it all: My belly is taut as a rope, hard as a boulder, full as a canteen. . . . I’m chewing the final dogs with my mouth wide open, using the side of my tongue in an exaggerated fashion to assist in the chewing, which I can’t seem to stop doing because if I do stop chewing, I’d have to swallow, and that doesn’t sound good. . . . I’m staring at the center of the hot dog in my hand and noticing that there are tiny, disgusting whitish specks in the meat. And the so-called “white bread” bun is a sickly yellow hue…. Now do you understand why I didn’t nuke that second pack? If nothing else, I had no desire to research “reversals of fortune,” which is the eating circuit’s polite way of referring to puking. I’d done enough reversing during the early months of my triplet pregnancy, thank you very much. Research accomplished.
Not all my research for Big Mouth has been so, uh, nausea-inducing. I ate dozens of Three Musketeers mini bars for a Halloween scene, which thrilled the chocolate lover in me like you wouldn’t believe. I binged on a Cold Stone super sundae and ate gummi bears until my jaw ached and drank far too much Pepsi and ate a large pepperoni pizza by myself. . . . Is it any wonder I gained weight writing Big Mouth?
These days, with Big Mouth in its final days of revision, I’m quite content watching others stuff their faces. And if I have to hang out with 50,000 other people on a street corner on Coney Island to do it, so be it. That’s part of the experience. No one ever said research was easy. Sometimes, a writer must suffer for her art.