I attempt to eat a three-and-a-half pound, seven-patty cheeseburger, so that it may be named in my honor. I’ve been practicing for weeks: reading online about competitive eating strategy and technique; professionals like Joey Chestnut, Takeru Kobayashi, and Sonya Thomas: men and women training their jaws by crunching through mountains of ice chips; professionals eating one large meal per day, drinking half-gallons of water in violent chugs to stretch out their stomachs; men and women in a perpetual state of binge and purge.
I attempt to eat a three-and-a-half pound, seven-patty cheeseburger at Stub & Herb’s, a somewhat fratty bar near the University of Minnesota, a place not known for its food or drinks, but nonetheless always packed with groups of students, Greek symbols on the asses of sweatpants, books open with pitchers of beer as makeshift centerpieces, condiments and napkins tucked into cast iron pails dropped unceremoniously on the table. The Burger Challenge is not well advertised, hidden on the back of the menu in small footnote writing: the burger grows a half-pound in size whenever a challenger completes it. If I can manage to finish the “Spencer ‘50 Spence’ Anderson Burger,” I’ll need to eat another half-pound patty with bun, condiments, and fries, in order to secure my place on the menu.
For the past month I’ve been anticipating this night, practicing the water training, hitting my daily hydration needs by 10 a.m., running daily to keep my metabolism high and counteract the potential water poisoning before trying, desperately, to make the “David 8 Goliath” Burger a reality. I have not eaten in a day-and-a-half, and I am now contemplating whether this was a wise or foolish choice.
I am accompanied by my wife and a well-wishing friend; both are here to document the event. I receive calls from friends, colleagues, family. A former roommate texts: You are INTREPID. Carry on!
Ordering the meal, I am met with an eye roll, a not another one expression from the waitress. Apparently they only updated their menus last week. I am surprised, though I shouldn’t be; when I first heard of the challenge it was a full pound lighter. And why wouldn’t it be growing at such a rate? It’s always been a dream of mine to take part in such a challenge, for my excess to be rewarded with some sort of T-shirt or plaque or picture on the wall. The idea of having something named after me seems more appealing than all of them. I’m thankful that more people haven’t tried, haven’t pushed their body to a limit that is so delicious, if not altogether enjoyable. The waitress carries out the burger: seven patties and slices of cheese, along with fries and bun, fanned out on a plate like a hand of cards. This will, for all intents and purposes, be one of my greater achievements.
I have a problem with food and drink, a joy for overeating. Ironically, it’s a problem I associate with a lifetime of long-distance running, of marathoning until my toenails fall off. One gets accustomed to a 3000-calorie diet and constantly stuffing food into one’s mouth. One easily forgets that, while recovering from a prolonged foot injury, that one can no longer eat as if one’s averaging 45 miles per week. Four years later, one might be fifty pounds heavier, eating without restraint, stuck in a vicious cycle in which the extra weight keeps aggravating one’s previous foot injury, making the exercise needed to break the cycle incredibly painful, and thus far impossible. One might find oneself feeling increasingly overwhelmed by the idea of food, alarmed at how much of his day is structured around having readily available access to Mountain Dew.
I’m a fatass and, even worse, a liar.
Unlike with traditional methods of battling addiction (and oh, how I hate to use that word, but what can you do?), one cannot simply quit cold turkey or avoid social situations where food will be involved. It’s my experience that even buying healthy food, packing myself a healthy lunch and snack, will regardless be ruined by a trip (or several!) to my work’s vending machine. It’s embarrassing. That some natural bodily function is something I cannot handle, that I do not possess the ability to say no to any sort of impulse, that I demand instant gratification, always and forever. And it’s not like it’s even particularly sexy or dramatic: I’ve never woken up in a back alley with a shared needle in my arm; have never lost a job for too much snacking. The most I can offer is eating a large container of movie theater popcorn and then, when arriving home to a meal my wife prepared, deciding it’s better to force down a meal than to admit my food-based infidelity.
I’m a fatass and, even worse, a liar.
So what does one do with this? Does one go to Overeater’s Anonymous meetings? Compulsive Eaters? Do I get off my ass and onto an exercise bike, P90X myself into some abs? Here I am, taking accountability for it all, swallowing my transgressions whole in the hopes of, someday, shitting them out.
I don’t know what keeps me plowing through this assemblage of food, carving through these beef strata, through the excessive sweating and the layer of sodium coating my tongue. My day and a half fast should have provided more motivation, should have mattered more after these first five patties. Two-and-a-half pounds in, I take a necessary break and contemplate the growing brick inside my stomach. I look around the bar; there is no excitement for the challenge, no onlookers following my progress outside of the waitress’s repeated stops by the table to see if I’m “still doing all right.” My friend goes to the nearby jukebox, looking for a song of inspiration, and decides on a prog-rock track with a significantly epic force. My wife watches on, either disgusted in my progress or my weakness, I’m not quite sure.
By now my food is best described as tepid. All I taste is salt. I switch from water to soda because I need some kind of taste, regretting the decision almost instantly. The taste is all syrup, all stickiness, all carbonation in my stomach bubbling out until I die.
The waitress comes back, another “how we doing?” She tells me that the aforementioned Spencer came in early in the afternoon, taking a several hour break in the middle to play pool and Big Buck Hunter before returning to finish his meal, spending nearly six hours at the restaurant. She tells me that she thinks I’m doing it the right way. I contemplate this, full of meat and rage.
Once, while sitting in a KFC, I watched a man methodically work his way through an entire bucket of chicken. He wasn’t a large man: in fact he was clean-shaven, wearing a nice button up with a collar, dressed fairly well by fast food standards. The man sat in a corner booth, alone, staring out at the Chicago traffic while he approached his task with a look of mild disinterest. The man ate wing after breast after thigh: all those sexy anatomies, those meaty curves. I must emphasize that there was nothing erotic about this: it was all sweat and grease; napkins soaked through, translucent; piles of bones with flecks of crispy flesh attached.
I too was alone: away from my wife in an unfamiliar city, feeling the guilt of leaving her alone on this Valentine’s Day, hung over beyond reason or comprehension. It was mid-afternoon, and instead of attending to my work responsibilities I had only just gotten out of bed and was ingesting chicken so greasy and amazing that it literally brought tears to my eyes.
Later, when telling a friend about the man, I realized that it wasn’t the quantity of food that amazed me, but his lack of shame. Even as I witnessed his feat I secretly wished I had the courage to go and buy my own bucket of chicken, to eat until I burst. But even in my food fantasy I knew that I would have to order it to go. At the least I would have to consume it in my hotel room or hidden away in a nearby park, to do something to hide the indignity of that much excess.
I’ve spent the better part of my adult life training for marathons, and quite often I am asked: Why? It’s not the easiest thing to explain. It’s pain; it’s control over the body; it’s a battle between the mental and the physical. Everything in your body—whether blisters forming, popping, and bleeding; whether chafing yourself raw; whether it’s heart palpitations or full body chills or bleeding through your shoes—is telling you to stop. To tell your body to go fuck itself, to do what I want regardless of logic, to do something as healthy as jogging to the point where it becomes dangerous . . . there’s strength there, a feeling that anything is within your control.
I like food. Lots of it. I like instant gratification, dollar menus, and shitty pizzas.
This is all a way of saying that I have worked my way through three pounds of ground beef, a plate of fries, and still have a long way to go. I decide that I need a break from beef; I pick up the bun, find it soaked through with coagulating grease. To get this far, to eat this much, to take that one bite of saturated bun and know that nothing else will be eaten today or possibly ever again. To feel this sickness and leave the meal unfinished, to never become immortalized under the slick lamination of a menu. This is the kind of failure I already know will haunt me for years: my best effort coming up short, for my mind to say yes but my body to win. This is a devastation from which I may never—physically or mentally—recover.
A blackened sauté pan, a wedding gift from my parents. It is the pan I have used my entire life for the sole purpose of making popcorn.
I consider myself a popcorn aficionado: I could tell you how it was prepared, what type of oil (if any) was used, an approximated date and time of creation based on its staleness. I have been writing out recipes for a popcorn cookbook I hope to one day publish, though I find myself doubting whether others would care about how popping is affected by the differing smoke points of cooking oils, whether anyone else wants to taste the subtlety inherent to chili flakes mixed in with the pre-popped kernels, a type of marinating experiment in which I’ve had some success. As a wedding gift, this pan has become part of my post-marriage transition, one in a new state, in a new home where nothing felt familiar, where the only things not new and overwhelming seemed to come out of this pan.
Although often labeled in vending machines and weight-loss articles as a “healthy” snack, a whole grain high in fiber, popcorn is often less of a food and more of a vehicle for butter or salt, or, in my case, for chili powder or cinnamon or shredded cheese or some combination of them all. For the sake of the cookbook, I figured out that my standard bowl—more of a tub, really—holds roughly 1200 calories.
In the early days of my marriage, I often call this a meal. By the time I’m finished, thirsty from the (estimated) 200 percent of my required daily sodium, I typically drink a glass of water, which causes the popcorn to expand, my stomach noticeably distended, stretching out, painfully now, but less painful with each successive bowl, somewhere in the range of two to three per week.
Maybe my love of food has to do with control. The self-help books I’ve found myself reading lately all suggest that—in times of personal frustration or panic—one is best served by taking over the aspects of their life that are within their power: the unemployed may not have control over the job market, but they can control how they dress, or they can control their attitude toward a situation even if they can have no effect on the outcome. I believe I go to the opposite extreme: my stress and frustration result in me eating whatever the hell I want, gaining control of my worldly satisfaction through my menu alone, with terrible results.
I like food. Lots of it. I like instant gratification, dollar menus, and shitty pizzas. My running self is committed to pain, welcomes it, understands that running isn’t supposed to feel good. What is it about food—not even the pain of hunger but the lack of a complete feeling of fullness—that I am completely unable to resist? If it is about control, I have to assume that food is the one aspect I have complete control over, and I don’t know what it says about me that I abuse this authority each and every day.
I eat so much Chinese food that the employees recognize my voice on the phone, express genuine surprise when I order something other than General Tso’s Chicken, my favorite. Since I moved out of my parents’ house two years ago, these people have been something like a family: they feed me regularly, give me a familiar place to go and sit, make me feel comfortable while I transition into college and adulthood and distance myself from the only place that has ever felt like home.
Sometimes I eat so much that all of my senses feel over-stimulated: it becomes difficult to handle the bleached fluorescent lighting, the loud bass in my car felt so physically that I nearly gag on the sound.
It has always been a fantasy of mine to invite the wait staff over to my apartment, to cook them steaks or burgers or something terribly American, to find a way to let them know how much that fucking chicken means to me. One day, while waiting for my order, I look behind the counter and notice a postcard made out to the family who owns the establishment. I try to make out their address so I can drive by later, eventually realizing how creepy I’ve become, forcing myself to look away before committing the numbers to memory.
Six months later, after moving away from the city and returning for a brief visit, I call in an order and the cashier, recognizing my voice, asks in her broken English, Where you have been? There is a sadness to her voice. I feel something like grief.
I am soaked through with sweat, unable to sleep, unable to bend my legs or move my arms without feeling chills ring through my body, something like a fever-dream state. It is only now that it occurs to me to try and induce vomiting, that some kind of release might be exactly what my body needs, that my body does not need to process the insane levels of shit that I have forced into it today.
In our tiny apartment in downtown Minneapolis, I huddle in the bathroom, and even in this state I am hyper-aware of how this city is rarely this quiet, how there is rarely such peace in our home as there is at this inhuman hour, how the quiet resonates in a way that makes me feel altogether empty. I am prodding the back of my tongue with an index finger, feeling no kind of gag reflex, wondering how far one must go before the body rejects itself. I continue to prod and eventually push, really push, until finally, thankfully, I begin to gag.
Yet nothing wants to come back out. My best guess is that the food, so much compacted into the stomach, typically the size of a human fist, that it has formed into one solid mass, compressing in on itself like some diamond out of carbon, too large or too dense to work its way back out. I spit out thick gobs of saliva, my abs sore and shaking as if I’ve been doing sit-ups for the past four hours. I give up and crawl back into bed, giving in to the fullness, feeling the pain of it for the next day and a half.
It is the summer months of my first year of marriage, and I am alone. My wife is halfway across the country, spending a month in a graduate program, clearly having a better time than me, missing me little if at all. And I am a mess. I barely leave my apartment; I am getting little work done, feel the weight of this unfamiliar city bearing down. I spend most of my time cooking elaborate meals, eating the foods I am not allowed to cook when my wife is home: Hamburger Helper, Bean Dip full of cheese and sour cream with Mountain Dew by the liter, bowls of popcorn that are no longer considered meals but mid-afternoon snacks. I’m eating to the point of disgust but there’s nothing to do but continue. I look and feel like shit.
Two weeks in, leaving my apartment to buy more groceries, I find the front tire of my car deflated and in need of replacement. After dropping off my car at a local auto shop, I cross the street and find myself in a Perkins restaurant, part of a greasy spoon chain that lacks every enduring element of a greasy spoon: it is overpriced, the food is not particularly delicious, and it lacks charm and atmosphere and any semblance of originality. It’s clear that the awful green vinyl of the booths, the motel-esque painting of landscapes and colonial sailboats, and everything about this terrible place has been meticulously planned, that some person or persons wanted it to be exactly this way.
There’s something terrible about eating alone, but nothing compares to a lonely meal in a chain restaurant where a bored waitress takes your order, and tells you she’s going to be taking care of you. Having a waitress for this meal, particularly during such a slow part of the afternoon, means I am interrupted constantly, am constantly being served in a way that makes me feel more uncomfortable than thankful.
It is 2:30 in the afternoon and there are only two customers in the restaurant: a severely overweight man and myself. After placing my order, I turn to a book I’ve brought along, though I can’t stop watching the man, several tables away, breathing heavy, painful breaths, a sound like snoring as he chews his way through his lunch. The waitress interrupts his meal with a piece of pie à la mode. “Thank God,” the man says out loud, meant for himself but because of his breathing, it is practically shouted to the restaurant. The way he says it, Thank God, is so fucking sincere, as if he could not have survived another minute without his dessert, as if he’s receiving communion, a sacrament. I cannot handle it, the unbearable sadness weighing down. I know the rest of this day will be spent in some dark cloud in my apartment, the desire to ever leave again evaporating. This is a loneliness I have never felt before, that will stick with me for far too long, for reasons I still cannot articulate. The waitress returns with my meal, and though I am no longer hungry, I will still finish every single bite.
I will eat another cheeseburger within three days of my failure.
It’s nothing special, a Burger King Whopper, something I’ve had a hundred times before. And for the first bites I will enjoy the hell out of it, feel the hunger inside of me begin to ebb away. This hunger will be erased. This hunger will be replaced with a feeling of wholeness, a sense of completion. Eventually, this hunger will be forgotten, transformed into feelings of pain, sluggishness, of my sodium heart punching away, the individual high-pressure bursts echoing in my skull. This hunger will be forgotten for a time, for a few hours, maybe a day, but hunger is always temporary, always replaced by something new, something never filled to proper satisfaction.
David LeGault’s recent work appears or is forthcoming in the Sonora Review, DIAGRAM, and Passages North, among others. He lives and writes in Minneapolis, where he destroys books professionally.