Horsemen of the Esophagus
by Jason Fagone
Three Rivers Press, 2007
Review by David Wanczyk
“Deciding on the tone of an eating-contest story is hard. (Trust me.) Do you report it straight? If so, how do you make it funny? Do you just make a bunch of puns? If so, how do you convey that the eaters are serious dudes?” Jason Fagone asks these questions in his book Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, an expansive work about the superhuman and all-too-human hankerings of the world's most eccentric “gurgitators.”
I'm concerned about similar things as I think about this work. How can I tell you about a book whose subject is so teasable while insisting that Fagone's goal is gravely serious? Do I revel in the often hilarious obsessions of the eaters, or explore the grizzly, gristly side of competitive eating that Fagone reveals? See, he's interested in the comic volume of beans or cannolis some people can consume, but he's also hoping to find out, as many of us are, whether there's “something nourishing hidden inside American trash culture.” And that investigation feels dire; he's trying to feed us candy and pump our collective stomachs at the same time.
From now on, I'll try to avoid the food-related puns, but I will suggest that you chow down on this book like the profiled eaters chow down on chicken parts. You won't necessarily feel good about it afterwards, and neither do they, but that's kind of the point, because Fagone wants us to see competitive eating as a metaphor for American selfishness. Early in the book, he writes, “Competitive eating was a symbolic hairball coughed up by the American id,” and this criticism continues as he delves into the lives of world-champion Takeru Kobayashi, folk hero Dave “Coondog” O'Karma, and wing-eater Bill “El Wingador” Simmons.
Kobayashi is the superstar of the circuit, a man who's gained household fame in the U.S. for eating dozens of hotdogs every 4th of July. Fagone concludes that there's something about Kobayashi's extreme physical performance that goes hand-in-hand with being unreflective, though, as if single-minded focus erases some part of the hero's personality. So while the interviews with Kobayashi are one of the centerpieces of the book, Fagone expresses some dissatisfaction. This phenomenal person may be a nice guy, but he's no quote-machine. “If you eat, of course, you're going to gain weight, so you have to think about losing that weight,” Kobayashi opines unmemorably. Fagone groans.
The same is not true about O'Karma (“Coondog”) and Simmons (“El Wingador”), whose grotesque accomplishments and working class shtick teach us that competitive eating can be both an outlet for the Everyman and a dead-end. We try not to love Coondog—a self-proclaimed “white-trash Jesus” from Ohio—but we end up accepting him anyway. He self-promotes, and navel-gazes, and turns what God gave him—a big stomach and a big mouth—into a great myth (He eats a record-breaking amount of corn along the way.) Coondog's defining quality is that he wants to be totally honest with himself, but ends up indulging his illusions anyway. After describing the competitive eaters, even himself, as noble, he declares, “God, am I throwing out some bullshit, or what?” He's always recognizing that about himself but he never stops throwing.
Like Coondog, El Wingador tells himself stories in order to eat, and he anchors the section of the book that covers Philadelphia's annual Wing Bowl. Fagone quotes filmmaker Errol Morris saying, “If you scratch the surface of any person you will find a world of the insane very close to that surface,” and that's certainly true in his version of Philly. Wing Bowl is a gladiatorial-in-scope radio-station-sponsored contest that dominates an entire weekend for thousands of Philadelphia sports fans, and El Wingador is their hometown king. A large man with a young family, Simmons can't seem to escape the pull of public eating, despite deleterious weight gain. But Fagone sees something positive in the obsessions of Coondog and El Wingador, in the games they play and the outsized characters they create. “Blue-collar shtick, in its purest and most desperate form,” he writes, “is an act of imaginative will. It's a personality projection, a way to wiggle out from the body you're stuck in: a way to appear more slippery than you are. Bigger, more dangerous. Perhaps even as big and dangerous as you ought to have been. The unsquandered you.”
Contest eating, Fagone contends, often has something to do with regret about the past and a need to re-inflate (figuratively). This is true for both of these eaters, whose public eating triumphs are both enviable and ugly. But is any of this real, or are big, bad marketers using these lovable oafs to make a buck? Is competitive eating to an actual sport like Taco Bell's Beefy Burrito is to a square meal? Fagone writes, “What's real about competitive eating and what's illusory? Is it a sport? Is it a scam? Is it sublime in a hard-to-define way?”
What's strange to me is that Fagone doesn't address his own personal obsession with competitive eating, whether he's squandered anything. The book depends so much on a forceful "I” narrator, but we don't get that much of “Jason” despite constant informal funniness and near-frantic cynicism. Does Fagone himself worry he is too entrenched in junk culture? Too obsessed with accomplishments that may just be meaningless? Too concerned with what's elusively authentic to enjoy anything innocent? Sometimes he's as obscured as some of the showboaty eaters he's profiling, and the big questions aren't fully chewed.
As a man who once completed “The Boss-Hog Challenge”—a four-pound platter of pork and fry—without really knowing what for, I wanted this book to teach me something about my own cravings, competitive and caloric. Was eating heaps of meat a quest that acknowledges some basic absurdity, or was I gorging merely to be great at something that absolutely everyone does? A little bit of both, with a slathering of vinegar on top? If I knew what was at stake for Fagone as he follows these guys, I might know more fully what's at stake for me.
That's not to say his attempt isn't impressive, and I can easily guess what inspires his connection to competitive eating. He sees something uncomplicated about it, and he consistently offers innocence as a counterbalance to selfishness. Eating is fun, it's funny, it's a good-natured trans-fat transgression and a way for an average Joe (or Jason) to feel like a hero for ignoring pain. Witness the conflict and talent in Fagone's writing:
Here on the pro-gluttony circuit, atop the same cultural terrain that made me feel, in my bitterest moments, ashamed to be an American, the eaters were planting their dearest desires—for fair and honest competition, for a pat on the back, to get noticed, to prove themselves, to make their kids and spouses proud.
Life/liberty/pursuit of happiness by way of eating/shitting/vomiting/shilling.
In gorging, Truth.
Fagone always seems to be searching for one Truth, one quip, one bit of vomit, or one child's smile that will allow him to redeem or condemn the entire American project. It's an attitude steeped in postmodern lit (and many references thereto), deep political skepticism, and an enduring love of comfort-food tradition. He admits that he's trying to analyze something he's too deeply enmeshed in—the meaning of The American Dream (or Cream, or whatever)—and admits that he's looking too hard for an overarching moral. This is the frustrating thing about Horsemen of the Esophagus, but it's also what completes the meal. We can only take so many lurid descriptions of swallowing. It's Fagone's attempt to see a microcosm in a bunch of macro-bodies, to consume all of America-in-2004, that kept me reading. He can't always choke it down, this country, but he writes a good book, and it's clear that Jason Fagone will expand his own capacity—as his eaters expand their stomachs—to tell even better tales of people at their personal extremes. Which, he seems to insist, means almost all of us.