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Al Batt: We can’t help it; eating is simply just in our DNA

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt


I spit sunflower seeds for distance.

It was a contest. I did OK. I’d have done better, but it had been a dry year.

I could have been in a pie-eating contest that day, but the two events had been scheduled for the same time. Pity. That was the year Emma Torvaldson hit a pie judge in the face with her signature lemon meringue pie after she’d finished in second place for the fourth straight year in the pie-baking competition. I’d loved to have seen that.

I read in the paper that Joey Chestnut won his 13th Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, and broke the world record for consuming the most hot dogs in one sitting. Chestnut ate 75 hotdogs and buns in 10 minutes breaking his own previous record of 74 hot dogs and buns set in 2018. He prepared for the challenge by eating 420 hot dogs a week.

He’s not alone in that training regimen. I know people who prepare for the permissible gluttony that is a fair by ramping up their food intake for a few weeks beforehand.

I’m like most people. I’m a good eater and I’m a poor eater. It depends on what I’m eating. When I was but a boy who didn’t know anyone who didn’t like mashed potatoes, my mother accused me of eating like a bird. She meant I was a picky eater. A hummingbird can eat 100% of its body weight per day. Let’s see Joey Chestnut top that.

My mother loved to cook, so if she called someone a good eater, that was a high compliment. Good cooks attract good eaters. Salesmen, repairmen, ministers, truckers, shirttail relatives, church circle ladies and wandering souls just happened to show up at the house at mealtime. They ate. Second helpings were assumed. You couldn’t visit us without my mother feeding you. I suppose you could, but it’d have involved a tranquilizer gun. 

One frequent feeder of his face was a favorite of Mom’s. “He’s a good eater,” she’d say each time she heard his name. He’d show up at our abode for no apparent reason. I don’t know that he had regular employment. The only time he exhibited any ambition was in being the first to the table. It’s hard not to judge. Life is complicated. He wasn’t. He wasn’t just a good eater. He was world-class. He swallowed more than he chewed. He had a good attitude. He tried to find the good in every situation by finding the food in every situation.

I was working in Kentucky. Meals came with the job. I took a ton off my tibias and sat down for breakfast. Some at my table floated a few biscuits in the gravy. Others were the grits police making sure I ate my grits the proper way. I ate them without regrits. I like grits and hushpuppies for breakfast. A hushpuppy is a small, delectable, deep-fried round ball made from cornmeal-based batter. Grits is a porridge made from boiled cornmeal. I had a bit of cornbread with honey and some johnny cakes, which are cornmeal in a flatbread/pancake form. That meant I had cornmeal with my cornmeal with my cornmeal with my cornmeal. I’d stuck the landing. Hushpuppies date back to the Civil War. There are several theories about how the hushpuppy got its name. One is that when folks fried fish over a fire, the dogs begged and whined. People fried some batter and fed it to the dogs while saying, “hush puppy.”

The waitress told me that hushpuppies taste like fried cornbread and something too good to eat. I told her that I loved cornmeal, but couldn’t stand candy corn. She seemed shocked.

When I played ball and coached, my teams were more than mildly attracted to buffets. The all-you-can-eat kind where people over 60 were required to eat in pairs so there would be someone to call an ambulance. We didn’t need a GPS to find a buffet restaurant. We used hunger instead. There was an abundance of good appetites on those teams. We ate in nice eateries with wall-to-wall floors, which we wore grooves in from table to food.

I’m not about to challenge Joey Chestnut. I can’t eat that much, but I’m not yet to the point where I’m surviving on chicken soup without noodles served from a watering can. I have a good relationship with food. I find it impossible to be sad when I smell bacon.

If I could give you one helpful piece of advice about eating, I would.

Al Batt’s column appears every Wednesday.