"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Twelve hot dogs are stacked high on a cookie sheet in front of me. This is my Everest.
“I think you should try the Solomon method,” says Crazy Legs Conti, world-record holder for most pancakes eaten in 12 minutes (3.5 pounds) and my competitive-eating mentor. He’s referring to a technique in which you break a wiener in half, shove both ends in your mouth, and chase it down with a wet bun. It’s named after King Solomon’s controversial maternity test. You know, the baby-sawing one. Crazy Legs pours me three glasses of Crystal Light lemonade (for dunking) and one glass of water (for drinking). To my right, he places a garbage can (for yakking). “You ready for the dirty dozen?” he asks.
I am. It’s long been my dream to compete in the world’s biggest, best known, most nitrate-filled gorging competition: The Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, held every Fourth of July in Coney Island. So deep is this aspiration that for two years, I shimmied my way onto the main stage as a Bunnette, a girl who counts hot dogs and riles up the crowd while wearing a very short skirt. A wiener cheerleader, if you will. If you witnessed the epic battle in 2009 between Joey “The Jaws” Chestnut and Japanese eating machine Takeru Kobayashi, I was the blonde behind Chestnut, spastically flipping through his number placard and pumping my fist in the air, as he chowed his way to victory, 68 dogs to Kobayashi’s 64.5.
This year, I’m hanging up my pom-poms. Because for the first time ever, Nathan’s will have a separate women’s division. Sure, females have been able to compete before, assuming you’re built like Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, who can down 41 hot dogs in 10 minutes and smoke guys three times her size (she’s 98 freakin’ pounds!). But opening up a women’s-only category makes the competition attainable for slightly more modest — yet still heroically voracious — eaters like myself.
This was my first practice run, and I optimistically thought that a dozen dogs would be a cinch. As Crazy Legs clicked his stopwatch, I grabbed my first wiener and gave it the Solomon treatment. While I munched on both ends, I submerged a bun in the glass of lemonade, the dunking liquid of choice for many competitive eaters, chosen for its ability to cut the grease and fight off “flavor fatigue,” a common affliction in which a repetitive taste becomes so overwhelming, consuming it is painful. It’s the shin splints of competitive eating. The lemonade also acts as a lubricant so the bread can slide easily down my throat without all that pesky chewing. In three bites, the dog was gone. The bun wasn’t quite so easy. Soggy and bitter, it was like eating a citrusy slug. “This is disgusting,” I say, spraying flecks of wet bun across his kitchen.
I tore through four more hot dogs and buns, each one requiring smaller bites and more chewing. Flavor fatigue was setting in. While the first bite of hot dog was delicious, the 20th one tasted rancid. I went from satiated to irrationally angry, like one of my favorite foods was turning against me. By my sixth hot dog, each swallow was punctuated by a loud gag. I struggled to get down number seven, while simultaneously trying to keep the others from coming up.
“One minute left!” shouted Crazy Legs. I had thought — at the bare, most pathetic minimum — I’d be able to eat 10 dogs, but as the final seconds tickets down, I desperately stuffed my maw with the eighth dog and bun, filling my cheeks to maximum capacity. “Time’s up!”
My esophagus had met its match; I couldn’t swallow the gargantuan heap in my mouth and dejectedly spit it out in the same trashcan that Crazy Legs would later barf in during his own practice run.
“I only ate seven. Totally disappointed,” I texted my boyfriend, Adam.
He responded: “That’s why u train. Don’t give up. Fortitude.”
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My obsession with the glorious sport of competitive eating goes back to my childhood, when I saw my first contest at Pepper Fest, an annual festival in Hudson, Wis. The discipline was spaghetti, and I watched in awe as 10 participants — all men, mostly overweight — sat on a stage, tearing apart meatballs and shoveling noodles into their mouths, their lips framed by circles of tomato sauce, like marinara goatees. I felt, at once, disgust and a sense of belonging — I wanted to spray them down and then shake their hands. I was excited that such a competition existed. It catered to my one skill I would have never thought could amount to anything of recognition: I was a big eater.
Despite my scrawny preteen figure, I had the appetite of an obese child, one who fed her feelings as often as her stomach. What may have been a cause of concern to some parents was a cause of celebration for mine. “That’s my girl!” my mom would beam, as I’d plow through my third helping of Hamburger Helper. Most of the time, our family dinners started with a prayer and ended with my declaration of gluttonous victory. “I win!” I’d yell, lifting up my clean plate for the rest of the table to admire. Without any other discernible skills — save my ability to rescue the princess on Super Mario Bros. 1 through 3, I viewed my big appetite as a natural talent. A gift sent from the gorging gods. Something to be proud of.
When I later became a Bunnette, I was one step closer to my dream and literally one step behind the Michael Jordans of chowing. It was magical to share a stage with the greatest eaters in the world, to hear the squish of the wet buns slide down their gullet, to be sprayed with their wiener shrapnel, to feel the excitement of victory and witness the agony of acid reflux. But to finally take a place standing alongside the eaters at Coney Island this year, I’d have to win my qualifying event. Nathan’s holds these contests across the country for a few months before the July 4 main event. Anyone can sign up, and the top male and female from each one gets a ticket to the big stage.
I was set to attend the qualifier on June 4 outside Citi Field in Queens, N.Y. In the weeks leading up, I continued holding practice runs at home with Adam holding the stopwatch. Crazy Legs had instructed me to simulate game-day conditions: Put 10 minutes on the clock. Set up your drinks just as you would onstage. Make sure to use Nathan’s Natural Casing Hot Dogs and Wonder Bread buns. Cook the dogs and let them cool to room temperature, because that’s the unappetizing state they’ll be in.
On hearing about my quest, many of my friends said things like, “Oh, I could eat 12 dogs, easy.” But let me tell you: You cannot. It’s not about getting full — it’s about getting lambasted by the same flavor over and over in a short amount of time. The wet bun, in particular, is a special breed of gastronomical hell. Your taste buds are not as strong as you think. If this were a marathon instead of a sprint, if you could graze leisurely on hot dogs throughout the day, topping them with ketchup and mustard, instead of dunking them in lemonade, then yeah, you could eat 12, maybe even 20. But you could not do it in 10 minutes.
On my first practice run at home, I once again ate only seven dogs, and no amount of Tums in the world could have made me feel better. Not only was my stomach doing triple axels, but my ego had been kicked square in the nuts. If I was going to win a seat in the competition, I’d have to out-eat all the other women at my qualifier, and I didn’t think seven hot dogs could cut the mustard. To make matters worse, the next morning, I clogged the toilet.
There were two more practice runs, but no matter what technique or dunking beverage I used, the results were always the same: seven hot dogs, seven buns, and seven hours of indigestion. It wasn’t just demoralizing, it was downright painful. The aftermath of an eating session on my digestive system was so uncomfortable that I even tried to throw up after one practice. I put my finger down my throat, wiggled it, and nothing, not even a single chunk, came to my relief. Frantic, I ran around the house searching for a barf aid. There was no ipecac in our medicine cabinet. A toothbrush and chopstick failed to gag me. So in a final act of desperation, I picked up an uneaten hot dog, the smell alone of which was sickening at this point, and that’s when I hit my low point: sitting by the toilet, sobbing, sticking a hot dog down my throat.
I quit doing practice runs after that. I just couldn’t bear putting my body through the wringer anymore, and I felt defeated by the lack of improvement. I still planned to go to my qualifier, although I was convinced it would be for naught and dreaded the aftermath. But that day, once I got to Citi Field, something strange happened. The moment I stepped onstage, the feeling of dread dissipated and my body buzzed with excitement. It was that same rush I felt decades ago, when I saw the spaghetti-eating contest, and years earlier when I was became a Bunnette.
The other competitors and I were lined up at a long table, multiple plates of hot dogs piled in front of us. Standing next to me was the unusually bare-faced Tim “Eater X” Janus, who typically eats in face paint and finished second in last year’s competition with 45 dogs, and the large and in charge Eric “Badlands” Booker, a daytime subway conductor who begins every competition with a self-penned rap about eating.
The emcee set things off, and hot dogs started flying. A small crowd formed and cheered, as I chewed and swallowed with urgency as I had so many times before. I accidentally elbowed Booker in the side and felt the wetness of his shirt, already soaked with the dunking liquid that had dribbled down his chin. At six minutes in, the emcee announced: “Badlands is at 17, Eater X is a 32 — they’re disappearing faster than they’re being put in front of them!” I was at number five. “And let’s hear it for Laura Leu, our first-ever Bunnette turned competitive eater!” I had been holding my eyes shut tight, willing the dogs to go down faster, but when I opened them, I looked in the audience and saw my boyfriend Adam, beaming with pride and shouting words of encouragement. I shoveled in two more dogs before time was up and finished in last place with the ever-predictable seven dogs and buns.
But here’s the thing: I was the only woman competing. None of the other ladies who had registered for the qualifier showed up, so I won the women’s division by default! I was No. 1 out of one! I had qualified to eat at Coney Island on the Fourth of July!
They say you forget the pain of childbirth as soon as you hold your baby. I sort of expected that to happen when they put a trophy in my arms, that I would hold on to this fake gold-plated symbol of victory and all my eating pains would be erased. I ran my finger across the nameplate, stopping at the word “champion,” and stared, hypnotized, at the hologram stars twinkling above it — nope, I still felt I was going to crap my pants. But behind that discomfort, I felt triumphant.
This Monday, I’m going to achieve my childhood dream and compete in the biggest and best eating competition in the world. And then I’m never, ever going to do it again.
Laura Leu competed on July 4 and came in third … to last. As she wrote in an email: ”Now, time to guzzle some Pepto. God bless America.”
Laura Leu is a writer and soon-to-be retired competitive eater. You can follow her on Twitter @LauraLeu, or visit her website, lauraleu.com.More Laura Leu.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)