Coney Island Pier was filled with people—people sweating as the July sun beat down on them, people drinking warm beer, people cheering and holding makeshift signs that said contestants’ names on them in bold letters. Every age group was represented, from small children bouncing up and down on their fathers’ shoulders to teenagers who held smoldering cigarettes to elderly men and women who wore sun-hats and baseball caps to keep their faces well-shaded. They were all buzzing with excitement, all there to celebrate one of the great American pastimes: hotdog eating.
Sylvie pushed through this crowd, trying to get to the area behind the stage where the contestants were gathering. As she walked, she looked around at all the signs that said things like, ‘We love you, Matt!’ or ‘Let’s go, Sonya!’ There were no signs that said Sylvie’s name on them, which wasn’t surprising. She was a newcomer, after all. She had to prove to this crowd that she was worthy of her own poster-board sign.
Sylvie reached the backstage area and saw a table that was covered with plates of hot dogs. She paused for a moment to admire their perfect symmetry, their seemingly endless quantity, the way they glistened in the streams of sunlight that filtered behind the stage. It all reminded her that she was really here, in the big leagues. Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. Even thinking the name brought back memories of scanning the newspaper on July fifth, the day after the annual contest, looking for the small article that listed the winner and participants. She remembered mouthing the words of the article, memorizing the winner’s name, hoping to finish before her mother came downstairs to have her coffee.
Once, her mother caught her reading the article. When she saw what it was about, she wrinkled her nose and said, “How vulgar.”
She threw the newspaper into the trash.
But it didn’t matter what had happened on that long-ago morning. Now Sylvie was here, standing on Coney Island Pier, surrounded by amusement park rides and festive crowds eating fried food. She was about to participate in the actual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, about to become one of those competitors she secretly read about at her kitchen table in Omaha. And she wasn’t going to be one of those people in the footnotes of the article, one of those who also participated.
No, she was going to win.
Sylvie had no idea how the cake had gotten into the fridge—her first guess was fairies. How else could it be possible? Sylvie’s mother, Cara, didn’t allow any sort of sweets into the house. Not even the most minuscule bar of chocolate. And now, there was a huge cake sitting on the top shelf. Sylvie went onto her tiptoes and grabbed the cake, her arms straining with its weight as she carried it to the kitchen table. It was covered in snow white icing and decorated with intricate pink roses made out of frosting. Sylvie’s mouth watered.
There was a chance that the cake was for Sylvie. Her sixth birthday had been a few weeks before, and Cara had ignored her request for a chocolate cake. Instead, she gave her six strawberries with a candle in each one. Sylvie had had to swallow her disappointment at the time, but maybe this was her real cake, and the strawberries were just something to hide the surprise.
Sylvie grabbed a fork and turned back to the cake she was now sure belonged to her. Tenderly, she dipped the fork into the white icing. She licked the fork, and was rewarded by a rich buttercream flavor that spread through her mouth. She put the fork farther in, hitting the layer of cake. The chocolate was moist and had just the right hint of bitterness to offset the sweetness of the frosting. The cake was perfection, by far the best thing that had ever passed through Sylvie’s lips, and she couldn’t stop herself from taking another bite. And another and another and another. She took larger and larger pieces of cake until the chunks were so big they fell off the fork. At that point, it seemed easier just to use her hands. She grabbed a chunk that was so large she had to use two hands to hold it, and she stuffed it into her mouth until her cheeks puffed up like a squirrel storing nuts. Crumbs piled onto the floor around her, falling from her lips and fingers. Soon, the cake was half-finished, but she couldn’t seem to stop. She had never been this hungry before, and it seemed that the only thing that would fulfill her was finishing the cake whole.
Sylvie was so engrossed in the cake that she didn’t hear the kitchen door creak open.
“What are you doing?” a voice shrieked, and Sylvie stopped mid-bite. She turned and saw her mother standing there, wearing ruby red lipstick and a black dress that clung to her thin figure. Sylvie could feel the crumbs coating her lips and chin, and her fingers were sticky with frosting. It was even under her fingernails. She swallowed the last bit of cake, and it stuck in her throat.
“Did you—did you eat all of that?” Cara stuttered, staring at the remnants of the cake.
“And why, exactly, did you do think that it was ok to do that?”
“Isn’t it my birthday cake?” Sylvie asked, even though the answer was now clear.
“No, it was for the Petersons’ potluck.” Cara ran a hand through her hair. She opened her mouth, and Sylvie braced herself, expecting her to scream, like she had when Sylvie scribbled with crayon on the freshly painted living room walls.
But she just said, “Go to your room. I can’t even look at you right now.” Cara’s voice cracked, and Sylvie wanted to comfort her, although she wasn’t sure what was wrong. But before Sylvie could go over to her, she sharply said, “Go, Sylvie.”
Sylvie trudged up the stairs and sat down on the edge of her bed. She tried to make herself feel guilty about what she’d done, but she couldn’t seem to do it. All she knew was she had never felt this full in her life, and it felt right.
For most of her childhood, Sylvie was average-sized. There was some fluctuation, though. This happened during the school year, when Sylvie was able to sneak in the types of sugary and fatty foods that were on a permanent ban in her house. Even when she was able to indulge, she usually stayed closer to the thin side of average, the strictness of her home diet balancing out her school-time binges. But every so often, if she ate pizza for too many days or if she snuck in a few extra cookies and candies at snack time, she would tumble over to the chubby side. Her pants would become hard to button and her shirt sleeves would get tight around her arms.
Cara always noticed this immediately. When she did, she would bring out The Picture.
The Picture was kept in a small safe under Cara’s bed, along with her passport and pearls passed down from her grandmother. It showed thirteen-year-old Cara standing beside a swimming pool on a Caribbean island. Cara wore a bathing suit, which was hidden under the chubby arms she folded over her protruding stomach. This was Cara in the summer before she went on the first of many diets. It was a time when boys in her school shouted, “Whale!” at her.
Usually, Cara wouldn’t say much when she brought out The Picture because, as she told Sylvie, she preferred to let the image speak for itself. But one night, when Sylvie was ten, Cara had a few glasses of wine with dinner. Afterward, she brought The Picture to Sylvie, who was sitting on the living room couch and watching cartoons. Cara sat down next to Sylvie, grabbed the remote, and muted the TV.
For a moment, Cara was silent. Then, she slowly said, “My weight gain happened gradually, just like it’s happening to you. For a while I didn’t think anything was wrong, but then one day I woke up and I couldn’t get through a day of middle school without being called some variation of ‘fat.’”
Sylvie looked at her mother, whose face was half-hidden by shadows. She was staring forward, looking through the TV, fists clenched.
“It took a long time to lose that weight, and even after I lost it, I wore baggy sweatshirts and loose jeans because I couldn’t believe that I would ever have a body that was worth showing. It was years before I was finally able to look into the mirror and like what I saw. Even now, there are days when I’m not feeling particularly self-confident. On those days, I look into the mirror and see that fat little girl staring back at me. And when that happens, all I want to do is hide.”
For the first time since she began talking, Cara looked at Sylvie. “Do you want that to happen to you?”
“No,” Sylvie said, her hands shaking.
“I don’t either. I love you so much, and I want you to have the happiest life possible. You understand that, right? I want people to see you the way I see you. I want them to know how beautiful you are.”
“Yes, Mom.” Sylvie smiled up at her mother, showing her that she understood, that her love was felt and reciprocated.
“Good.” Cara squeezed Sylvie’s shoulder. “Now, let’s do something fun. I think The Lion King is on TV tonight. And, as a special treat, I bought some tangerines at the store yesterday.”
“That sounds good,” Sylvie said.
They sat on the couch, peeling their tangerines as they watched lions and hyenas and elephants prance on screen. They sat with their shoulders touching, singing along to “The Circle of Life,” making silly faces as they tried to hit high notes. As they dissolved into laughter, Sylvie wished every moment with Cara could be like this one: simple, perfect.
Sylvie moved her Harry Potter book closer to her face, pretending she hadn’t heard the shrill call. Lately, dinner had become something to endure, like a cavity filling or an algebra test. It had started two weeks before when Sylvie’s latest doctor’s appointment revealed that for the first time in her life, she had left the realm of average-sized and inched into overweight territory. Sylvie’s eyes had teared up as she watched the numbers on the scale climb higher and higher. She had been so careful, she was always so careful, but it didn’t seem to matter.
“It’s nothing to worry about. Twelve is an age when many girls start going through growth spurts, and some weight gain is also common. With a little bit of exercise and fewer sweets, the weight should come off easily,” Dr. Reynolds told Cara and Sylvie as they sat in his stark white office.
Sylvie wasn’t sure how she could possibly eat fewer sweets, but before she could say that, Cara said, “Right. Of course.”
She smiled pleasantly, but Sylvie knew that there was no way her mother was going to let this go easily.
Sylvie expected her mother to bring out The Picture again, but it turned out, Cara had something else in mind. At dinner the night of the appointment, the rules of their new diet were laid out. There would be no more carbs in the house, not even whole wheat bread, and any type of sugary juice was to be thrown out. There would be no cheat days, no holiday binges, no special treats for good grades. Now, there would be only lean protein, vegetables, and fruit, each item portioned carefully. Since that day, these terms had been stringently followed for every meal.
“Come on, Sylvie, the food’s getting cold!”
Sylvie crept down the stairs as slowly as she could, trying to delay the inevitable. Cara stood next to the kitchen table, holding a bowl of steaming carrots. Sylvie sat in her usual chair and stared at the cracks in the wooden table.
Cara sat down next to her. “Would you like some carrots, dear?”
“Use your words.”
“I’d like some carrots, please.”
Cara handed her the bowl of carrots, and Sylvie placed a heap of them on her plain white plate.
“Less,” Cara said, her mouth a thin line.
Sylvie speared three carrots onto her fork and dropped them back in the bowl. She looked at Cara. Cara shook her head.
Sylvie put two more carrots back into the bowl. There were ten left on her plate.
“Now?” Sylvie asked.
“What do you think?”
Sylvie’s stomach grumbled, but she ignored it. “Less.”
Sylvie dropped three carrots back into the bowl.
“Now?” Sylvie said.
Cara nodded once. “Good.”
Sylvie looked down at the carrots on her plate. The seven remaining carrots huddled together on her plate, looking shriveled and small. There seemed to be an immense amount of empty space around them.
“This is the perfect portion. Remember that, dear.” Cara kissed the top of Sylvie’s head. “You can start eating. I’ll go get the chicken.”
By the time Sylvie started college at the University of Nebraska, she had found comfort in her hunger. It was always with her, like a dog that refused to leave her side. She understood how it worked, how to live with it and not drown under it. If it got too overwhelming, she knew how to satiate it. She was always careful to eat a healthy amount, but she never ate so much that she got the stomach-stretching feeling that came from being overfull. So while her friends feasted on the cafeteria’s generous buffet and worried about gaining the freshman fifteen, Sylvie ate her small portions and maintained her hunger.
In February of her freshman year, Sylvie’s roommate, a tall and thin volleyball player named Amy, invited her to the volleyball team’s fundraising event: a pie-eating contest.
“It’s three dollars to enter, and all the money we collect is going to the local food bank,” Amy said, buttoning her coat.
“That’s kind of ironic,” Sylvie said from her perch on her bed.
“Yeah, I know. But it’s all in good fun. So will you come?”
Sylvie could see Cara’s disapproving expression in her head, could practically hear her scoff at the amount of empty calories that would be eaten. “It doesn’t sound like my sort of thing.”
“Well, do you want to just come and watch? I could use a cheerleader.”
“Alright,” Sylvie said, standing up. If she couldn’t eat the food herself, she could at least watch other people enjoy it.
The contest was held in a conference room in the student union building, and when Amy and Sylvie got there it was already crowded. The pies were laid out on a long table with a seat in front of each one, many of which were already taken. Amy found a seat near the end of the table, and Sylvie joined the other students who were standing around the edges of the room, watching the event unfold.
As she waited for the contest to start, Sylvie looked at the pies. Each tin was filled with chocolate pudding that was covered with a heavy layer of whipped cream. Her stomach growled at the sight. It had been so long since she ate anything chocolate, so long since she experienced that explosion of flavor that lingered in her mouth long after she had swallowed. The vegetables and baked chicken that made up most of her daily diet never had that effect. Their flavors seemed to dissipate as soon as the food touched her tongue.
After a few minutes, a girl stood in front of the gathered crowd. “Hey, everyone, thanks for coming out to our fundraiser. I’m Emma, and I’ll be your host for the evening. We’re going to start really soon, but first, if anyone else would like to compete, we still have a few openings. Are there any takers?”
Nobody in the crowd moved. Amy caught Sylvie’s eye and pointed to the empty seat next to her. Sylvie shook her head.
“Come on, guys, don’t be shy,” Emma said.
Sylvie looked at the pies again, focusing on the one that was closest to her. In that pie tin she saw the echo of all the food she had ever coveted, of all the times she had passed a bakery or a restaurant and caught a glance of an icing-covered pastry or a whiff of a sizzling steak. Every time, she forced herself to swallow her longing down where it couldn’t hurt her, where she could pretend that it didn’t exist. But she could only pretend for so long.
“So, anyone?” Emma said.
Before she could think about what she was doing, Sylvie stepped forward. “I will,” she mumbled.
Emma smiled at her. “Awesome! I’ll take your entrance fee, and then you can have a seat.”
Sylvie took the seat next to Amy. “I’m glad you decided to go for it,” Amy said.
Sylvie nodded, feeling slightly dizzy. In her mind, she saw a flash of Cara holding up The Picture, saying, “Do you want that to happen to you?” But she had been careful for so long, and one instance of overindulgence couldn’t hurt. Tomorrow she would go back to living with her hunger, her trusted companion. She would probably miss it if it was gone.
“Everybody ready?” Emma said. “On your mark, get set, go!”
Sylvie looked around for a fork or spoon, but didn’t see one. Everyone else dove face-first into their pies, laughing as whipped cream dotted their nose or got caught in their hair. Feeling slightly awkward, Sylvie leaned down and took a small bite. Airy whipped cream filled her mouth, the sweetness setting her taste buds alight in a way her usual dull meals never could. She took another bite and there was the rich chocolate pudding and it was like she was six again and eating the Petersons’ potluck cake. The taste of the two desserts seemed to meld together, the dessert so long ago that hadn’t belonged to her and the one now that did. Soon, the self-consciousness disappeared, and then the laughter from the other competitors and spectators faded away. All that was left was the pie and the joy it gave as each new bite entered her mouth. In what felt like a second, she had finished the last bite. She lifted up her head, her face covered in chocolate, and it was only then that she realized that at some point, the other competitors had stopped eating and were staring at her. Most of their pies weren’t even half finished. The room was silent.
“Well, I think we have a clear winner,” Emma said. “Let’s give her a round of applause!”
The crowd cheered, and Sylvie attempted to smile, but it came out more like a grimace. She grabbed a napkin from a pile on the table and wiped her face as she walked back to Amy, who stood at the edge of the room.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Amy said. “It’s like you inhaled the pie.”
Sylvie’s face reddened. “I can’t believe I did that.”
“Don’t be embarrassed, it was great. I would never have expected it, but you can seriously eat.”
“Thanks, I think,” Sylvie said, but she couldn’t help but smile, a real one this time. She could still taste the chocolate on her breath, and her stomach felt fell for the first time in years. Maybe for the first time since she was six. Sylvie realized that she was wrong before—she didn’t miss her hunger one bit.
Over the next few days, Sylvie couldn’t stop thinking about that pie. She thought about it as she made herself dinner at the cafeteria’s salad bar—a bowl of lettuce, a handful of tomatoes and cucumbers, a dash of dressing, four pieces of chicken. She thought about it as she sat through lectures and as she studied in the library. As the days went on, thoughts of the pie were transposed with other foods. She thought of all the times she had said no to friends who invited her out to dinner, of the times she feigned fullness to get out of eating dessert at a party or a friend’s leftover slice of pizza. Mostly, she thought about those mornings when she was a kid, when she had scanned the newspaper for the article about the winner of Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. For the first time in a long time, she let herself revisit the thought she’d always had when reading these articles: she wanted to participate.
A week after the pie-eating contest, Sylvie lay in her bed, trying and failing to sleep as she thought about that article and the dream she had given up long ago. When the clock hit two, she gave up on tossing and turning. She grabbed her laptop and went onto Google, where she looked up ‘Nebraska food eating competition.’ Thousands of results came up, and Sylvie clicked on the first one, which gave the details for a pie-eating contest at the Omaha Spring Fair. It was just a couple of months away, and the website said, ‘Anyone is welcome to try their luck.’ There was a sign-up button on the bottom of the page, and Sylvie hovered her cursor over it. There was no harm in trying, right? Maybe she would hate it, maybe she would find that she really was happier counting portions. She almost wanted to believe that, because it would be easier to live how she always had, to keep up the lifestyle instilled in her since she was a little girl.
Sylvie signed up for the pie-eating contest, and then immediately looked up ‘how to train for competitive eating.’
She started training every day, drinking glass after glass of water to expand her stomach, having mock competitions with her friends. She easily won the pie-eating contest, and then a burger eating competition, and a wing eating contest. Each time she sat down in front of the food, she felt a little self-consciousness, but by the time she had taken her first bite, it had faded away as she put all her focus on the dish in front of her.
When she wasn’t training, Sylvie still counted her portions, still exercised, still lived with her hunger. She found that doing that helped her focus, and it also made it so she avoided suspicion. By not indulging, she was able to maintain her weight, which was important because she had decided early on not to tell her mother about her new hobby. It seemed safer that way. Still, it was impossible for Sylvie to not feel a small twinge of guilt every time she began training or signed up for another competition. She told herself that as long as she didn’t gain weight, it was fine. There was nothing for Cara to worry about, and nothing for Sylvie to feel guilty for. It was easier to say this than to actually believe it.
As time passed, Sylvie still did well in her classes, still hung out with her friends, still went home about once a month and watched movies with her mother. But between it all, she was training, traveling, and winning.
In her junior year of college, she went to the Midwest regional qualifications for Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. It was the hardest competition she had ever done, and for most of the contest Sylvie was neck-in-neck with a middle-aged woman from Iowa who ate with a robotic quickness and frequency. In the end, Sylvie pulled ahead and won.
In July, she and her hunger boarded a plane for New York City, ready to eat a record number of hot dogs.
The men’s competition was first, and Sylvie listened backstage as the crowd cheered and chanted the contestants’ names. Sylvie took a deep breath, trying to calm the nerves that had begun bouncing in her stomach and shaking in her legs. She checked her phone and saw a text from Cara: ‘How’s the Big Apple? Did you visit the Statue of Liberty?’
Sylvie had told Cara she was going to New York City, but she had failed to mention that she was going to be participating in a famous hot dog eating contest. Instead, she said that she was planning on looking at graduate schools—she even signed up for a couple campus tours to make her alibi stronger. Now, as Sylvie sat waiting for the contest to begin, she wondered if it was time to tell Cara what was going on. She had been debating this idea in the months leading up to the contest, but had always decided it would be best if her hobby remained a secret.
Still, Sylvie knew that Cara was going to find out eventually, one way or another. Either Sylvie would slip up at some point and accidentally tell her, or she would find out from another source. But there was more to it than fear of discovery. Sylvie wanted to show Cara that she didn’t have to be afraid of food, or punish it for what it did to her all those years ago.
Sylvie hit Cara’s name in her contacts. She answered after one ring. “Sylvie, wha—”
“I don’t have a lot of time, Mom. I need you to do something. Tomorrow morning, I want you to Google the winner of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Competition.”
An announcement came over a loudspeaker: “The women’s hot dog eating competition is about to begin.”
“I have to go,” Sylvie said.
Sylvie hung up and stuck her phone into her pocket. She stood up, and to her surprise, her legs were no longer shaking.
“All competitors to the stage, please,” the announcer said.
Sylvie walked onto the bright stage.
Once all of the competitors were lined up, the crowd cheered and began the countdown along with the announcer, “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five!” they screamed.
Sylvie looked down at her pile of hot dogs, readying herself for what was to come.
“Four, three, two, one, GO!”
Sylvie picked up the first hot dog, and the contest began.