The events documented here are real. The indigestion is real. No morsel of meat has been fabricated or exaggerated in the writing of this article. It is an honest exploration into the depths of gluttony on a Sunday afternoon in Charlotte.
It's 23 hours since the gorging. This is not the body I know. I have become a pufferfish minus the spikes. The puffer bloats as a defense against predators; my swelling is self-inflicted. It is the result of a decision I made to go beyond the sated point to an unfathomable level of fullness. I went Extreme Tailgating.
12:14 -- I get off the trolley at Morehead Street and have to walk to find the tailgaters. My net calorie expenditure is in the negative, a dangerous faminelike place for it to be. Maybe I should have hired one of those bicycle-drawn rickshaws. On second thought, those are stupid and everyone who rides them looks idiotic.
Up ahead, a 45-foot beast of an RV looms over a mostly empty parking lot. The tan-colored goliath is equipped with every amenity possible, including satellite television. With four hours and one minute before the Panthers take the field -- feeding being the only activity -- conversation runs scarce. You've got two choices: talk mindlessly about how the place kicker's switch in shoe brand may lead to improved field goal accuracy or transform the great outdoors into your own anti-social TV room, where you can watch any of the other 14 football games being played around the country.
I ask the RV people for a donation to my cause. They comply. I am supplied with a grayish Italian sausage speckled with green and red dots. Am I ingesting a special holiday sausage?
12:25 -- At the other end of the gravel lot I see a table, but not the dining variety. Could this be? Sweet, frivolous days of my youth, it is! A beer-pong table painted Panther black and blue. I watch the four guys and gal play a match, then I summon the courage to beg for food. They're dining on chicken appendages simmering in a homemade hot sauce. They hand me a jumbo wing, but I hesitate. I'm still haunted by a sixth-grade science experiment involving slimy raw chickens. Still, I gnaw until I see the greasy glint of bone.
12:50 -- Two men from Huntington have just finished their frankfurters. I'm too late for a handout, but they tell me of a tailgater utopia: a full-length Panther bus that arrives the night before games to kick off the festivities. I am in pursuit.
1:03 -- Salty meat molecules rise into the afternoon sky. The air smells of swine. On the corner of Mint and Morehead streets is a man with a giant, black cooker and 275 pounds of meats. His name is Billy Boy, aka The Grill Master. The name is no joke. Billy plants Hickory trees in his backyard and chops down logs to throw into his charcoal pit for extra flavoring. I can't see prices advertised for his food, so I assume this ground beef rolled with garlic and onion and topped with a thin beef chili is going down my chute free of charge.
Turns out "The Grill Master" is really "The Grill Saint." Billy tells me his prices aren't mandatory but profits go to an innercity sports program he created to keep kids off the streets. I decide not to go to hell, and pay him $2.50 for the burger and another $2.50 for a can of beer. It's three hours before kickoff.
1:40 -- My first food coma sets in, as I drift aimlessly through the crowd, grabbing cookies. I find myself conversing with a woman who paints faces. (What am I doing? She's not food. Or is she?) As Maryanne Dailey tells me about her weekend hobbies of painting faces and belly dancing for senior citizens, I imagine her head as a rack of ribs.
"The colors of the dress and the beat of the music are louder and faster than the seniors are used to. They like the excitement," she says.
"I like ribs," I say.
2:00 -- Brooklyn Brewery is having a party for its New York-based distributors. Larry Conyers, a large man in a Pittsburgh Steelers T-shirt, befriends me. He puts his arm around my shoulder and pulls me in close: "I like this guy. He's upfront about freeloading." Conyers ushers me to the kegs and pours a glass of high-gravity Chocolate Stout. I down it and go for the Amber Brew, a lighter Vienna-style draft. I take a chunk of meat from the mountain of pork. Each swallow is excruciating.
2:48 -- I waddle over to the oblong, silver pots a few trucks over from the Brewery. Yellow oil bubbling in cauldrons means only one thing: deep-fried something. In hell, the punishment for gluttony is being eaten by rats, toads and snakes. For greed it's getting boiled in oil. These must have been some selfish Cornish hens. I get a sample of the gamey flesh. Contrary to popular belief, fried pheasant is not a soothing stomach neutralizer.
3:16 -- My flu-like symptoms intensify. It's time to leave. On my way out, older tailgaters who have just finished steaming clams offer me a piece of freshly-baked, sickly-sweet pecan pie. I partake, and then spot another jumbo, black cooker. Turning my digestive tract into Noah's Ark was one of my goals for the day, and four species are on board already. I cannot pass on a fifth. In true barbarian form, I order a turkey leg. It's the most nauseating moment of my life. On my way back to the trolley, I find a dumpster and heave. Success.