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THE MEAL THAT ALMOST KILLED ME

(This essay originally appeared in Revolver Magazine)

My wife and I had just completed the trifecta of stress-inducing life events. In the span of two weeks we had gotten married, moved to a new city, Chicago (where we would be living together for the first time), and I started a brand-new job at Northwestern University (where I knew exactly one person).

My commute from our apartment near Wrigley Field to Evanston, IL was nearly 45 minutes. Which I got to spend on the packed red line train, sitting next to a revolving roster of the cast of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – Public Transportation Editon.

My “favorite” commute was the morning I sat next to a perfectly lovely older lady who smiled and moved her new handbag so I could have more room. We rode in silence for a moment before she asked me where I was heading.

ME: (pausing my iPod and smiling) Work.

HER: Good for you. I’m going shopping.

ME: (smiling broader, winking) Good for YOU.

HER: Yup. Gotta get new socks.

ME: (okay, that detail was a little unnecessary, but whatever). Mmmm.

HER: Gotta get new socks cause my old socks have holes in them. Can’t have holey socks, gotta get new socks whatdidtheydotomySON?!

ME: (shitshitshitshit) … uh …

HER: They KILLED my son. And I’m gonna KILL them!

That was when I smiled, stood and got off at the next stop. I would wait for the next train to come along. I’m pretty sure that one was about to get set on fire, anyway.

Riding the train to work became a fairly adept metaphor for my first few months in Chicago. It was hot, crowded and full of people who either ignored me or wanted me to co-star in their own personal version of Grey Gardens.

By the time I got to work each day, I felt like the girl in the red dress in Schindler’s List, the one bright spot of color, struggling in vain to navigate a sad, tragic world. And yes, I just compared commuting to my full-time job with a child trying to escape the holocaust. I don’t feel good about that either.

Point is, each workday found me turning to my old friend, Food, for support. My daily lunch break became the only bright spot between 8 AM and 5 PM. And after a few begrudging days where I brought a pb&j to work because I barely had enough disposable income to get to work each morning, I said screw it, grabbed my credit card from my emergency wallet, and set off to explore the lunch time culinary landscape of Evanston.

I spent the first month at Chipotle. I’m from Duluth—what do you want from me?

But that couldn’t satisfy me forever. And, as I became a little more comfortable in my job, my apartment and Chicago in general I decided to branch out. And that was when I discovered Buffalo Joe’s.

Now, I had always liked buffalo wings. But once I stepped foot in there, things changed. They were the best wings I had ever had in my life. Now, I’m not sure if that’s because they were really that good, or if it was just comforting to have found a restaurant that I could afford, a restaurant that wasn’t a chain, and a restaurant that served heaping piles of comfort food. A comfort food that, after that first lunch, became my favorite food. And, for over four years, I would make a monthly (or bi-weekly or weekly) stop at Buff Joe’s for a double order of spicy wings, cheese fries and a large RC Cola. That’s right, RC. Because Buffalo Joe’s doesn’t give a fuck.

They give you celery with that order. But they call it a “set-up.” Why? Because they want to trick you into eating celery so you’re too full to eat all your wings, so that they can once you leave. It’s set-up celery. Because Buffalo Joe’s doesn’t give a fuck.

I took my wife there once. On a date. And she wore these pretty new sparkly shoes. And when she slid into our booth, she planted them both in a big pile of cheese sauce that looked like it had been on the floor since the Carter administration. Because Buffalo Joe’s doesn’t give a fuck.

And, after more than four years of eating my feelings at Buffalo Joe’s, I had gained 80 pounds.

I’ve lost most of my meat weight in the years since I left Chicago, but I never lost my love for Buffalo Joe’s wings. Which is why this past summer, when Katy and I began a two-week road trip to the East Coast that took us back through our old hometown, I hatched a private plan.

We would only be in Chicago for one night. And Katy hated Buffalo Joe’s, so I knew we’d be having dinner on neutral ground. Some place we both liked. The restaurant equivalent of Switzerland.

Which is why I told her the best hotel deal was at the Hilton in Evanston. Two blocks from Buffalo Joe’s. Which was open late. And that evening, after a wonderful dinner and some time shopping and driving up and down Lake Shore Drive, we headed back to our hotel. Once inside, she got ready for bed while I told her the truth: I couldn’t be this close to the best version I’d ever had of my very favorite food without getting some. She understood. Because she’s amazing.

So, I left my beautiful wife alone in a hotel room and walked to Buffalo Joe’s. Where I placed my usual order. Twice.

That second order was “for Katy.” But I knew she hated that place. And that second order could become “for Andy” if all went according to plan. I was so blinded by wing lust that I looked past details I would only come to recognize as warning signs of what was to come. The man taking my money was 5 foot 2 and 450 pounds. He had bits of cheese in his mustache. That “cheese” that went on the fries I loved so much, it came out of a giant can that they plopped into a tub of warm water and then pumped onto everything. And, if you let it sit for a few minutes, it developed an angry, radioactively orange skim of armor on it.

And those wings? Well, I’ve never really taken the time to process what exactly they are. Or what part of the chicken they come from. Or that they are basically the spam of chicken—the unwanted parts someone had come up with a use for. But no matter, I took my $40 worth of fat and grease and hot sauce and headed back to the hotel.

Katy lay in our beautiful bed, which was covered in soft white sheets. A deep and fluffy white down comforter lay on top. And that was where I set my meat, cheese and sauce monster shrouded in Styrofoam.

Then, I stripped down to boxer shorts and a white undershirt, climbed in bed, cranked up the HGTV and dug in. Katy watched me for a minute, looking at me the way she looks at our dog when he wakes us up in the middle of the night because he’s licking his penis so loudly. She was disappointed and a little disgusted, but she couldn’t really blame me for it.

She played along for a few minutes, gamely picking at a wing or two, wiping the persimmon, cheese-flavored glue off a waffle fry, nibbling a corner and smiling when ever I glanced over and rolled my eyes in ecstasy.

Then, she yawned, stretched and said she was just too beat. It was day one of our trip and we’d spend the next night 11 hours away in Niagara Falls and she wanted to get some sleep. She hopped up, and disappeared into the bathroom for a few minutes. When she emerged, her face and hands were a slight shade of red, evidence of the scrubbing she’d been doing to get rid of the excess Buff Joe’s sauce. She climbed into bed, gritting her teeth and biting her tongue when I shouted at her to be careful, lest her snuggling into sleep upset my buffalo wing tower. And then, just as she placed her head on the pillow, she said the greatest three little words in the English language:

“Eat mine, too.”

I sighed, like she was really putting me out here, and scooped her wings into my now nearly empty Styrofoam box, adding her pile of cheese fries for good measure. As her breathing slowed and steadied and she began to sleep, I flipped from HGTV to the food network. It was like watching porn in the middle of an orgy, but I’ve never been one to claim control of my vices.

See, a double order is 24 wings. And I had ordered two double orders. 48 wings. And, over the course of the next 20 minutes, I ate every last one. At 1 AM. In a hotel room while my wife slept next to me in bed.

At about wing 30, the meat sweats set in. If you don’t know what these are, you probably do cardio and have a healthy percentage of body fat. So, good for you. Dick.

The meat sweats suck. They happen when you eat so much your body just says, “Oh, fuck this guy. Get rid of this shit. By any means necessary.” And since the exit portals at either end of your body take a little time to get warmed up, your body starts pushing liquified buffalo wings right out of your pores.

I usually stop once they kick in, but I hadn’t been to Buffalo Joe’s since that time I had a 6-hour layover at O’Hare and left the airport, rode the train, bought wings, ate them on the train back and barely made my connecting flight, and I had no clue when I’d get them again. So I was going to eat every last wing.

By the time I finished, my hands and face were covered in hot sauce. The corners of my mouth felt like they were developing small chemical burns and when I glanced from the television to my reflection in the mirror across the room, I actually gasped.

I pushed the empty containers off the bed and groaned. I was in some serious pain here. And I knew it wouldn’t be long before the meat sweats’ best friend arrived: soul-crushing depression. So I had better get to sleep quick before I found myself wandering the alleys at 4 AM, daring someone to shoot me in the stomach to get rid of some of the meat and cheese paste.

I glanced across the room to the bathroom. It was a good ten steps away. And it was now almost 2 AM. But my hands and face were covered in bright red globs of sticky, greasy hot sauce. And our beautiful bed was as white as bleached bone.

So I did what anyone would do in that situation. I used my legs and abdominal muscles to scoot down to a sleeping position and held my hands up above the covers like misshapen, bloody claws.

And that’s how my wife found me the next morning: sound asleep, hands a little in the air, caked and cracked hot sauce drying on my fingers and cheeks. To her credit, she didn’t divorce me right there.

Buffalo Wings are still my favorite food. But I have no plans to return to Chicago—or Buffalo Joe’s—any time soon.

Step One is admitting you have a problem, so here we go:

Hi. My name’s Andy Bennett, and I once ate so many buffalo wings that I almost died.