"Gluttony is a vice only when it leads to stupid, inartistic excess." -- from The Feasts of Autolycus

That's what I call quality wisdom. In a slightly modified form, these words could come in handy Thanksgiving Day, when you're delivering your annual Power Gorging performance and family and friends are starting to look . . . alarmed. This usually occurs during the Clearing of the Table segment -- official eating time is over, the amateurs wobbled away long ago, dishes are being removed with brisk urgency, and there you are, beaver-gnawing a turkey leg with one hand and groping for the stuffing bowl with the other. It's at this point that some manners fascist might make a remark. Take this as a cue to voice your beliefs: Squint, run a hand through your grease- matted hair, dunk a pie wedge in the gravy boat, extend a small blob of tongue, belch and say, "An excess of artistic gluttony is not a vice, stupid."

And please, reader, when I say "you," don't bother pointing at yourself and saying, "Who? Me? I don't pork out on Thanksgiving anymore. That's senseless." Come off it. Real Americans aren't ashamed of Thanksgiving gluttony -- they wallow in it, and they don't care who gets splashed. For all of us, it's the one time each year that the self-stuffing impulse need not and should not be resisted. Children, Thanksgiving's card-table outcasts, are thrust into a peer-group competition that requires them to eat until their little bellies take on the size and density of a duckpin bowling ball. Oldsters must show that they've still "got it." The generic in-house Adolescent Guy -- a k a "the forager" -- has a rep to maintain, and for symbolic reasons, Dad wants to outdo him. Even Mom plays. Though she's never hungry when dinner is served -- too much taste-testing -- you don't want to be standing between her and the fridge at 11 o'clock that night. In non-family settings, your nouvelle gourmets and food wimps may sneer at the over-saged stuffing, but just watch them pounce on those full-grown vegetables. Fatsos get to load their plates like Brobdingnagians -- complete with Andean peaks of mashed potatoes and high-altitude gravy lakes -- and can ward off the strictest diet police with that fail-safe line: "It's only once a year!" Finally, perhaps under more pressure than anyone, are the skinny people. Prune-size stomachs notwithstanding, they have to put it away, or they'll get force-fed by a gang of concerned Aunties.

As one who travels on the Ichabod path, I'm fairly serious about my T-Day preparation, but this year is special. For the first time, I'll be having Thanksgiving at my brother Malcolm's house, and it's vitally important that I stomp him on his home turf, with his wife and children looking helplessly on. Why? Well, ever since I was old enough to say "Pass the biscuits," he and I have had fierce eating contests -- often over a platter of Mom Heard's fried chicken -- and he's won them all, usually with needless humiliation tactics thrown in for good measure. His favorite is to wait until I've "finished" my chicken pieces, at which point he'll look at my plate, paste on an eyebrow-arched smirk and ask, "Donewithose?" Always running it together like that, in a single mocking word.

"Uh, yeah."

"Looks like you left some. I'll just -- " Grab the bones and "inspect" them. There then follows a brief period of slurping, cracking and pencil-sharpener noises before the bones -- now looking almost sun-bleached -- are redeposited on my plate. Grrrr. Also, have I mentioned that he's trained his two lads to address me by my childhood nickname? Thus, whenever I call and one of the boys answers, he immediately starts chanting, "Uncle Duh is on the phone! Uncle DUH is on the phone!" Malcolm thinks that's pret-ty funny. We'll see how he likes it when they're running around his dining room yelling, "Uncle DUH ate more than DAD!!" Mwhahahahaha --

Huh? What's that? Wait, I can't hear you, let me turn down this "Rocky" sound track . . . Oh, am I getting carried away? Not at all. My approach has been calm and rational, starting, as always, with a research trip during which I learned many things that may be useful to those who are also training for a big feed. First off, you should know that it's probably not a good idea to call your family physician for tips on eating as much as you can possibly hold at one sitting. He or she would frown on such activity, especially because the stomach literature often mentions the case of an unnamed "forty-four-year-old Reno physician" who, to put it in layman's terms, blew up from eating too much Thanksgiving dinner. Nor is the U.S. Patent Office much help. I'd daydreamed about the existence of, like, a swallowable, self-inflating gelatin balloon that would increase one's stomach capacity over an eight-hour period and then explode just as the dinner bell rings, but when I asked a research assistant "Where is the Thanksgiving Eating Aids section?" he just looked at me funny.

In the Library of Congress, I learned of a probably useful but too-strange process called "fletcherizing." Devised by a 19th-century Ohio businessman named Horace Fletcher and originally designed as a weight-loss gimmick, fletcherizing could obviously be used to increase your intake and table time. What you do is: Chew everything 300 times -- face down. (The face-down bit prevents food from slipping down your gullet until you decide it's time.) As you can imagine, with everything liquefied to the max, you could hold more food, and it would doubtless take six or seven hours to down a normal meal. All of which sounds good on paper, but I predict a nose dive in conversational skills.

Starting to wonder if gluttony is just like dieting? No shortcuts? That's exactly right. When I finally found a real expert, a Manassas weightlifter named Ken Ryder who's in the process of putting on 50 pounds, he said it flat out: To eat more, you have to eat more. Whether it's Thanksgiving, an English Channel swim or a limbo contest, the key to success is the same. Training. I asked: Does that mean my childhood technique of fasting on Thanksgiving Day is the wrong approach?

"Exactly. Your stomach will shrink up and you won't be able to eat anything. The key is a steady, progressive expansion of stomach capacity by eating more meals and larger amounts. Start doing that now, and then on, the day before Thanksgiving, pig out all day and eat a lot of roughage and fiber to 'clean out.' Get up early the next morning and eat a huge breakfast and then don't eat or drink anything until dinner time. Then you'll be ready."

Thanks, coach, I'll be sure to send you before-and-after pix. Everybody get those instructions down? Good, because I've gotta go. I'm late for a date with a smorgasbord. ::