Is That a Burrito in Your Mouth or Are You Just Happy to See Me?
A report from the First Annual Burrito Snackdown!
By John O'Connor

The summer competitive eating season got off to a raucous start recently at the First Annual Burrito Snackdown!, a burrito speed-eating contest in Lower Manhattan hosted by quasi fast-food establishment Burritoville. Featuring some of the biggest and fastest competitive eaters—or "professional gurgitators"—in the New York area, the Snackdown! provided a unique blend of abdominal athleticism and old-fashioned Roman spectacle. Six heavyweight eaters, including "Hungry" Charles Hardy, Eric "Badlands" Booker and Gaseous Maximus, had eight minutes to consume as many six-ounce burritos as possible. At stake was the coveted Gold Burritoville Championship Belt and a chance for gurgitators to set their name in the competitive eating record books.

More than 200 people turned out to witness the event. Crammed into a space the size of my apartment was a good cross-section of New York hipdom. Fashionably dressed 20-somethings mingled with yuppies in New Balance sneakers toting baby carriages. Precocious adolescents ran amok. Yet the ambiance was more akin to a professional wrestling match than a picnic in Bryant Park. Many of the gurgitators sported prophetic nicknames and wore elaborate costumes. Gaseous Maximus was dressed, predictably, as a Roman centurion, and Ed "Cookie" Jarvis as Uncle Sam. The emcee's announcements mimicked those of the WWF's Smackdown! And the audience quickly became drunk and boisterous thanks to the free booze provided by Burritoville. What ensued was a gustatory fight to the finish.

The Burrito Snackdown! was sponsored by the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), the governing body of speed-eating contests around the world. According to the IFOCE website, competitive eating dates back to the dawn of man. Many cave paintings, it asserts, depict battle scenes for gustatory supremacy: "If you have thirty hungry Neanderthals in a cave and a rabbit walks in, that is a competitive eating situation." Yet, more recently, "Competitive eating has been practiced with somewhat more formality." Events like the Snackdown! must adhere to the highest safety regulations. "Safety is the first consideration in any sport," says the IFOCE mandate. All events take place in a controlled environment, with a fair and equitable ratings systems that focuses on style, manners and grace. "Speed eating is not a sport for the home," it says. The IFOCE supervises and regulates speed-eating competitions in the United States, Japan, Germany, England, Canada, Ireland, Thailand and the Ukraine, and the popularity of the sport is growing.

A Snackdown! competitor, Eric "Badlands" Booker, had time before the contest to reflect on competitive eating's increasing popularity and its current international flavor. Standing six-foot five at 400 pounds and wearing an oversized T-shirt and sweats, Badlands strikes an imposing figure, but comes across as a gentle-giant type. "Competitive eating has exploded on a grand scale," he says, swirling a cherry-colored cocktail. "For every type of food that's imaginable right now they have a contest for it." In New York City alone there are competitions for hotdogs, pizza, ice cream, steak, pickles, matzo balls, zippolis, chicken wings, hard-boiled eggs, jalapeno peppers (it burns at both ends!), and a slew of other foods.

IFOCE affiliates in a half dozen other countries have added their own traditional foods to the mix. "In Japan, they have more contests than we do," says Badlands, "and they practice more." Competitive eating has achieved its highest fan base outside the United States in Japan. There, champion gurgitators attain celebrity status. And it is Japanese eaters who currently pose the biggest challenge to the American speed-eating hegemony. For the past two years, Japanese gurgitators have dominated Nathan's Famous Hotdog Eating Contest on Coney Island, regarded as the crème-de-la-crème of competitive eating. "If you do well there," says Badlands, "you get ranked real high in the IFOCE rankings. That's why the Japanese are flying all this way to get the belt." Last year's winner was 131-pound Takeru "Tsunami" Kobayashi of Nagano, Japan, who ate 50 hotdogs (that's 12.5 pounds of hotdogs and buns!) in 12 minutes, nearly twice as many as the second-place finisher. He smashed the previous record of 25 1/8 hotdogs set the previous year by his countryman, 101-pound Kazutoyo Arai. After Kobayashi's mind-blowing performance, the New York Daily News declared, "Japanese 'Prince' is Wiener Wonder."

Since last year's Nathan's contest, says the IFOCE website, the "American competitive eating community has been in a state of disarray. The overwhelming emotion at the arena was sadness, as the Japanese once again took possession of the Mustard Yellow International Belt." American eaters Ed Krachie and "Hungry" Charles Hardy have vowed to bring the belt back to America next year. And Kobayashi says he will return to defend his title.

For better or worse, there were no Japanese eaters at the Burrito Snackdown!, which may have explained the jovial mood among the competitors and the generally casual atmosphere. Badlands particularly seemed in easy spirits. "I hear there's a belt up for grabs tonight," he said rather matter-of-factly, polishing off his drink. "A 30-pound belt. That would be nice. But whether you win or lose, it's just for the fun of the sport."

Once the gurgitators were lined up at the eating table, the crowd's excitement level skyrocketed. People vied to get the best view of the deglutition about to take place. In front of each eater lay several plates of bean and cheese burritos and bottles of mineral water. The emcee, in his best Vince McMahon imitation, announced that competitors found to be eating "unsafely" could be disqualified. A steady, paced chewing and swallowing is strictly enforced by IFOCE judges. If it appears that an eater's "suffering urge is contrary to swallowing," also known as "the Roman method," they can be kicked out of the event.

The crowd was growing restless by this point. The kegs had just about run dry, and a chant of "Eat! Eat! Eat!" began in earnest. Fortunately, before long the start-whistle blew and the eaters were off. I was standing at one end of the eating table, next to the moniker less gurgitator Tracey Kevin, who at about the two-minute mark had burrito in his hair. Badlands was on the opposite end of the table. In stark contrast to other competitors who were hunched over their plates in pained concentration, Badlands appeared relaxed and confident. He was standing tall and smiling, the mountain of burritos in front of him rapidly diminishing. At one point Badlands even started showboating, doing a little jiggle-type dance that shook every ounce of his massive frame.

The crowd, seemingly unconcerned for the eaters' safety, urged them on with a sustained chorus of "Eat! Eat! Eat!" The gurgitators complied, cramming burritos into their mouths at an astonishing rate, their faces caked in black beans and sour cream. Bodies betrayed the physical toil involved: chests heaving, shoulders arching and eyes watering. I had asked Badlands earlier if he had ever seen anyone vomit at a contest and he said no. Professional eaters consider themselves serious athletes, and loss of gurgitational control is a cardinal sin. At certain moments during the Snackdown! however, a few of the competitors appeared on the verge.

Fortunately, in the long run everyone managed to hold it together, or rather, down.

At the four-minute mark Badlands appeared to be in the lead, yet it was difficult to tell for sure. The judges made periodic counts of burritos eaten, but the roar of the crowd made their announcements practically inaudible. Dominic "The Doginator" Carter and Ed "Cookie" Jarvis both seemed in good shape, while Gaseous Maximus appeared to be having trouble. Tracey Kevin visibly slowed around the sixth minute. "Hungry" Charles Hardy, standing next to Badlands, was completely obscured from view. Badlands' composure seemed to forecast certain victory.

Before I knew it the contest was over. With a final count of 15 burritos, Eric "Badlands" Booker was announced the winner. Beaming, with beans and salsa pasting his teeth, he pumped his fists in the air. Two guys next to me, who identified themselves as Badlands' "trainers," hugged each other and hollered repeatedly, "Badlands in the house!" Just how soundly he trounced the competition was clear from the look on some of the other competitors' faces, many of whom looked liable to puke at any moment, particularly Tracey Kevin. Badlands, on the other hand, hardly broke a sweat and appeared ready to stuff away even more burritos.

Later, onstage, as he hoisted the Championship Belt above his head, Badlands shouted, "I'm going to Disneyworld! I'm going to Disneyworld!"

At this point, however, the crowd had pretty much lost interest. Most people quickly pounced on the burritos leftover from the contest and then hightailed it to the exit. But Badlands was in his element. With a few flashbulbs lighting, and IFOCE officials shaking his hand, Badlands seemed to have established himself as a major player in the world of competitive eating. In the coming months he is poised to make big moves on the eating circuit. Perhaps, come this Fourth of July when the speed-eating world converges at Nathan's on Coney Island and Japanese eaters try to cement their ascendancy, Badlands will have a few surprises up his oversized sleeves.