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 eatersor "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 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
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
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
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.