Why, in our mundane daily existence, do we attempt anything out of the ordinary? For the fame? For the glory? For the riches? To impress members of the opposite sex? To achieve a sense of immortality?
Early 20th Century British mountaineer George Mallory summed it up nicely when asked why attempt to climb Mount Everest — “Because it’s there.”
Appropriately enough, Mallory died on the mountain in 1924 and his body wasn’t discovered until 75 years later — 800 feet short of the summit.
Allow that to serve as my existential intro to my very dumb and ultimately very regrettable Thursday evening in which your humble author entered an early Cinco de Mayo Taco-Eating Contest held by a local Mexican restaurant… and lost by one measly tortilla filled with meat, cheese, lettuce and salsa.
Professional eating has always fascinated me. A few years back a local restaurant offered up a rib-eating contest that brought the likes of Eric “Badlands” Booker, Tim “Eater X” Janus and the legendary Joey Chestnut, who actually lost to Honest Bob Shoudt– a vegetarian away from the eating competitions. Working for the local paper at the time, I decided to talk with Eater X — a Wall Street type by day who paints his face like the Ultimate Warrior during competitions — to gain a little insight into the high stakes world of Major League Eating.
Turns out years later any insight gained from Eater X ahead of the taco-eating contest were lost into the ether and or rotted away by Jon Taffer marathons. Even so, given my propensity to over-eat on bad food, slamming down a bunch of soft tacos seemed like a piece of cake. My strategy was simple: scout out the competition. If any “pros” showed up I’d simply eat $10 worth of tacos in five minutes. Pitted against dudes who can shovel eight pounds of french fries down their gullets in 10 minutes — I had no shot to win, so I’d save my dignity. If it was just a bunch of local jabronies, I’d go as hard as I could to win the glory, a $200 gift certificate and trophy (plus the respect of all my Facebook “friends” and, obviously, the Internet in general.)
In retrospect the night before the contest I should have trained, or at least listened to some solid ’80s power-pop for motivation, like Survivor or Lover Boy. Instead I typed into Chrome: how to win a taco-eating contest. This led me to …
As peppy, positive and motivating as those pictures were, the article itself was waaaaaay too long. Ultimately this wasn’t a professional eating contest. If I was going to win, it was going to be through self-belief and willpower, not training my stomach by drinking gallons of water to stretch it out the night beforehand.
Eventually I poked around to some dude’s personal eating website and he said Mexican foods were soft and easy to consume, which was pretty much all the advice I needed. With that I listened to the smooth sounds of “Rosanna” by Toto for like the 47th time this week, glanced at the cover “Be Quick, But Don’t Hurry” to up my confidence level and went to bed in high spirits.
Around mid-afternoon Thursday reality set in: I was actually going to do a taco-eating contest in public.
Since I told the TBL staff my intentions via email, which necessitated rearranging the night-time schedule in order to accommodate my (stupidity), there was no way to back out. Granted I could have lied — who would know, but I’m a man of honor, or at least try to be one. I’d also boasted enough on Facebook (and I hate posting on Facebook normally) that I couldn’t turn back, although as it turns out most folks on there probably thought I was joking. (I was not.)
Anyways, I arrived at the restaurant an hour beforehand swelling with confidence, thanks in no small part to my “Proud to be an American” Bald Eagle t-shirt. On top of that, prior to the contest I squeezed in a pretty intense yoga session, which, via my flawed logic, would open up my eating channels and prepare me mentally for the gauntlet of eating taco-after-taco. Turns out the contest wasn’t much of an occasion, despite the restaurant peppering the local area with signs about their five-day Cinco de Mayo festivities. With an hour to kill, I roamed around — the contest was out back in a parking lot. The waitresses and bar staff , as per usual, quickly tired of my chit-chat — and failure to order anything since I wanted to keep my stomach fresh.
Eventually it was time. I sized up the competition and felt supremely confident I could beat the “bros” lined up at the other end of the table. Before we started, a pair of women asked how many tacos they thought I could eat, since they were going to bet. I heard 25 won the contest the previous year, so I said 20. They laughed, as if knowingly.
The rules to the contest were straightforward: eat as many tacos as you could in five minutes. You couldn’t throw up afterward and have them count. Simple. There was a pitcher of water, which again, in hindsight I regret not using as much. After shaking hands with the kid counting my tacos — should I have bribed him to cheat? — the contest began.
My goal, besides winning, was doing so with a quiet dignity. I didn’t want to look like one of those dudes at the Nathan’s Hot Dog contest with a mess of food smeared all over their face. Maybe that was my downfall. Instead of gulping water from the pitcher to help grease my esophagus, I took comparatively dainty sips from the spout.
One quick mention of the tacos: flour soft-shell tortillas. That was my undoing. I’d hoped for smaller corn-based wraps which I could take down in two bites with minimal chewing. Instead these tortillas were a little too big and enveloped the contents inside almost a 2-to-1 ratio of tortilla to “guts”. Regardless, the first two tacos I chopped in two bites, easy. Eventually my strategy became take the other half of the taco and fold it into a fresh one and eat it all at once. It worked. Salsa rather than tomatoes proved a boon, too, since it meant much less chewing.
My brother was in the crowd and I told him to give me some verbal cues to what the competition was doing. The dude next to me went the route of pulling the tacos apart — which led me to believe he was a ringer. (He was not.) The rest of the table was struggling.
The first tray of 10 tacos disappeared quickly, almost as quickly as the timer. Unlike, say, the end of a college basketball tournament game which meanders on forever, these five minutes breezed in a blur. I kept powering through, barely looking up from the tray except for the pitcher of water. Bite-bite, fold next taco, dainty little sip of water. I wasn’t Joey Chestnut or the immortal Kobayashi, but I felt like a taco-eating machine — a man on a mission just sick (and hungry enough) to pull it off.
Eventually 30 seconds were left. I was on taco 13 or 14. I thought I was ahead of the pack and in good shape to claim glory. Instead of stuffing one last taco into my mouth and looking like a disgusting pig with salsa all over my mustache, I opted to chew what I had and finish with grace — well as much grace as a taco-eating contest allows. At that point my one regret was the lack of a fancy cloth napkin in which to clean off my the edges of my mouth like a proper gentleman.
Fourteen tacos felt like a winner. I started waving my finger around in the air with a circular motion like Jake the Snake before delivering a DDT. I was confident I’d won. The count came … eight … 10 …. seven … nine … 15 … my head sunk. Although I didn’t pull the Ashley Wagner face, I was bummed. I quickly shook the hand of the guy who beat me, as he clutched the trophy, the $200 envelope and posed for pictures, basking in the adulation of the gathered crowd.
So close. So far away.
To show that the contest didn’t beat me I ate two additional tacos after the bell. At the time I didn’t feel full or groggy or disoriented. I was in the mood for a milkshake, in fact.
About an hour later my stomach started to turn on me. Turns out consuming 14 tacos in five minutes would have repercussions.
The next morning, pangs of regret enveloped my entire body, let alone my stomach. Why did I do this? As I finished up the morning Roundup every 5-6 seconds I felt like I might wretch. My face felt greasy from all the ground beef and flour. I even felt a little lightheaded. At least my shame would be relatively private … until I decided people might like to read about what it’s like to do an eating contest on nothing more than a whim.
One of my overriding life philosophies comes, from of all places, Mad Magazine and its “You’re a winner and a loser” feature. Winning this taco-eating contest would have been the apex of this — the Everest as it were. I did my best and fell just short.
Now I’m just a loser … with an angry, regret-filled stomach. I’ll remember this feeling for the next 364 days and use it as motivation.
Fire up some “Toto.”