WASHINGTON -- Eric "Badlands" Booker is exceptional at eating burritos.
In fact, he may be the best in the world. He holds the record for this particular act of gluttony, having once taken down 15 in an eight-minute span.
His gastronomical heroics have also made him a celebrity in the oddball circuit of competitive eating. A YouTube video showing Booker downing a 5-pound burrito during the Burritozilla eating challenge at Iguanas restaurant in San Jose, California, is equal parts mesmerizing, disturbing and nauseating.
Listen to our interview with Eric Booker below.
But his feats of consumption don't end at the edge of the flour tortilla. In 2005, he won the U.S. Buffalo Wing Eating Championship after consuming 137 buffalo wings in 12 minutes.
"I get all the drumsticks out of the way," he said of his technique. "And when it comes to the flats, the paddles, if you grab maybe two bones of meat, you can actually just put them in your mouth and just pull and like 80 percent of the meat comes off. So, you know, I just get into a rhythm. Pull, pull, pull, pull, pull... pause, take a drink, wash it down and then repeat."
Booker has eaten 2 pounds of chocolate candy bars in just six minutes; downed 4 pounds of corned beef hash in under two minutes; packed away 49 glazed doughnuts in eight minutes; eaten 50 Purim cookies in six minutes; made his way through 21 baseball-sized matzo balls in just under 5 1/2 minutes; chowed down on 9 1/2 one-pound bowls of peas in 12 minutes; and, for some unknown reason, plowed through 8 1/2 ounces of Maui onions in one minute flat.
All these meals have established eating records, according to Major League Eating, a professional organization that calls itself "the undisputed authority on competitive eating worldwide."
All of them made Booker, who is 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighs roughly 400 pounds, a perennial top-ten eater in the International Federation of Competitive Eating's rankings.
Yet none of them are the gold standard.Since 1997, Booker has competed in the The World-Famous Nathan's International Hot Dog Eating Contest -- the Super Bowl of competitive eating -- every July 4th on Coney Island. He's never won.
Eric Booker, competing in The World-Famous Nathan's International Hot Dog Eating Contest, attempts to keep his food down.
This Independence Day, he'll get another shot, joining 15 competitive eaters on the stage for the opportunity to stuff their faces with as much meat and buns as possible. But unless something spectacular happens, this year's competition will probably end like all the others.
"It may seem like an impossible dream," Booker told The Huffington Post in an interview a few months ago, "but I really would like to win before I retire."
Booker got into competitive eating basically on a lark. A native of New York City, where he still works as an MTA subway conductor, he was walking with his kids past the Nathan's Famous in Oceanside, New York, in June 1997. Looking to play some video games and grab some grub, he stumbled upon a poster of Uncle Sam with a frank in his hand. "I want you to enter Nathan's hot dog eating contest," it read. Booker thought, basically, "Why the hell not?"
The manager told him to return the next day for the competition. And though his technique was amateurish (he put mustard and relish on the dogs), he won the qualifier with a final tally of 17 dogs in ten minutes.
But the main event didn't end in victory. None of them have.
The closest Booker has come was in 2002. That year, the famed Takeru Kobayashi consumed nearly twice as many hot dogs. But at the end of the competition, the food started to come back up. Kobayashi heaved a bit. He held back the vomit inside his ballooning cheeks, but it appeared that a bit of hot dog came out of his nose, which could have disqualified him.
The judges convened to debate the extent of Kobayashi's nasal vomit, but they declined to overturn the results. Booker settled for second place, having eaten 26 hot dogs to Kobayashi's 50.
"They gave it to him," Booker said. "And I respect the judges' decision."
As the science of competitive eating has progressed to put more emphasis on intestinal preparation, Booker's prospects for securing the Mustard Belt (awarded to the Nathan's winner) and a $10,000 check have only grown dimmer. Joey Chestnut has since vaulted past Kobayashi, holding the current record of 69 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Last year, he won with 61. Booker's top mark is a mere 40, which he set at a qualifying event.
The Mustard Belt, given to the winner of The World-Famous Nathan's International Hot Dog Eating Contest.
Like an aging tennis player lacing up against young upstarts at the U.S. Open, he's hoping that veteran savvy and a jolt from the hometown crowd can produce an improbable win; or, at least, enable him to further stretch the physical limits of the food his stomach can absorb.
Thirteen years after he nearly won on a technicality, Booker is still hungry -- in the proverbial sense, though probably the literal one too. With little prospect of a victory, he somehow remains eager to stuff food violently into his face for 10 minutes straight.
For months, Booker's worked to get his stomach in shape. He's eaten 10-20 pounds of cabbage, which he mixes with smoked turkey, garlic and vinegar (to help reduce the gas). He's fine-tuned his "Double Japanese" method -- named in honor of Kobayashi -- which involves taking two hot dogs out of the bun, eating them simultaneously, and then dipping both buns in water before swallowing them whole. And for the two days leading up to the contest, he'll simply stop eating.
When he takes the stage on Saturday, Booker will weigh 375 pounds -- lean (for him), focused and confident.
"I feel great," he said on Wednesday. "My attitude is my mantra. I'm hungry and I'm focused."
UPDATE: Victory once again proved elusive for Booker on July 4 as he finished in 9th place after downing a mere 24.5 hot dogs in 10 minutes. In what was a historic upset, Matt Stonie dethroned longtime champ Joey Chestnut by eating 62 hot dogs to his 60.
All was not lost for Booker. He had arguably the best intro among the contestants, walking up to the stage while being serenaded with one of his own rap songs.
"He's like the dog in the Looney Tunes, baby," the lyrics went. "He gets the steak, he's like, 'What, no gravy?""
Audio interview produced and edited by Ibrahim Balkhy, with technical help from Brad Shannon.
George Shea, the master of ceremonies for the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, held at Coney Island, on the Fourth of July, believes that there are two main reasons that more than two and a half million people tune in to watch the event on television each summer. The first is the appeal of the competitive eaters themselves, a group that includes such colorful characters as Matt Stonie—a.k.a. Megatoad—and eight-time champion Joey Chestnut. These men, Shea told me recently, “are heroes, and we are drawn to heroes.” The second reason, Shea said, is the m.c.ing. The television ratings of the program peak, he said, during the ten minutes that he delivers the eaters’ introductions—elaborate, allusion-filled litanies that he works on for months.
As we spoke, on a recent Monday in his sparse midtown office, the fifty-one-year-old Shea, who has m.c.ed the July 4th contest for twenty-five years, picked up one of his current drafts and read it aloud to me and Sam Barclay, another Major League Eating m.c. “He was buried alive under sixty cubic feet of popcorn, and he ate his way out to survival,” Shea intoned, waving a pen in the air. “The David Blaine of the bowel, the Evel Knievel of the alimentary canal, the Houdini of Cuisini, Crazy Legs Conti.” He quietly reread the lines to himself, then wondered aloud whether any of the following sobriquets were better: “the Salvador Dali of the deli,” “the David Bowie of the bagel,” “the Liberace of the lunch line.” Barclay preferred the originals: the magicians-and-stuntmen theme suggested “impossible feats of derring-do.” Shea took notes.
Shea was wearing blue suit pants and a checkered shirt. Above his computer was a poster from a dumpling-eating competition that he had hosted in Brighton Beach, in 2002. A great introduction must “ride the razor’s edge between joking and not joking,” he said. Over the years, he has developed a formula: start dramatically (“They say that competitive eating is the battleground upon which God and Lucifer wage war for men’s souls”); then, turn down the energy, and become ironic (“Ladies, a lot of you are feeling woozy right now. That’s not the heat. That’s my sexual chemistry. It’s very powerful. It’s like a Wi-Fi signal. I’m like a personal hotspot”); shift into the individual introductions, and mix up the styles—epic, plainspoken, jocular; and finally crank up the energy again to get the competition started.
As a young man, Shea wanted to be a writer. He attended Columbia University, where he studied literature and fell in love with the works of James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor. “Flannery O’Connor is just the best, way more than anyone ever gave her credit," he said. "And she got a lot of credit.” After graduation, he began working at a small public-relations firm in New York that managed the Nathan’s account, among others. To Shea, it was just a job that paid the bills while he wrote books and screenplays, none of which were ever published or performed. When the head of the firm died, he and his brother Richard started their own firm, and they took the Nathan’s account with them. (Shea continued to write on the side.)
At the time, the July 4th hot-dog-eating contest was a small publicity stunt for Nathan’s. There was a host, but he would simply line up the eaters and yell, “Go!” into a bullhorn. The brothers turned it into a large-scale spectacle, first by adding colorful introductions and vaudeville acts and later by drumming up international publicity, driven in part by a rivalry between Japanese and American eaters. In 1997 they launched the International Federation of Competitive Eating (later renamed Major League Eating), with eating competitions held around the world.
The introductions, meanwhile, became “an enormous outlet” for Shea. “I just find certain things really funny, and then I don’t know what to do with them," he told me. "You could write a story. You could be a journalist. You could be an actor.” Shea became an eating-contest m.c.
Today, the July 4th contest is broadcast on ESPN and attracts more viewers than a typical Major League Soccer game on the network. Shea begins collecting his introductory thoughts in April, mostly in the mornings, while on the treadmill. “I have pages and pages of notes, which I look at and I’m, like, what was I even thinking? Like this one,” he motioned to his computer. “He eats a burrito and keeps it incognito, his cheeks bulging out like the Donald in a Speedo.”
In his early drafts, Shea leaves out the eaters’ rankings and consumption statistics and focusses on the specific emotions each competitive eater evokes in him. Matt Stonie represents youth (“Youth is feral and it is vicious”), Joey Chestnut is a hero (“He has God’s username and password”), and Sonia Thomas, who calls herself the Black Widow, is a villain (“She is the darkness driven ever westward by the rising sun”). Later, Barclay, who can rattle off eaters’ home towns, occupations, ranks, and exact pounds of food consumed at specific competitions, helps him add the relevant numbers. “I remember by serenading my wife in bed each night with eating statistics,” Barclay joked.
Shea’s Achilles heel as an m.c., he confessed, is that he has an inclination to get arcane. “I tend to get a little Dennis Miller,” he said, referring to the comedian known for his esoteric references. One of the introductions Shea was workshopping included the line, “ ’Cause he spits it like Yeats, and he eats what he creates, and he stands at the table like Horatius at the gates.” Three days earlier, he had practiced that line in front of his seventeen-year-old son, Tom (who, to Shea’s consternation, wants to become an eating-contest m.c. himself someday). Tom told him that the references to Yeats and Horatius would lose the audience, but Shea couldn’t bear to cut the line. “I fucking love it,” he told me. “I just think it’s so clever.”