Around five years ago, I learned of a documentary about burritos that somebody was doing. He was looking for anybody with a funny burrito-related story to tell, so I finally wrote down the story of how I won the burrito-eating World Championship while a student at UC Santa Barbara. He liked the story, and came out to my house with his movie camera and filmed me telling the story. For some reason it took at least a couple of takes to get it just right. Ultimately I never did get to see the documentary, and I strongly suspect it never got made. Nevertheless, it was good to get the story down on paper, and I offer it here as a companion piece to my post about the Vuelta del Taco Truck.
The qualifying round
I entered the World Championship in burrito-eating when I was a student at UC Santa Barbara in 1990. A local restaurant, El Freebird's, put on this contest, in which people compete for the fastest time eating a “monster burrito.” (It’s about four inches in diameter and at least eight inches long; many people couldn’t finish one at a sitting.) They held qualifying heats all day long, each with five people, and the five eaters with the lowest times on the day could go on to the finals. I hadn’t actually even known about the contest, but I was coming back from a 100-mile bicycle ride (I was on the cycling team), and I stopped at El Freebird’s to see what the huge crowd there was for. They told me there was still room in the last heat, but I only had 10 minutes to go home and change. This I did. I easily won my heat with a time of 1:06, and went into the finals the next day holding the best qualifying time.
This rather large, acne-ridden fellow had a 1:08 qualifying time, so I was a bit worried about him when I sat down for the big event. Practically the entire cycling team had shown up to watch, and my brother and a friend had driven all the way down from San Luis Obispo, so I was under some serious pressure. There was also a great looking blond girl from my French class who’d somehow heard about it and was sitting right up front.
Meanwhile there was the David and Goliath business. I was, and am, skinny as a rail and exactly the kind of person you wouldn’t expect to win an eating event. Meanwhile, this other fellow was one of those huge fat guys you pretty much always picture in a pie eating contest—indeed, whom you almost can’t imagine doing anything else. And he was clearly very confident, as though he managed to find and enter such contests routinely. How cool would it be to beat him? There was some serious buzz about our impressive qualifying times (the local rock station was covering the event) and many were discussing whether or not it was humanly possible to eat the monster in less than a minute.
Psyching up, and psyching out
I was hamming it up to my friends, waving and grinning, but inside I was getting serious butterflies, like before a bike race. Unlike many of the spectators, my friends all knew—or thought they knew—what I was capable of in a speed-eating scenario. (In actual fact, they’d never seen me go anything close to all-out.) They all felt I had a lock on the event. I wasn’t nearly so sure. The last eating competition I’d been in was an informal Chinese eat-off with a friend of mine who weighed in at about 350. I’d figured his weight was a gland problem or something, compounded with inactivity, and that I could take him. (I’d never lost before, after all.) But he completely blew me away. He shamed me. It was all the more embarrassing for me when I reflected on why I ever thought I could out-eat such a fat dude in the first place. This was my general worry now. How could I let my friends down?
The fat guy was now doing this Zen thing, as if preparing to enter some special zone of pure, concentrated, focused speed-eating according to the teachings of old masters. I couldn’t believe he could be serious, and I figured this was designed to psych me out. What could I do in return? I’d already set such a breezy tone with my friends I couldn’t do a similar Zen thing, or even a brooding prizefighter thing. Then inspiration hit: I became serious and said to the main judge, “Hey, does anybody here know the Heimlich?” The judge laughed and I said, without a trace of a smile, “No, I’m serious!” And actually, when I thought about it, I was. Only a fool chokes to death trying to eat a monster burrito in under a minute. The effect was perfect: I established myself, I believe, as a serious competitor who doesn’t kid himself about the harsh realities of his sport.
I gave some thought to my technique just before the race began. Sure, I’d won my heat the day before, but on pure talent, little realizing what was at stake. Now, in the finals, I needed to remove every inefficiency from my game. I had naturally decided to eschew chewing, because it wastes time and besides, I never chew anyway. The main technique would be to create intense suction by contracting my diaphragm, and then to just guide the burrito in with my hands. The question was, would I take a drink at any point during the event? The monster was a somewhat dry burrito; if I could have afforded to eat out back then (I was perennially pressed for cash), I would have always loaded gobs of extra salsa into such a burrito. Anyway, at one point during the qualifier my throat had started to constrict, and that could’ve ended the whole thing. On the other hand, taking a drink would cost me several seconds—an eternity in such a short event. I decided to play it by ear.
They started the race and I hit the burrito hard, swiftly biting off the “cap,” or folded-in tortilla section, to expose the innards and begin their flow down my throat. I worked quickly, deftly, almost surgically, excavating an area and then chewing away the empty section of tortilla hull that had surrounded it. I was completely focused, engrossed you might say, but was nonetheless aware of two things: one, the entire cycling team, and my friends and roommates, were all chanting “DANA, DANA, DANA!” in perfect sync over the roar of the crowd; and two, I was going really fast. I had hit my stride completely, perhaps better than I ever had, or have ever done since. All the stress and nervousness from before had fallen away, or been turned into pure speed-eating energy. I myself, record-holder in the Gondolier spaghetti speed event (a plate in 19.9 seconds), could not believe how fast the burrito was disappearing. The announcer was now saying, I dimly registered, that three of the finalists had actually put down their burritos, conceding defeat, just to watch the unbelievable spectacle of the fat guy and me and our dizzying pace. I dared not distract myself by checking on the fat guy’s progress, but from the increasing din of the spectators I knew it was a close race.
Then my throat started to get parched. It had moved through a lot of material, including whole beans (which in my opinion should never stand in for refried in any burrito, much less a racing burrito), and of course the dryness wasn’t exactly helped by the sting of the salsa, a fairly spicy raw pico de gallo. So I decided to go for the drink.
The effect must have been impressive: I swung the remaining third of the burrito to the side in one hand just far enough, and long enough, to miss the paper cup, which with perfect simultaneity I brought in with the other hand and downed in a fraction of a second, then dropping the cup away and immediately returning to the burrito. It was a perfect fluid motion and only later did I realize I should have rehearsed it beforehand; again, only pure talent can explain the perfection of the move. And the effect was everything I’d hoped for: my throat was restored and the flow was excellent once again. But then, disaster struck—a tortilla blowout!
Freebird’s is of the steamed-tortilla breed of taquerias; while my preference for lightly grilled tortillas is really a culinary predilection, in this case it was architectural. Any time you have a tightly stretched tortilla, even if it’s a over a comparatively dry burrito like the monster, a steamed tortilla runs the risk of developing a soggy section and blowing out like a baby’s diaper. This it had. Fighting off panic—my friends were all still chanting “DANA! DANA! DANA!” and the crowd was ever increasing in its fervor—I held in the soggy section as well as I could to prevent hemorrhaging of rice and beans. How much could I spill without being disqualified?
Then, perhaps ten or fifteen seconds later, I was done. A quick flash out of the corner of my eye confirmed that the fat guy was not obviously finished, so I threw my arms up in a victory salute and stuck my tongue out to show that there was nothing in my mouth. (How did I know to do this? Again, pure instinct. I was born for this.) The judges all pointed to me in unison, stopping the split timers on their stopwatches. The crowd went wild. With the exception of the fat guy’s handful of gathered friends, the crowd had to have been gunning for the skinny young upstart. But there was commotion—the fat guy had come in right behind me, and was later ruled to have lost by only half a second. My winning time? 49.5 seconds. I believe that record still stands.
To be honest, we probably finished eating our burritos at about the same time, but my victory flourish carried the day. Imagine being a judge, trying to time the whole thing, watching these guys slugging down burritos in the midst of a spray of rice and beans—how do you know who really won? The other guy was at least as much of a pig as I am; he just didn’t know how to win. Then, he was a really sore loser as well—the main prize was five tickets to a Rolling Stones concert in L.A. and a limo ride there and back, and this guy was so sure he’d win that he had already made all the plans with his friends. He started to make a big stink, which was too bad since the whole contest was supposed to be fun, so I gave him the tickets and the limo ride (for a nominal fee, of course) and kept the other prizes, which were a few CDs and two tickets to Monster Truck Madness.
And, of course, the trophy, and it was majestic: a large wooden base with a brass plaque reading “Burrito World Champion” (they even engraved my name on it afterward), from which extended, vertically, a spring-type car shock absorber, atop which was mounted a life-size golden burrito (or was it silver?—it was destroyed months later, taking a long fall from my apartment balcony, to the delight of my roommate who’d grown sick of looking at it). Freebird’s had photos up for months of me holding the trophy gleefully above my head, the fat guy beside me looking like he was about to cry, and colored in green in the photos.