Turns out the world’s most effective diet plan doesn’t require better decision-making, calorie counting or even portion control. Just a pair of eyes and a stout gag reflex.
After witnessing Friday night’s World Taco Eating Championship at Chukchansi Park, part of the eighth annual Taco Truck Throwdown, my appetite may be lost for perpetuity.
As the 10 contestants stood on stage wolfing down a combined 375 tacos in 8 minutes, the prospect of consuming food could not have been less appealing. Geoffrey Esper ate 73 of them, taking the $2,000 first-place check ahead of Matt Stonie’s 65 and Gideon Oji’s 50. The field’s lone female, Michelle Lesco, was fourth with 45.
“I can’t watch anymore,” said a woman in her 20s as she walked away halfway during the contest. “That’s disgusting.”
This was my first up-close experience with competitive eating and, yes, it’s every bit as gross as it looks on TV. Nothing besides “Hoarders” and anything involving Chris Berman is harder on the stomach.
It took me a little while to get past the grossness. But once I did, ignoring the splatter and bits of food caked to the sides of faces, it was impossible not to come away with a new appreciation for the participants.
Heck, you could even call them athletes. Because most had trim builds, and the few who didn’t were built more like football players than fatsos.
“You have to stay in shape to do this,” said the 5-foot-8, 130-pound Stonie. “Because if you have a lot of fat around your stomach, it hurts to expand. That’s been the trend. Back in the day it was a lot of big dudes, and now it’s a bunch of fit dudes.
“It feels like 95 degrees out here, we’re on stage, we’re sweating, it’s a lot of cardiovascular work. You’ve got to be in shape.”
“The best guys are usually smaller and skinny,” echoed fifth-place finisher Zach Armas of Clovis, a football player-turned-bodybuilder who qualified by winning Thursday’s amateur eating contest. “It’s not the fat guys who win.”
In competitive eating, the size of someone’s belly is less important than the efficiency of their technique. Each of the participants used one hand to cram tacos in their mouths and the other to sip water or sports drink, helping the solids go down easier.
Beyond that, all differed in posture and rhythm. Some stood upright. Some were hunched over. Some sipped their drink after every few shovelfuls. Some only took on liquids as they reached for the next taco.
One or two even took quick breaks from masticating to wipe their mouths with their T-shirts, the bizarro equivalent of good manners.
“We’re not eating like it’s Sunday dinner with your family,” Esper said. “The idea is to eat as fast as possible.”
Esper arrived in Fresno on quite a roll, and I don’t mean the breaded kind. Five days earlier, on July 15, the native of Oxford, Mass., ate 19¼ 9-inch personal pizzas to claim the inaugural International Pizza-Eating Championship in Toronto.
It was a world record for 9-inch personal pizzas and good enough to beat the world’s No. 1-ranked competitive eater, Joey Chestnut, who captured last year’s taco contest in Fresno.
Since the pizza and taco events were so close together, Esper didn’t practice like he normally would. Instead, he fasted Thursday and Friday before drinking liquids a couple hours before taking the stage to “stretch out (his) stomach.”
“I don’t eat like this every day,” Esper said after consuming about 8 pounds worth of corn tortillas, beef and pico de gallo salsa. “That wouldn’t be healthy.”
Judging by the size of the crowd and the general enthusiasm show by those in attendance, maybe it was me who was out of touch. Maybe competitive eating deserves a seat at the table, or at least a place in the sports smorgasbord, instead of being derided for being … well, gross.
“You’ve got to remember, that’s been the reaction to great art since the dawn of time,” said Sam Barclay, the silver-tongued emcee for Major League Eating events. “When Picasso unveiled Guernica, Parisian society was disgusted. They thought it was perverse. When Mahler wrote those amazing symphonies, it didn’t go over well at first. But great art finds a way.”
Hang on a second. Did he just call stuffing food into your piehole “great art?”
“It’s art. It’s science. It’s sport,” Barclay replied. “It’s the complete distillation of everything that’s great about this republic.”
Hmm, and all this time I thought competitive eaters were gluttons and these events a celebration of excess. Turns out they’re not just risk-taking artists, but also exemplary human beings.
That was a lot for me to digest. So I drove home to write without the slightest temptation from any of the fast-food drive-thrus along the way. Nor did I wake up hungry Saturday morning.
At this rate, I’ll be skinnier than a greyhound in no time.
Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee