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A Gross of Tacos; Or, I Saw a World Class Gullet

[dropcap size=big]O[/dropcap]ne source of tension running throughout this series of articles has been the fact that, when I look for L.A. events, we’re scouring a list of event offers from various PR type outlets looking for something that’s, you know, “ripe for comedy.”

Basically, we’re looking for stuff that seems crazy to send me to. So when an offer came in to have someone from L.A. Taco “judge a taco eating contest” my first response was, of course, “uh, we should make sure they understand I don’t know really how to do that.”

Anyway, short story even shorter, a couple of days later, I wound up in Redondo Beach on a Sunday afternoon at a place called Chronic Tacos (remember Wee Man from Jackass? It’s his taco place) on a Sunday afternoon. The whole scene was ludicrously SoCal, with a DJ spinning pop punk’s greatest hits alternating with a mariachi band singing Disney tunes, and skater bros and promo models mingling with tweens in a courtyard between Chronic Tacos and a CVS.

We were waiting for Takeru Kobayashi, one of the world’s greatest competitive eaters, to take the stage. Remember Kobayashi? He’s the Japanese dude who won the 4th of July Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest a bunch of times, and turning our conception that the best people for shoving so many hot dogs in our tummies real fast must be big ole American fat men completely on its head.

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For the better part of the last 20 minutes, we’d watched the other competitors prepare cups of water and energy drinks in advance of the competition. As anyone who has ever seen a competitive eating contest can tell you, the thing that separates the pros from the enthusiastic amateurs is the ability to properly lubricate the food on the way down with ungodly amounts of liquid. While the other five professional eaters who’d come to make up the numbers prepared their own drinks, Kobayashi’s drinks were prepared by a woman we were told was his wife, who carefully measured the water and modulated its temperature with a warm water bath.

While we were waiting, I was told that Kobayashi wouldn’t make his entrance until just before the competition was to begin, as his pre-game ritual was very specific and required absolute concentration, but, after the competition, Kobayashi would be available for interviews.

At which point, I realized I had a ton of questions, probably questions that you share, and none of which I could actually ask Kobayashi at an event like this. Like, you’re going to ask someone who just ate over a hundred tacos how much money he makes? Or, if besides the shit you see on the 4th of July, is this just an unending circuit for these dudes? Or, most importantly, is it normal for a world class competitor in anything to be “judged” by someone writing a blog post?

A quick round of Ask Jeeves revealed that Kobayashi has been at war with Major League Eating the company who puts on the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and has a circuit of other contests, over some money stuff. So for now, he’s the world’s most famous competitive eater, and frozen out of the world’s most famous competitive eating event.

That’s about as far as I got before it was time to begin. Kobayashi emerged from his food cocoon, and took his place on the stage. The other five professional eaters lined up across the stage. There was also an odd air to the proceedings, as it was absolutely clear that Kobayashi was absolutely a world ahead of the other competitors, with some guy named Deep Dish Bertoletti touted as his nearest competitor. But it was equally clear that we were mostly here to see if Kobayashi could best his record, set last year, of 130 tacos in 10 minutes.

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Just as the competition was set to begin, one of the organizers leaned over to me, in my capacity as one of the judges, and told me to “look out for any shenanigans.” What does a shenanigan entail in competitive eating? No one ever told me, and my guesses were too disgusting to contemplate.

Anyway, this is how it goes. The tacos are delivered in foil packets containing ten tacos, two packets to a tray. That’s twenty tacos, and it’s already way too much food. “Way too much food” is pretty much the basic building block of any competitive eating scenario.

Kobayashi’s style goes like this: take five tacos at a time, mush them up into a ball about the size of a hearty grapefruit, and then, with a rhythmic chomp of merciless jaws, steadily work the ball into your throat. One thing that’s interesting about witnessing something like this up close is that it’s incredibly confusing. It’s a literal frenzy of… feeding. In the chaos of the competition, and with only some promo models standing behind the competitors holding approximate score cards in real time, it’s really hard to tell what’s going on. You get a sense of how everyone’s doing by how many trays are stacked in front of each competitor, but you find your eyes drawn to each successive ball of mush, disappearing into the Japanese dude with green hair.

When the clock ran out, there’s a period of waiting, as an actual judge has to put on gloves and sift through the trays, foil, and spilled taco guts, and obtain an actual count. It becomes basically immediate archaeology, poring over the remnants of the past to find The Truth of an event that happened before our eyes.

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And The Truth is this: Kobayashi had taken down 144 tacos, probably a couple gallons of lukewarm water, a new record and with all of that, a prize of $5,000.

Is it a little sad that one of the world’s greatest performers without a gag reflex can’t compete in the league he helped build from nothing? Probably. But equally, watching a master in action is always a great reminder that, when you love what you do, don’t let anything or anyone stop you from doing what you love, even if that thing you love is creating a dark vortex down which a dinner for a family of 40 can disappear.

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