Why you should care
Because sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers.
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
My day was amazing. I ate 61 tamales. I took first place in the world tamale-eating championships here at the Texas Western Days Festival.
Not everything was smooth sailing. When we hit the halfway mark, I was praying for the contest to be over — 12 minutes is a long time for a food like tamales. We take in so much liquid, so much matzo. Going through my head was, “Please let this end. Please let this end, and let me still be ahead.” The first plate was glorious, but six minutes into it, after I’d eaten 35, 40, 50 tamales, it was less enjoyable. It’s 93 degrees out today. Not optimal eating conditions. It’s more about forcing yourself not to stop. It’s refusal to give up.
At one point, I thought I was going to throw up. If you throw up, you’re disqualified. I’ve had to tap out — there was a chili-eating contest that was six minutes long and I ate 2 gallons in four and a half minutes. I had to stop the last minute and a half. I knew if I took one more bite … I know my limits.
One of the hardest things for me [in the field of competitive eating] is I don’t eat hot dogs or burgers — or tamales on a regular basis. I’m 125 pounds. I live off of fruits and vegetables, maybe some grilled chicken. One of the big things for me is getting accustomed to the taste of this stuff leading up to the contest.
I’m not shy, but I’m very aware of my surroundings. It’s not pretty. My first competition was ribs, which is not girlie, it’s not sexy, it’s not cute. When I walked into my very first contest, I was ready to make a fool of myself. But I was actually good at it, beating guys and professionals three times my size. I figured, well, food, competition, travel, meeting cool people — let’s do more. I think the prize for tamales is around $2,000. Hot dog eating is $10,000. Next weekend I’m doing pumpkin pie in Northern California. Then Vegas for spaghetti with red sauce.
My grandma, she’s my No. 1 fan.
I discovered this was something I could do on a dare in December 2011. I ate 12 pounds of Vietnamese noodles. Now, four years later, I’m ranked third in the world. They put me on a billboard in the middle of Las Vegas. I didn’t like the attention at first, but then I got more comfortable with it.
My mom passed away eight years ago. I think if she were around she’d probably roll her eyes and chuckle and say, “This is what you’re doing?” My grandma, she’s my No. 1 fan. My sister loves it. She lives in Japan and always tells me when I’m on the news over there. Following the Nathan’s hot dog contest win, it was broadcast everywhere.
At the original Hooters, in Clearwater, Florida, they had so many posters of me, it was surreal. People print out laminated photos and bring them to me to sign. Without those people in the crowd, I’d just be some idiot on stage eating a pile of food for no reason. If I could parlay this into an eating entertainment show, that’d be the dream. I’m not good at a lot of things. There’s so many things I can’t do, but this is one thing and I’m not going to let anyone take it away.
— As told to Libby Coleman