Gut Check knew we was in for a fight as soon as we arrived at the T Mo's Tacos fried-taco-eating competition on June 1 at the Bethalto (Illinois) Jaycees Country Fair. The other competitors — mere amateurs, we'd told ourselves, who couldn't possibly compete with our well-known and well-honed love of tacos — had gathered around the backside of the competition pavilion.
All of a sudden we felt as underdressed as a taco al pastor minus the chopped onion and cilantro.
One competitor had outfitted himself with a pink Mohawk and long goatee. Another wore tight purple pants, a wig and sunglasses, while a third was draped in camouflage overalls and an orange hunting shirt.
What had we gotten ourself into?
Clearly Gut Check needed to speak with the man who, until now, we'd considered our only true competition in the rapid downing of fried tacos: world-champion professional eater Dale "Mouth of the South" Boone. He'd already been dispensing advice to and answering questions from the rest of the field, so we swaggered up to him before the carnage — sanctioned by an outfit called the World League of Competitive Eating (WLOCE) — began.
We mentioned that we'd drunk water this morning. A smile creased that infamous Mouth of the South.
"You're done," he said. "You know who the fastest is here?"
"Well, yeah, you are," we answered.
Another smile. "Yup!"
The crowd waited, baying for blood. Or maybe salsa. It was difficult to tell. The PA would introduce each of us — with theme music! A fellow gourmand nicknamed "The Highlander" entered to blaring bagpipes. He'd dressed for the part in a kilt and blue face paint. Under our breath we muttered, "Too bad this isn't a haggis-eating competition, Braveheart."
Gut Check didn't need gimmicks. Which is good because our introduction — ostensibly to Europe's "Final Countdown" — was as flat as an unstuffed quesadilla. A technical glitch greeted our arrival onstage with silence, followed by another competitor's music.
Regardless, we awkwardly tried to pump up the crowd as we sat between the "Redneck Train Wreck" (the camouflaged gent) and "Matterific the Magnificient" (purple pants, wig). They smelled blood. Eyes on the prize, we smelled fried tacos.
The final contestant introduced was the world champ himself. The Mouth of the South arrived outfitted in a Georgia Tech football jersey, denim overalls, a coonskin cap, the championship belt and holding a giant bell — all to the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Gut Check must admit: Even we were pumped up by his appearance. Open the pod-bay doors, indeed, Hal.
By which we mean our mouth.
The rules of the contest seemed simple enough: The winner would be whoever ate a platter of ten fried tacos the fastest in four minutes. Prizes for first through sixth place.
Right before the clock started, each of us fidgeted with our setup. "They look like they're buckling in for a roller coaster," someone in the front row remarked. Taking the top off a bottle of water seemed like a good move. The Mouth, the Highlander and a contestant two seats to our right who called himself "The Taco Assassin" all chose to compete from a standing position, while the rest of us took our tacos sitting down.
The world champ had another trick of the trade lined up next to his platter of tacos: a squeeze bottle of lemon juice. He mixed it into his water cup and chugged a bottle of water right before the clock started.
Then the world turned to tacos, tacos and nothing but tacos. Our first bite was a double-edged sword. Yes, the tacos were tasty: chicken and beans topped with lettuce and cheese inside a fried tortilla shell. But we couldn't savor each taco. By the time we'd finished our first, the MC announced that Boone had just polished off taco número dos.
Taco, taco, taco, taco — and then it was over. We couldn't believe we'd eaten five and a half tacos. The Redneck Train Wreck had done some damage, too. Matterific had knocked down only two.
As he'd predicted, the Mouth of the South was the fastest and took home the $500 cash prize. Only a few stray shreds of lettuce streaked his taco-free platter. The Highlander nearly finished the platter of tacos in the allotted time, earning second.
Gut Check? Gut Check took sixth place.
Following the award ceremony, we caught up with the champ.
"How'd you do?" he asked, peering at our taco tray. "Not bad...."
The Highlander then conferred with him about turning pro. What, he asked, is the most aerodynamic taco-eating position? The champ promised to reveal his secrets.
Was Gut Check being introduced to a world champ in the making?
We thought the drama had concluded, but then another contestant, "EZ Money," took the microphone and proposed to his girlfriend.
She said yes.
See also: Scenes From a Fried Taco Eating Contest