I had the opportunity to meet Eric “Badlands” Booker this past February when I interviewed him for a story I was working on. Booker is the world’s 13th ranked competitive eater, holding titles in everything from matzo balls (21 balls in 5 minutes, 25 seconds) to corned beef hash (4 pounds in 1 minute, 58 seconds). At the time, he was training for a crawfish eating competition (Eric “Badlands Booker on How to Eat a Crawfish), but now he has his sights set on the upcoming Super Bowl of competitive eating – Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest held every 4th of July on Coney Island.
Check out my article after the jump to find out more about Booker’s gastronomical greatness, his budding rap career and how the 6-foot 4-inch megastar is managing to get his stomach in top shape for the big event (Hint: It’s all about the cabbage).
By Kelly Ann Senyei
Eric “Badlands” Booker sits at the far end of a table at Big Daddy’s restaurant in Massapequa Park, Long Island. His sister raises a glass, “To Eric!” she says. Five family members join in the chorus of clinks toasting Booker’s 40th birthday. But the dinner is more than a celebration; it’s a training session, and it begins the second the waitress slides Booker’s dinner in front of him. More than a pound of steaming red crawfish bathed in spicy Cajun seasonings stare up at Booker. He flips his New York Yankees hat backwards and begins to methodically work his way through the heap of tiny shellfish.
“This is more of a technique thing than a capacity thing,” Booker says, demonstrating his crawfish-eating strategy. He snaps each shellfish in half, uses his teeth to pry the meat out of the tail, and then in one final step, sucks the innards from the head.
Customers seated nearby rubberneck to see the spectacle. One by one Booker reduces the mound of crawfish into a pile of unrecognizable carcasses.
“Should I know you from somewhere?” a man leans over to ask. Booker waits a half-second before revealing that he’s the world’s 13th ranked competitive eater. The customer’s eyes go wide, but Booker has little time to chat. The next Major League Eating competition is less than a week away, pitting Booker against a dozen other professional eaters competing for the crawfish eating title in Atlantic City.
The waitress, apologizing for the slow service, offers free drinks for the table. Booker pipes up, “Could we get some extra crawfish instead?” She returns minutes later with another steaming plate.
“I tell my friends, ‘You know my father-in-law is a competitive eater? He’s on the billboard at Nathan’s!” his daughter-in-law says. She’s referring to the billboard at Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs on Coney Island, whose annual 4th of July hot dog eating competition each year has become the Super Bowl of competitive eating.
Booker has placed as high as second at Nathan’s – a 12-minute free-for-all of the world’s top-ranked eaters – by downing 28 hot dogs and buns in 2002.
The sport of competitive eating has gone mainstream in recent years, with ESPN broadcasting the Nathan’s contest live. More than 50,000 spectators packed the pier at Coney Island last summer to witness New Yorker Joey Chestnut inhale 66 hot dogs and buns to take first place, winning $10,000 and setting a new world record. Booker wants a taste of that first-place prize and is on an intense training regime, hoping that 2009 is his year.
Before there were hot dogs, there were blueberry pies; state fairs hosted the original eating contests. “There’s been unsanctioned casual eating contests in America since at least the turn of the century,” says Ryan Nerz, author of Eat This Book: A Year of Gorging and Glory on the Competitive Eating Circuit. “July 4, 1916, was the first Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog eating contest, and we consider that to be the first real competitively-sanctioned event by a brand.”
It wasn’t until 1996 that eating contests became organized events sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE). The IFOCE plans 70 to 80 competitions each year across the nation as the governing body of Major League Eating,
Nerz, an emcee at the IFOCE contests, says crowds have been growing in recent years thanks to eaters like Booker, who play up the sport’s entertainment factor.
“He was one of the first guys to really create a character,” Nerz says. “He went from Eric Booker, really a sweetheart, to this slightly more aggressive pro-wrestling persona who has a little more swagger.”
Booker’s larger-than-life persona draws big crowds. But it also has its drawbacks, says Crazy Legs Conti, the world’s 14th ranked competitive eater.
“I think the reason Badlands underperforms at Coney Island is because he works the crowd for three or four hours before the competition, shaking hands and signing CDs and autographs,” Conti says. The CDs are the four rap albums Booker has produced. If he’s not eating in a contest, then he’s busy rapping about it.
On his album, Hungry and Focused, Booker raps about his gastronomical greatness.
“I’m like Lance Armstrong when he mounts a bike / I’m no joke with a fork and a knife / Spectators see me walk in and they be like ‘no way!’ / ‘That’s Badlands Booker the all-day buffet.’”
When he’s not navigating the buffet line or mixing tracks, Booker is an MTA employee on the 7 train. Conductor by day, competitive eater and rapper by night, Booker “goes on 36 hours without sleeping,” Conti says. “He’s like a Marine, a Marine of competitive eating.”
The Marine holds 11 world championship eating titles, including records in chocolate candy bars (2 pounds, in 6 minutes), Maui onions (8.5 oz., in 1 minute) and Hamenstaschen pastries (50 Purim cookies, in 6 minutes). It’s the love of food, and the fans, that bring Booker back to the table.
“I’m definitely good at what I do,” Booker says. “I don’t really do it for the money. I don’t do it for the fame. I just do it more for the fans.”
With 28 days to go until he hears the surging crowd at Nathan’s, Booker is busy training by competing in smaller events across the country. He’s staying hungry and focused, keeping his technique sharp and his stomach stretched.
Booker sits sipping a black coffee at Starbucks in Penn Station. He’s working the night shift on the 7 line and is scheduled to clock in at 9 p.m. His grip dwarfs the Venti-sized white cup, a stark contrast against his black t-shirt announcing, “Badlands Booker XXXXXXL, Hungry & Focused – Competitive Eating Department.” Between sips, he recalls how a routine stop at his local Nathan’s in Ocean Side, Long Island, launched his competitive eating career.
A poster at the restaurant caught Booker’s attention. “It was Uncle Sam with a frank in his hand,” Booker says. “And it said, ‘I want YOU to enter Nathan’s contest.’” The event was Nathan’s 1997 contest, featuring top ranked competitive eaters from around the globe. “I’m real patriotic, and I have an appetite,” he reasoned. “And I heard the grand prize was a year’s supply of hot dogs.”
A few days later, Booker was seated center table at one of the 19 Nathan’s regional qualifying matches that granted the first place winner a spot at the 4th of July finals.
Booker, who credited Thanksgiving dinners and buffet lines as his only previous mass eating experience, ate 17 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes. “No training, I’m just picking them [hot dogs] up, putting mustard and relish on them and eating them like I’m at a barbecue,” he says.
He won first place, a spot at the finals and 480 beef hot dogs. He would go on to place sixth at the national competition.
It’s been 12 years since that first contest, and while the size of the prize money is growing, the size of the eaters is shrinking. Booker had 150 pounds on Chestnut, who weighed in at 230 for the 2008 contest. As competitor Sonya Thomas proves, size has little correlation with skill.
Thomas weighs 105 pounds, less than a third Booker’s size. Yet she inhaled 9.5 more hot dogs than Booker at Nathan’s in 2008, and her “bib sheet” contains 21 titles in every entrée, side dish and appetizer imaginable. In August 2005, she downed 11.3 pounds of lobster – roughly a tenth her body weight in seafood.
Booker isn’t fazed when the tiny superstar beats him, though his MTA coworkers are known to razz him any time he’s “beaten by a girl.”
“Every time I lose, they’re like ‘Man, we’ve got to put you into training,’” Booker says with a slight chuckle. “They say, ‘OK, I can understand you being beat by Kobiashi [the world’s 3rd ranked eater],’ but how are you going to let Sonya Thomas beat you? She’s 5’5”, 105 pounds. You could eat her AND all the dog-gone food!”
If anything, the razzing just makes Booker work harder. His training comes down to one thing: Cabbage. Some competitive eaters consume pound after pound of it to expand their stomachs. A low calorie food made up mostly of water, cabbage “allows you to build your capacity very slowly,” Booker says.
“It’s not like you’re stretching it, the [stomach] muscle just unfolds,” Booker says. Cucumber slices and water have similar effects. But sucking down gallons of water to push the stomach’s capacity can be dangerous. Booker cautions it can lead to water intoxication; potentially fatal when excess water lowers salt levels. So for now, Booker sticks to his wife’s cooked cabbage with turkey and vinegar, which helps cut the gassy side effects.
This routine has endured throughout his career: A steady feast of cabbage in the weeks leading up to a competition, a light dinner the night before the contest, a protein shake the morning of. He can’t fast as part of his regime; that actually shrinks stomach capacity.
For some competitors, when the intake gets too high, the inevitable happens. “When you blow, you go. You heave, you leave,” Booker recites, meaning that eaters face disqualification if they vomit during a competition. “We’re all professionals,” he says. “If someone has what we call ‘an urge contrary to swallowing,’ they’re gone.” It happens to seasoned professionals and rookies alike. Booker has had what he calls “a reversal of fortune” once or twice in his career.
His secret for staying on top? Four factors, Booker says: “You need capacity, of course,” he says. “You need a good strategy. You need a decent amount of stamina, and you need a focused mind.”
The focused mind is what makes Booker the “thinking man’s competitive eater,” says Nerz.
“You give him any event and he’ll figure out the quickest way for him to get it down. He’s the first one to focus on the mental element of it.”
The mental part begins even before the first bite. As Booker arrives in Atlantic City for the crawfish competition, he eyes the crowd. He grabs a mic and yells to the more than 300 spectators around the makeshift stage. “How you all feeling? I’m Eric ‘Badlands’ Booker! You all ready? When I say ‘craw,’ you say ‘fish’!”
Booker yells, “Craw!”
In a resounding echo, the crowd fires back, “FISH!”
Booker tosses CDs and t-shirts into the crowd and raps three songs from his latest album. “To interact with the crowd is priceless,” he says.
Nerz grabs the mic and moderates the introductions, as Booker takes his seat next to nine other eaters, all vying for a $1,500 first place prize – in 12 minutes.
One by one Booker snaps the red-hot crawfish in half. Conti and Thomas stay focused on their own piles of carcasses. Thomas eats the whole tail, shell and all, then chugs the juice from the bottom of the platter. But she placed second with 4.14 pounds of crawfish.
Booker fared no better. He downed 3.88 pounds, placing third behind Thomas. Newcomer, Dave “US Mail” Goldstein, took first with 4.95 pounds.
“I wish I would’ve trained for speed,” Booker says shortly after the contest. He knows he’ll be hearing an earful from the guys at the MTA.
He has his sights set on Coney Island. “I’m keeping hungry and focused on my training,” Booker says. “The big goal is Nathan’s.” Bring on the cabbage.