15 Minutes of Fame
By Bill Gerdes
Naader Reda likes to eat—loves to eat actually. It’s just like most of us these days he’s in some kind of a hurry. OK—a whopping four-pound tri-tip sandwich of a hurry, a 120-ounce steak of a pressing engagement, 12 pounds of pizza frenzied activity and a gallon of frozen yogurt double-booked iPhone calendar. These are all items Reda has consumed in one sitting, accomplishments he spits out rapidly much as a baseball-stat geek might rattle off the latest statistics of Albert Pujols, except that Reda is talking about himself and listing all of the foods he has gobbled at competitive eating contests across the Southwest.
A Competitive Stance
Naader Reda is a competitive eater, someone who gorges himself at eating competitions, and I’ve agreed to meet him on a Saturday at Tacos Tamazula in Norco to watch him attempt to eat a five-pound burrito in less than an hour. Reda’s prize if he accomplishes the feat? A . . . um, free burrito, plus some self-satisfaction. Today promises to be more of an exhibition than a competition, after all he’s competing only against himself, but the idea of watching someone eat that much food is alternately compelling and repellant. I’m intrigued but also hesitant. Would Reda be physically disgusting, gross or have the table manners of a goat? Would he be the sort of person who puts ketchup on macaroni and cheese? Would he eat at Hometown Buffet?
My first look at Reda however is a reassuring one. Surprisingly he’s not obese (I’d later learn that’s common with competitive eaters who are sometimes quite skinny), but he’s big. At six two and about two hundred and fifteen pounds he radiates a fleshy vitality, not a couch potato, and certainly not a symbol for America’s occasional psychosis with food in general. He’s young (28), but looks a few years older due to some graying on the sides and around the temple. His countenance has something of the wolf to it. He’s about to eat a burrito that might feed five normal people. And he’s excited about that—his eyes twinkle in anticipation.
A Sign of Things to Eat to Come
Reda—his father is of Turkish-Egyptian decent, his mother German-Irish—describes himself as a picky eater as a child. He refused pizza and chocolate and sought out lima beans instead. This would change as he got older. In college he would entertain friends by scarfing down pizzas with every topping included, a leaning tower of collegiate gluttony that would amaze his buddies and infuriate the pizza workers who would have to concoct the thing. It was but a sign of things to eat to come. Reda entered his first competition in 2009, and quickly realized just how much he had to learn. He was, by his own admission, rather slow. Reda decided to turn a weakness—at this point he wasn’t fast enough—into a strength. He would, he reasoned, concentrate on volume; Reda figured he’d make his name by eating vast quantities of food. Twelve gallons of Pho would make the hungriest foodie burst, for Reda it would become just another day at the office.
His real office is at Hope Academy High School in Yucca Valley, where he teaches social studies. Only a select few make a living on the professional eating circuit, mostly by hosting shows like Man Vs. Food, a program Reda’s appeared on—four-pound tri-tip successfully demolished, thank you very much. Reda hopes to inspire his students through his eating prowess, and occasionally centers his lessons around a small eating challenge in the hopes of engaging his sometimes less-than-eager kids. He’d like though to take his talents at eating heaping portions to another level—a fire burns in him, even when he hasn’t just finished a spicy challenge. Reda wants to become a famous eater and he’s not shy about it.
“Would you like something else?” our waitress at Tacos Tamazula asks as she sets down the immense oval plate that contains the largest burrito I’ve ever seen. As a burrito it doesn’t look like much—multiply a typical El Torrito version by five and one gets the idea. But it’s massive, truly massive, and when she asks if Reda would like more food I’m hit by the surreal nature of the scene. The unintentional irony is almost painful—sometimes waitresses in America seem hypnotized as they speak corporate—speak ever so nicely. Who could possibly want more? For a moment I imagine competitive eating as the perfect metaphor for our country as we stare into the abyss of debt, crumbling infrastructure and obesity. But then I’m struck by a more interesting question. Will Reda be able to eat the damn thing? And how fast?
Reda starts off with a giant drink of water and then he’s off. The first aspect of his technique I notice is that he doesn’t use a knife; it’s all fork and spoon as he shovels beans, ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and tortilla into his stretched and suddenly very busy mouth. He begins in the center of the plate, and digs a quick hole, and I’m struck by how much he resembles an archeologist, except with burritos, and he not so much sifting through what he sees as shoving it into his gullet and forcing it down as quickly as possible.
Competitive eating as a spectator sport is relatively new. The Romans may have gorged themselves and then hit the vomitorium but overeating never made it to the Coliseum. Henry the Eighth enjoyed gargantuan feats but privately and only for the nobility and they weren’t competitive. What turned pigging out into a sport was cable television, and its insatiable need for content. It was cable that took eating contests out of the county fairs that were their origin and brought them into high-definition televisions. And with TV came money—no longer would the winner of a pie eating contest win only a pie—they might win an endorsement from Alka-Seltzer along the way. Federations came along-the biggest of which is the International Federation of Competitive Eating or the IFOCE for those in the know. The IFOCE is featured on many of the eating contests and shows on cable, like the Nathan’s Famous contest on ESPN. It’s the NFL of eating, with fewer concussions but more indigestion.
Two Minutes, 45 Seconds
At this point I have no doubt that Reda will finish the burrito; it’s just a matter of when. He’s eaten a small crater into the thing, and while there’s some chewing going on it’s not the amount a doctor would recommend. Lettuce and tomato randomly fly both off the plate and out of Reda’s mouth, forming a sub-colony nearby. He’ll have to eat that later I realize grimly. At this point only the tortilla itself seems troublesome; he’s got to chew that or risk choking.
Naader Reda says that his love of food is what got him into competitive eating, although at times the sport seems curiously removed from the food, let alone the enjoyment of it. Contestants in some events actually dip their food in water, making it something of a messy sludge and thus easier to eat without chewing. Even Reda admits the sport resembles, “competitive swallowing,” and says that there a fair share of bulimics out there. This seems to make sense—the need to relieve such a full stomach must be overwhelming amongst some people, and any sport where you can eat 59 hotdogs in 10 minutes—as Joey Chestnut has done—is bound to bring out a few people with eating issues. Reda himself seems fairly levelheaded. Well, for a guy eating a burrito the size of a small dog.
Reda is half finished. In my notes I’ve just written, “child’s play?” He’s now shifted to what is for him the right section of the plate, and has just taken his first gulp of water. For a second he pauses, looking like he may be sick. I might be too. I’ve never seen anyone eat close to this much—I push my chip bowl away. Reda gets back to work.
A quick word on vomiting. In most competitions a contestant who vomits (sometimes called creepily enough, a reversal) is disqualified. This makes a certain kind of twisted sense; after all, competitive eating is as much about stomach filling than eating really. And as Reda puts it, “Your brain is doing everything it can to get you to stop eating,” which might include telling the stomach to barf. Reda once competed at a burger eating contest in Phoenix where anyone was allowed to compete. The result? Six contestants committed a “reversal” and the rest probably wanted to.
Water has become an important part of the challenge. Reda shovels a large batch of beans into his mouth and then goes to his glass of water, seemingly drinking down most of the ingredients. What’s left on his plate is roughly the size of a normal burrito one might order at a typical Mexican joint, that plus the debris that piled up around his plate. The waitress has just stopped by; she doesn’t ask why a photographer is snapping Reda’s picture, nor does she inquire about my frenzied note taking. Perhaps this sort of action goes down at Tacos Tamazula all the time. “He’s gonna do it,” a man a few tables back tells his friends. At this point there’s no doubt.
Like most specialized areas of life, competitive eating has its own lingo. “Chipmunking” is the art of stuffing as much food into the mouth as possible before time runs out. “Dunking” is the dunking of food into water to make it easier to swallow—some organizations allow dunking, some don’t. “Picnic Style” rules prohibit a contestant from “dunking.” They must eat the food as is. Many contestants have alliterative nicknames like “Jammin” Joe LaRue and “Munchin” Mike Longo, although this isn’t mandatory or anything. Vomiting is sometimes also called a “reversal of fortune.”
10 Minutes, 19 Seconds
Ring the bell—this fight’s over. Reda has done it in what the owner later tells us is the new record for the burrito challenge at the restaurant. The owner and Reda fist-bump, people snap his picture and Reda beams. He’s eaten a burrito that weighs more than some newborns in just over 10 minutes. And he doesn’t seem ill or even fatigued. The only thing he seems to be bursting with is pride.
After the challenge is over Reda tells me a bit more about his life. He’s in a relationship and says his girlfriend if perfectly fine with his side-career as a competitive eater. His parents are proud of him, and the administrators at his school support him too. Everyone seems behind Naader Reda in his quest to become one of the food-eating elite. And why not? He’s bright, and personable and passionate. Competitive eating may be gross and a symbol of what’s gone wrong with America and its relation to food. And perhaps as Americans we should take more pride in cooking healthy meals as a family, and maybe less in eating 30 oysters in 15 minutes. But Naader Reda just ate a five-pound burrito in 10 minutes and that was bitchin‘.