By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Daniel Baer, a quirky guy in a navy blue blazer and straw hat with a blue and red ribbon (the uniform of IFOCE announcers) and director of global expansion for the IFOCE, takes the microphone to introduce the "athletes," as Baer likes to call them.
"It is the fastest-growing sport in America," he says before the tamales have been set out. He has a grin on his face like even he can't believe it. "We will do over a hundred contests in 2005. We have four this weekend alone, the most important of which is the world tamale eating championship right here in Lewisville."
Baer runs back and forth in front of the stage where the competitive eaters will soon take their marks, trying his best to hype up the crowd in the middle of the festival surrounding the Bass Master Tournament on Saturday at Lake Lewisville. It works, partly because there are only about 15 people waiting to see what all this commotion is about.
"I'd like to take this moment to introduce the only female competitor...Emily Dwyer," Baer yells. The crowd responds with claps and a few catcalls, most of which come from Dwyer's pal and filming partner, Bunny Watts. The two are doing research for their movie More, "a narrative about two slacker dykes, one of whom isn't good at anything, and then we realize that she is great at eating," Dwyer says.
Baer moves down the list. Each time an eater takes the stage, Baer motions to one end of the table or the other, trying not to be too obvious that he is saving the two prime seats in the middle of the stage for the biggest, baddest eaters.
"And now, all the way from Denver, Colorado, ranked 40th in the IFOCE, Donavon Busta!" Baer screams into the microphone. This time he gets the response he wants, and the crowd goes nuts.
Busta, a tall guy with a big build and a belly that doesn't quite match his ranking, calmly takes his spot at the table. He looks around at his competition and the tamales in front of him.
This is when Baer gets excited. He starts to run faster, he speaks in a more hurried voice, he announces Levi Oliver from Austin, 39th in the IFOCE ranks. Looks like we have a rivalry on our hands.
Oliver jumps onto the stage with a power yell to the audience. The guy is big; well over 6 feet tall and heavyset. He gets comfortable behind his plates of tamales.
Now Baer goes over the rules. There are 12 tamales on a plate, and each eater will clear as many plates as possible in 10 minutes. Oh, and if anyone needs water, make sure to get a bottle from a volunteer.
Baer turns to the crowd and asks for help counting down from five. There might be about 22 or 23 people standing around now. Five, four, three...The instant Baer says go, it is easy to spot Oliver's moral support. There are five of them, all of whom drove with him from Austin for the event.
"Last night, on the way here, we stopped at Chicken Express in Waco," Oliver says with a look on his face like he wishes he had saved some of his meal. "I had 18 livers, two thighs and a gallon of sweet tea. Just for training. Still, I feel like my weakest link is capacity."
Some might not agree. Oliver's first foray into competitive eating came in the summer of 2001. He describes it as if he can still taste the food.
"I was in Texas Outdoor Musical Drama in Amarillo, and they've got the 72-ounce steak challenge all over the place, like advertised everywhere," he says. "I've always been a mind-over-matter kind of guy and a big eater. So I gave it a try and did it in 42 and a half minutes; four and a half pounds of steak, dinner salad, shrimp cocktail and a roll. It was rough, but, man, it was awesome."
Only a minute and 40 seconds into the race, Busta is already on his second plate. Maybe Oliver should be worried about his chewing speed; the quiet competition always packs a hard punch.
Busta doesn't have quite the cheering section that Oliver has. Actually, his cheering section consists of a few people who probably like Busta's quiet and composed demeanor. But that is fine with him; he has great support when he is back home in Denver.
"My mom and dad live in South Dakota," he says. "They drive down every year for the weekend to watch me eat chicken wings. And my son loves it. He just eats it up." He talks about eating at a Chinese buffet a couple of years ago with his son and watching him pile his plate with chicken wings. Back at the table, the then-6-year-old lined up the wings just like Dad and went at them like he was in competition. Busta is fine with his son following in his footsteps.