The sun beats down in merciless rays on the parking lot of the Berryhill Baja Grill. The pavement radiates heat up into the humid Houston air. People check their watches as the competition time draws near. Music from the live band mingles with the murmur of voices from the crowd, producing an air of festive anticipation. Then, a sudden flurry of movement focuses everyone’s attention: The tamales are coming out.

Tray after tray of masa-encased beef flows from Berryhill’s kitchen, borne on the waitstaff’s shoulders. Plates piled high with tamales liberated from their husks eventually fill four wrought-iron patio tables, six hundred tamales in all, waiting to determine who will be the Berryhill Baja Grill Tamale-Eating Contest Champion.

MC Ryan Nerz, dressed in a blue blazer and straw carnival barker’s hat, introduces the competitors one at a time, each to a theme song, and then states the contest rules. The goal is simple: In twelve minutes contestants must eat as many tamales as they can. They can drink all the water they want, to aid swallowing, but cannot dunk the tamales in the water. Any competitor who suffers from what Nerz smoothly refers to as a “reversal of fortune” or “urges contrary to swallowing” (read: pukes) is automatically disqualified. Whoever eats the most, wins.

Each eater takes a position on the makeshift stage, consisting of a row of tables placed end to end in front of a black background bearing Berryhill’s logo. Nerz leads the crowd in a countdown—“ten, nine, eight …” Someone in the crowd shouts out last-minute encouragement to Austin resident Levi Oliver, the defending champion. The gorging commences.

Eaters stand in front of the plates of tamales, shoveling the food into their mouths. Some bite rapidly, snarfing down the tamales like some sort of fleshy Cuisinart. Others just cram the beef and its cornmeal wrapper down indiscriminately, smearing their faces with residue. Nerz presides over this scene, explaining the visual spectacle and molding the crowd’s interest, like some kind of American Idol version of Jacques Cousteau narrating footage of a shark feeding frenzy. This isn’t your average county fair pie-eating contest.

Welcome to the world of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, or IFOCE. The Berryhill tamale binge is one of the Federation’s sanctioned events, and there’s $2,500 at stake for first prize. “Eating? A sport?” Such is the common reaction of the uninitiated. But oh, yes, eating is a sport, at least in the eyes of IFOCE eaters, aficionados, and their leaders, New Yorkers George and Richard Shea, brothers who happen to own a public relations firm, Shea Communications.

The Shea brothers refer to competitive eating as “one of the oldest and most fundamental of disciplines.” They like to cite the hypothetical example of cavemen fighting over a kill as evidence of the activity’s long, established history. Nerz, who works with the Shea brothers, has even written a book on the subject, Eat This Book, in which he evaluates (mostly defends) competitive eating. Nerz rails against the “culturally reinforced assumption that the main function of eating is nourishment and enjoyment,” and expresses hope for wide acceptance of the “sport.” He writes: “In the future, perhaps the world will look at a hot dog and see it not merely as a delicious snack, but as a piece of sporting equipment no different from a tennis ball or hockey puck.”

Of course, this kind of evaluation has drawn criticism. Ralph Nader cited competitive eating as an indication of American society’s decay. The Atlantic Monthly referred to it as “a hairball coughed up out of the dark recesses of the American id.” Bill Maher remarked, “Competitive eating isn’t a sport. It’s one of the seven deadly sins.”

In light of the rhetorical posturing surrounding the IFOCE, there’s a temptation for the mere mortal to conclude, “My God, what a freak show,” and reach for the TUMS. But the eaters (or “gurgitators” as the IFOCE refers to them) aren’t all the aberrants you might expect. Eccentric, certainly, but the influences that drew them to the IFOCE aren’t particularly foreign to many Texans. After all, Austinite Levi Oliver, the defending tamale champion, got his competitive eating start at an Amarillo institution: the Big Texan Steakhouse. “I’ve always appreciated food and always been hypercompetitive,” says Oliver, a heavy-set senior account manager for ProfitFuel in Austin. His blond hair is cut almost as short as his trim beard. Wearing a black Tamale Contest T-shirt, he comfortably fills his side of the booth at Berryhill Grill. Beside him sits his girlfriend, Diana Harden. A camera crew scurries around in the background. Oliver is to be featured in an upcoming documentary by Austin filmmaker Gregory Kallenberg.

When asked how he got his start as a gurgitator, Oliver explains how, while acting in a show at Palo Duro Canyon, near Amarillo, he was introduced to the Big Texan Challenge. For the uninitiated, the challenge involves consuming steak, a lot of steak—72 ounces, to be exact, plus the trimmings—all in one hour. Those who finish get a free meal and bragging rights. Those who fail, well, they’re out around $70. Oliver completed the challenge in 42.5 minutes.

Then, things got more serious. Oliver got involved with the IFOCE, and he started traveling to sanctioned eating events. His first IFOCE event was a regional qualifier in Tempe, Arizona, for the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog—eating contest. If competitive eating has a world championship, a Rose Bowl, it is the Nathan’s Famous. Held every Fourth of July since 1916 on New York’s Coney Island, the contest has gained recent notoriety for the accomplishments of Japanese eater Takeru Kobayashi. In 2004 Kobayashi scarfed 53.5 hot dogs, along with their buns, in twelve minutes. To the ordinary American, perhaps, he was the skinny Japanese guy who ate some ridiculous number of hot dogs. To the eaters of the IFOCE, he was a deity.

Oliver’s career hasn’t been quite as meteoric. But nonetheless, he got a reputation and he got ranked (number thirty) as an eater. Oliver won last year’s tamale contest, eating 36 tamales, 33 in regular competition and 3 in overtime. He became a part of the organization’s subculture. His profile on the IFOCE’s Web site says that he “seems poised to assume a larger role in the competitive eating world, though it is not now clear what the role will be.”

That, it appears, is why he’s come to Berryhill on this sunny May afternoon: to defend his tamale championship title. The top competition consists of Tim “Eater X” Janus (so nicknamed for the mask he paints on his face prior to each competition), ranked number six; Richard LeFevre, ranked fifth; and Patrick Bertoletti, who tops out the list at number four in the IFOCE standings. Oliver describes facing such opponents as, “kind of scary, because I’m ranked thirtieth.”

What, might you wonder, does Oliver’s girlfriend think of all this? “It took a long time to get used to it,” she says of Oliver’s gustatory vocation. Of the contests themselves, Harden describes them as difficult—to watch and to be supportive. Eventually she did come around, though. As Harden tells it, her moment of conversion occurred during a grilled-cheese eating contest in which Oliver participated. When Oliver didn’t win, Harden recalls, “I was like, ‘What the hell?’” From then on, she dropped her qualms about dating a gurgitator and supported Oliver in his competitions and training.

Training? Yes, just as with any other sport, gurgitators follow a training regimen. For Oliver, this means abstaining from alcohol for a couple of weeks leading up to the event. He also eats one “training meal” per day for three or four weeks prior to competition. A training meal consists of low-calorie food, such as vegetables, rice, and tofu, although in significant quantities—up to seven and a half pounds at a time. Oliver also does water training, which consists of consuming a gallon of water as quickly as possible. The basic idea behind both types of training is to gradually stretch the stomach’s capacity. The obvious advantage of water is that it contains zero calories.

Out of sheer, perhaps morbid, curiosity, you wonder what the aftereffects of eating 36 tamales are. How does the body feel? Oliver’s answer isn’t exactly surprising. He claims to have gone fourteen hours without eating following last year’s competition. “I felt terrible,” he says.

All the same, he’s optimistic about this year’s competition. “I feel prepared,” he says, “I know I could have done more, but it would have been kind of dangerous.” The moment of truth is approaching. In the heat of the competition Oliver stands at the table, pounding down tamale after tamale. “Come on, Levi!” Harden cheers from the crowd. But he’s slowing down. Something’s not quite right. His face looks worried, slightly contorted. He seems to be experiencing what he described beforehand as an “inner struggle”—the mental debate over whether continuing to eat is really worth it. But on he goes. At around nine minutes into the twelve minute contest, he suddenly whips around, facing away from the table. The crowd is watching. There is a pause, and then he leans over the garbage can. And just like that, Levi Oliver’s hopes of tamale greatness gush down the drain in one terrible reversal of fortune.

There’s still a good three minutes of gorging left. And the out-of-state ranked IFOCE competitor is in the lead. When time is called, the scales have to be brought out to weigh plates of tamale debris to sort out second and third place. Pat Bertoletti, the highest-ranked eater, is still chewing his last mouthful, which, according to IFOCE rules, will count toward his total, as long as he consumes it eventually. With 48 tamales under his belt, he appears to be the clear winner.

But Bertoletti experiences swallowing problems. The crowd begins chanting for him. Beef-tinged victory awaits, just a mouthful away. His face pained, his Mohawk haircut twitching, he tries to keep it down. All at once, his stomach rebels, the gag reflex kicks in, and the spectators are treated to another dramatic reversal of fortune. Bertoletti heaves into a gray rubber trashcan, while a cameraman from the documentary crew sweeps in for the money shot.

The suspense breaks at last. Nerz, in his blue blazer and anachronistic straw hat, turns to the crowd and announces Chip Simpson, of Florida, as the tamale champion, with 41 tamales and a purse of $2,500. Simpson raises his arms above his head in victory. Tim Janus places second, eating 38 tamales and earning $1,000, and Richard LeFevre puts down 36.5, taking third and netting him $500.

In the aftermath, Oliver sits on the sidewalk curb near the entrance to Berryhill, Harden at his side. Asked about his plans, Oliver says he intends to stop eating for a while. “I promised Diana that if I got over 320 pounds, then I’d stop eating competitively until I was below 280 pounds.” He says he’s going to try and lose weight and get in better shape. But, he doesn’t count out a comeback. He is, after all, in his own words, “hypercompetitive.”