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From the Footlights: Queens subway conductor eats his way to fame

When he is not eating 30 Nathan’s hot dogs in 12 minutes or 120 chicken wings, Eric “Badlands” Booker insists he likes to eat slowly and savor his food.

“I can actually separate what I do in the eating contests and what I do day-to-day,” said Booker, a Queens native, who has been a subway conductor on the No. 7 line since January 1992. “I can turn it on for the contests. I am pretty much a grazer when I eat day-to-day. I like to enjoy my food.”

Booker is ranked 12th worldwide in the burgeoning field of competitive eating. His formidable 400-pound belly is a veritable United Nations of ingestion. He has scarfed down 15 burritos in eight minutes; 50 Hamentaschen (a cookie associated with the Jewish holiday of Purim) in six minutes; and 21 baseball-sized matzo balls in five minutes and 25 seconds.

On the savory side, he has devoured four pounds of corned beef hash in just less than two minutes; three Maui onions in one minute; and 9 1/2 one-pound bowls of peas in 12 minutes. In sweeter competitions, he wolfed down two pounds of chocolate bars in six minutes; 49 glazed doughnuts in eight minutes; and nearly five pumpkin pies in 12 minutes.

Booker is known as “the people’s champion,” an apt moniker it becomes clear only minutes after first meeting the jovial gastronomic superstar.

“I am pretty much the last competitor to leave an event,” said Booker, 41. “I will always stick around to sign an autograph, shake a hand or take a picture. I appreciate the fact that so many fans turn out to attend these events. I just show the love back to them.”

Booker is as candid and unassuming about his own love of food as he is about why he ultimately turned to the world of competitive eating.

He has fond memories of large meals with lots of visiting relatives at the family’s home in Springfield Gardens as a boy. Among the members of his immediate family, however, Booker said he was the only big eater. “I was the one that hit the dinner pot for seconds and if there was any left, maybe thirds,” he said with a chuckle.

The tradition of generous culinary spreads has continued in Booker’s own home on Long Island, especially on Sundays, when the family has a big dinner. His wife Regina “can cook, really, really well,” he boasted. But Booker insisted that he eats “pretty much healthy” between contests. “I don’t cook with salt and we eat very few fried foods,” he said. He listed some of his favorite items on Regina’s cooking repertoire as baked fish, baked chicken and spaghetti.

Booker’s decision in 1997 to enter a local qualifying contest for Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs was based less on a dream of earning a spot in the prestigious Coney Island contest than the other part of the prize. “I wanted to win the 50 pounds of hot dogs they were giving away,” Booker said unabashedly.

He won the qualifying round, downing 17 1/2 dogs in 12 minutes, and earned both the coveted hot dogs (he kept half and gave half away to friends and family), and the right to compete at Coney Island on July Fourth, less then a month away.

The Nathan’s Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest was already world famous when Eric Booker competed in his first contest that summer of ’97. The event, which according to legend was first held in 1916 between four immigrants, regularly attracts at least 30,000 spectators and a television audience of 1.5 million households.

But many, including Booker, contend that the world of competitive eating didn’t really explode until 2001, when Takeru Kobayashi, a slender Japanese first-time competitor at the Nathan’s event, nearly doubled the existing record, gulping down 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes.

“I was eating right beside him that day and I remember that some of the other competitors were so amazed that they stopped right in the middle of the contest just to watch him,” recalled Booker.

However admired, Kobayashi’s removal of Nathan’s prized “Mustard Belt” from American soil on July Fourth was seen as a national catastrophe by some, only rectified when California native Joey Chestnut recaptured the belt in 2007, eating 66 dogs in 12 minutes, three more than Kobayashi.

In the past several years, the number of competitive eating contests around the world, but particularly in the United States, has exploded.

Under the auspices of a company called Major League Eating, run by brothers George and Richard Shea and partner David Baer, there are now more than 80 competitive eating events held each year. The swift of palate can test their appetites on oysters, pizza, catfish, jalapenos, grits, fried asparagus, and 7-Eleven Slurpees, to name just a few of the choice foods.

“This year alone we were in Singapore, Australia, Greece and Canada,” said George Shea, the genial host of the Nathan’s event, known for the straw boating hat he wears to the event each year. “It’s not just an American thing.”

Although he has participated in several other contests, Booker said that Nathan’s is still the most challenging — and thrilling.

“Hot dogs are the hardest because you have to deal with the meat and the bread,” he said. “Nathan’s hot dogs are very rich but very delicious. One year I would like to win that contest.”

And what does Booker make of the huge increase in competitive eating contests in the past few years?

“I just think it’s because Americans love to eat,” he said. “In Japan, the contests are stretched out over longer periods of time like a half hour or an hour. Here in America, large quantities of food are eaten over a short period of time. That’s what appeals to people.”

The Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest will take place at the Nathan’s at the corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues in Brooklyn. A stage show for the event will begin at 10 a.m. and the contest will begin at noon.

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