Skinny burritos and speedy weenies

Just another weird Sunday at the Nevada State Fair

If you were in sight of the crews working to create the world’s largest “burrito train” at the Nevada State Fair, you were likely to get handed a spatula and a 7-pound can of beans.

If you were in sight of the crews working to create the world’s largest “burrito train” at the Nevada State Fair, you were likely to get handed a spatula and a 7-pound can of beans.

Photo By Kevin Clifford

It was hard not to be excited when news of the world’s-longest-burrito event broke last Sunday at the Nevada State Fair. A group of people in Reno planned to make a burrito breaking the current 7,710-foot record.

At 10 a.m., the north parking lot of the Livestock Event Center was filled with a makeshift maze of tables made of plywood and milk crates. Volunteers were already at work assembling the burrito. Hoping for an interview, I approached a woman sitting at the sign-in table.

“Would you like to help out?” she asked before I had a chance to make my intentions clear.

“Sure,” I said.

Think about it. A tortilla with a diameter of 7,710 feet would have an area of about 1.6 square miles. For the sake of symmetry—we don’t want it to look weird, after all—when rolled, the burrito would need to be at least 50 stories high, and even that would be a pretty slender burrito.

Faced with reality, however, the organizers of the world’s-longest-burrito event opted for the disappointing but understandable option of using thousands of regular-sized tortillas linked together. Instead of being more than 50 stories high, the burrito would be mere inches high—more of a “burrito train,” as the State Fair Web site described it.

Some background: As recently as 1997, the record-holding burrito was a mere 3,500 feet. It was prepared in Mountain View, Calif., and though short by current standards, it did have chorizo in it. The 7,710-foot burrito was made in Matamoros, Mexico, in 2000. This is the number the Reno burrito-makers hoped to best.

I came to the fair hoping to witness history; instead I would make history—in burrito form. The woman at the table gave me a name tag and told me to report to “Tony in the green shirt.” Tony in the green shirt gave me an ice cream scooper and a 7-pound can of refried beans. I was told to scoop a small amount of beans onto each tortilla as Jose, in front of me, laid them down. Then salsa, cheese and sour cream were added. The idea of all that sour cream baking in the hot sun disturbed me.

After I’d worked for about 15 minutes, a directive boomed out of the PA system.

“Do not take off your gloves! You wear your gloves always! Do not take off your gloves!”

I had not been issued gloves.

We worked briskly. After another 15 minutes of burrito making, a man and a woman approached our group. Obviously they were important—they had identification cards hanging from their necks.

“We’re from the Health Department,” the man said. “Just checking how you’re doing this. … You all have gloves, right?”

I put my hands in my pockets and slowly walked away.

“Fair time is fun time,” state fair Executive Director Mike Clemens wrote in this year’s Nevada State Fair Competition Handbook. I couldn’t agree more, but I have to admit that despite the wholesomeness of the state fair, much of the fun to be had is fairly strange.

Aside from the burrito incident, here are a few other highlights:

The Wild West Bear Show featured two trainers in frontiersman garb and four bears, 8-month-old Toby and Coda and adult bears Tibor and Sam. Toby and Coda charmed the crowd by assenting to perform hardly any tricks, preferring instead to attack each other and roll around in a cuddly ball. The elder bears proved more proficient.

Inside the exhibition hall were the ribbon winners—plenty of enticing baked goods, preserves and vegetables, but viewers are not allowed to touch, molest or sample displays. A fine rule but one that leaves many fair-goers wondering, “How do I know that’s the best potato here?”

The most inscrutable category is table setting, in which contestants are given a card table that they set for a hypothetical dinner party or very small wedding banquet.

Besides the expected food and domestic-arts competitions, there are numerous under-publicized categories. For instance, there are 10 separate divisions for model makers, but there was only one model entered in the fair. It was a plastic model of a Ford GT 40 that, due to the lack of similar entries, was oddly displayed between a pair of afghan blankets.

When I returned to the burrito area, an hour after I had left, people were rolling up portions of the burrito widthwise—it had never been rolled lengthwise, leaving it an open-faced burrito train—and stuffing them into garbage bags. Originally, the burrito was to be feasted upon by the volunteers; the leftovers would be given to the gospel mission. Instead, it was being thrown away.

“The problem was, the cheese and the sour cream have been out in the hot sun for four hours minimum,” group captain Joe Komenda told me. The giant burrito was deemed inedible—though I was relieved to think not because of any bacteria transferred from my bare hands.

Assuming edibility is not a requirement for Guinness, the Renoites broke the record by “800 or 900 feet,” Komenda told me.

“It was a cute idea,” he added, summing up the enterprise.

Sunday, you could say, was “cute day” at the fair. Before the volunteers had even finished bagging the world’s longest burrito, it was time for the 2004 Wienerschnitzel Wiener Nationals.

The Wiener Dog races have long been a staple of the “cute news,” the sort of charming story local TV news programs cover at the end of their broadcasts. You’ve probably seen it. The competing dachshunds are placed into starting boxes, and when the gate is lifted the tiny, confused beasts run off in all directions but toward the finish line. Sometimes they don’t run at all, opting instead to scratch themselves or investigate the posteriors of their fellow competitors.

It’s adorable.

This year, the prize of $250 cash and a trip to San Diego drew 140 competitors. They raced in 20 heats of seven with two semi-finals and one final. In attendance was someone announced as “star of stage, screen and TV commercials, The Delicious One.” The Delicious One appeared to be a person in a foam hot-dog costume.

I tried to meet some of the competitors. A woman named Kelly introduced me to her dogs Bailey and Bosco. It was Bailey’s first competition, but Bosco raced in last year’s event, where he finished mid-pack.

What you don’t get from the TV footage is that wiener dog racing is actually really exciting. It’s a little like basketball—on TV it’s kind of boring, but in person it’s gripping. In the early heats, a pretty low percentage of contestants actually finished. But the dogs that made it to the semi-finals—they had come to race. The winner was a dachshund named Howie. He will represent Reno at the national competition. Unless the announcer was just joking about that.

And with that, my time at the fair ended. There was nothing left for me to do but ride a mechanical bull, find Jesus and buy a portrait of Al Pacino.

I love the state fair.