Delis here strive to make a matzoh ball that's light and airy, but after a few bites, even the fluffiest goes down like a forkful of wet cement.
This truth was the demented gimmick behind today's Matzoh Ball Eating Contest, an annual event hosted by Ben's Deli in Manhattan. Contestants had 5 minutes 25 seconds to go for the maximum matzoh count. Each ball weighed approximately half a pound, and if you factor in the Matzoh Ball Law of Density -- its key ingredient, matzoh meal, becomes denser when wet -- a single dumpling would fill up most people.
"Matzoh balls are an extremely difficult challenge because of the matzoh meal. If you drink a lot of water, the meal is going to expand in your stomach," said George Shea, chairman of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, which sanctions the event.
The federation has overseen other food competitions, but this one is unique. "Matzoh balls require capacity," Shea explained. "Take chicken wings, for example. It's all about hand speed -- stripping the wing and manipulating it, how fast you are with your teeth. Matzoh balls are easy to eat, but they require that capacity."
In this morning's contest, seven contenders challenged last year's champion, the improbably small Oleg "The Russian" Zhornitskiy, who won by consuming 161/4 balls. The event was open to the public, but nearly everyone attending was affiliated with Ben's, the media or the Guardian Angels, whose leader, Curtis Sliwa, served as one of the hosts.
The pregame festivities blended Borscht Belt humor with the spectacle of television wrestling. "Gentleman" Joe Manchetti, a little too flamboyant for someone who downed only 12 balls during the semifinals, wore a tuxedo and top hat. Ed "Cookie" Jarvis -- a real estate agent whose business card reads "My commission won't eat you out of house and home!" -- was draped in red, white and blue bunting.
Then there was Donald "Moses" Lerman, whose sizable girth was wrapped in a maroon terry-cloth robe. He walked around holding two large tablets -- duplicates, he said, of the ones Charlton "Moses" Heston got in "The Ten Commandments." Lerman, who won the 2000 matzoh ball championship by eating 12 balls, has prevailed at other consumption competitions, including a butter-eating contest. "I've eaten 7 1/2 sticks of salty butter in five minutes," he said proudly.
Lerman, 53, recently retired from running a day-old-bread store to devote himself to competitive eating. "In three years this sport is gonna be as big as PGA golf," he said. "We consider ourselves athletes." Eric "Badlands" Booker, the largest contestant at 6-5 and 395 pounds, trained for the event for nearly a month. "I've been eating a lot of cabbage," he said. "I'll do 13 pounds in one sitting. That gives you a lot of stretch."
He leaned closer. "People think if you light a match near me, I'll explode, but it doesn't affect me that much."
Booker, 33, works as a subway conductor for the Transit Authority and has been eating competitively for seven years. "There are three things you need for this sport: capacity, endurance and a technique," he said. "I take small bites as possible and try to establish a rhythm. I try to think of rap songs I like by 50 Cent or LL Cool J, then I focus on eating to the beat."
After many speeches and bad jokes, money was collected for the event's beneficiary, the Interfaith Nutrition Network, which provides food for the homeless. Then the eight contestants were seated and two bowls with five matzoh balls each were placed in front of them. Each dumpling was about the size of a tennis ball and had a yellow, oily sheen. The contest began with a blast of a whistle and a spray of wet matzoh ball bits as contestants grabbed the balls with their hands and gorged.
Almost from the start, all eyes were on Booker, who finished all five balls in his first bowl while his competitors were still on their first, second or third. He inhaled one dumpling after another, and soon flecks of matzoh ball dotted his chubby cheeks and forearms.
Even Zhornitskiy, with his quick chomping style, was no match for "Badlands" Booker.
By the end of Bowl 2, Booker's eyes were watering. Every few bites he would pause to swallow, and his body would shudder as if he was about to heave all over the spectators, but he did not. (It would have been grounds for disqualification.)
By the end of Bowl 3, the crowd's chant was building: "Badlands!" "Badlands!" "Badlands!"
Booker crushed the competition, finishing 21 matzoh balls -- 5 1/2 more than Zhornitskiy, his closest competitor.
While the judges' counts were tallied, Booker ate another ball. His mouth was still full as he explained the secret behind his victory: "The matzoh balls here are a little fluffier than the ones I trained with, so once I noticed that, I just barreled out of the gate."
By 11:30 a.m. it was all over. Booker had posed for photographers holding aloft his trophy -- a gold cup filled with matzoh balls. He mugged for the camera with a bottle of Maalox. And he performed a victory rap for the crowd:
"I train at buffets to keep my advantage / When it comes to matzoh balls, I make them all vanish."
Soon the reporters and photographers had gone, but Booker wasn't ready to leave. It was almost lunchtime, and he wanted a sandwich.