At the Passover Seder, the ritual meal commemorating their escape from bondage in Egypt, Jewish people recite the 10 plagues that descended on the Pharaoh, such as blood, boils, and vermin. About two minutes into the Ruthie & Gussie's/Empire Kosher Matzo Ball-Eating Championship, where I was competing against some of the world's most accomplished gorgers, I began to think there was an 11th plague: matzo balls. Almost every Seder I've been to, I have complained of being cheated when my chicken soup comes with a single measly matzo ball floating in it. Now, my comeuppance was having to eat 25 fist-sized matzo balls in five minutes.
As the Human Guinea Pig, I do things you don't want to do. But I thought this time I was taking my job title too literally as I bent over the matzo balls, picked them up, and shoved them in like a pig at a trough. I hoped Dr. Heimlich was on call in the hallowed Milton Berle room of the Friar's Club in Manhattan, where the event was taking place.
Eating contests are nothing new—imagine a state fair without a pie-scarfing competition. Nathan's of Coney Island has been holding its Fourth of July hot-dog-eating contest since 1916. But in recent years, thanks to the establishment of the International Federation of Competitive Eating by publicists and brothers George and Richard Shea, this kind of high-speed gluttony has been looking to be accepted as a sport. I had to admit it was the kind of athletic competition that was made for me. If only in my school days I'd found a sporting event that discourages training (for safety reasons) and for which muumuus are appropriate competitive attire, I might have made the varsity squad.
I have plenty of experience with excessive food consumption. As a college student flirting with an eating disorder, I once ingested an entire box of Lipton onion soup mix—dry. Everyone's heard of the cabbage soup diet, but I invented the cabbage diet. One day I ate an entire head of raw cabbage. I spent the next week digesting it, like a snake that's swallowed a muskrat. That seemed to cure my bizarre food obsessions, and it has been decades since I did anything so repulsive. But after my editor suggested I enter an eating contest, I had a nightmare that I was at a dessert table and had to be pulled off it because I was devouring Ding Dongs like a wolverine. What if this contest sent me back to my cabbage-stuffing ways?
In December, I started scanning the IFOCE Web site for a contest that matched my skills. I decided to skip oysters, lobsters, and posole. Then I saw that matzo balls were coming. I figured I would have an advantage since 1) I am Jewish, and 2) I love these boiled delights made—ideally—of matzo meal and chicken fat. I took the IFOCE's advice and decided not to train, but my research revealed something that put me at a disadvantage. "Water training" was a common technique—seeing how quickly you can glug a gallon of water, which weighs about 8 pounds. (Of course, if your interrogator forces you to do this, it's called "torture.")
Before I went to New York, I checked with a medical adviser, my friend Dr. Kerry Foley, an emergency-room physician. While Kerry acknowledged matzo-ball overeating was not a specific part of her medical-school curriculum, she thought I'd be OK as long as I avoided Boerhaave syndrome, a rupture of the esophagus that she labeled "catastrophic." Kerry also suggested I stay away from water training. She had just treated someone for a seizure because of hyponatremia, or water intoxication, the result of too assiduously following his doctor's advice to keep thoroughly hydrated.
The Wednesday before Passover began, the dozen competitors gathered at the Friar's Club. I was disappointed not to meet Sonya "Black Widow" Thomas, the tiny (105-pound) decathlete of food consumption, who holds titles in everything from baked beans to cheesecake to turducken. She has wisely never entered a matzo-ball contest. Matzo balls are the least favorite food of champions because of their post-competition expansion qualities. "Hungry" Charles Hardy, the 2000 title holder, has compared them to ingesting 5 pounds of sponge or cement.
The man to beat was the record holder (21 baseball-sized balls in 5 minutes, 25 seconds), Eric "Badlands" Booker. He is a New York City subway train conductor and a giant of a man at 420 pounds. I asked his advice, and we went to the small soup bowl displaying a few balls. He picked one up, felt and turned it, like Rodin contemplating a slab of marble. "Wow, these are pretty dense," he said. He recommended the apple approach. Just grab one and dispatch it "in one to three bites." This did not sound helpful since it takes me about 10 minutes to eat an apple.
Next I talked to tall and slender "Crazy Legs" Conti, an oyster champion and star of a documentary, Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating. He said the cinematographers compared filming his feats to combat photography; they would set up the cameras and turn away. He told me the sport is primarily mental, and I should do a lot of visualization. It seemed like good advice, although envisioning sending matzo ball debris into my distended abdomen was not the kind of image they conjure up on visualization tapes.
Then I conferred with Donald "Moses" Lerman, who holds the butter title with seven sticks in five minutes. He is also a former matzo-ball champ, and with his matzo-patterned tie seemed poignantly eager to regain his title. He used to subscribe to my theory that being Jewish should convey some advantage, since matzo balls, he observed, are a food "non-Jews are not familiar with." But he's seen that notion go down the tube as African-Americans Hardy and Booker have surpassed him. "A true competitor can eat anything," he said. He himself uses the Far Eastern training method. Two days before a competition he likes to go to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet and stretch his stomach with eight plates of food.
It was time for the contest to begin. The good news was that, because of the density of the balls, it had been cut from the scheduled 12 minutes to 5 minutes, 25 seconds. The bad news was the density of the balls. My name was called, and to wan applause from the small crowd of spectators and media, I took my place at the end of the table. I saw that I was both the sole Jewish mother and only woman.
I pushed back my chair (Crazy Legs had recommended standing to help gravity along). Although I was starving, as the countdown began, I looked at the balls and felt my appetite flee. I was worried that I might experience what is known in the sport as "an urge contrary to swallowing." "We don't use the 'V' word," Crazy Legs had explained to me. If that urge can't be overcome, the resulting eruption is known as a "Roman incident." Crazy Legs had experienced one only secondhand, when a competitor standing next to him at a jambalaya contest started spewing stew.
I picked up the first matzo ball. A thin, moist crust quickly gave way to a pastelike mantle, followed by a sawdust core. I got the whole thing stuffed in my cheeks, where it defied my attempts to swallow. I finally choked it down and reached for the next one. The centers were killing me: No grandmother of mine would ever have served such dusty balls. I noticed that the contestant next to me was splitting his matzo balls and pouring water from a small paper cup over them. I used the same method and it eased the pain.
As the last minute was announced I started shoving—Boerhaave's syndrome be damned! In the end I ate six. I felt both surprisingly good and proud of myself, until I discovered Badlands Booker had set a new world record with 30. Though I came in last, Crazy Legs told me I tied the previous female matzo-ball record. IFOCE official George Shea confirmed this but pointed out that this was a pathetic attempt on my part to set an affirmative-action standard for eating. In competitive eating, he said cruelly, "there is no Title IX."
As I stared at the leftovers (few contestants finished an entire bowl), I felt a genetic imperative to grab about 50, stuff them in my purse, and take them home and serve them for Passover. But the organizers whisked them away—to the garbage, I hope. I talked to the third-place finisher (24 balls), Tim "Eater X" Janus, whose sole experience with matzo balls is in competition. "I still don't understand why they continue to exist," he said. But I do. After I returned home I attended two consecutive Seders. At each I was given my usual single-ball serving. The balls were fluffy and moist. Both nights I went back for seconds.