Flavor and Fortune 2003
by Harley Spiller
SUEY JOW & HOW! A CHINATOWN DUMPLING EATING CONTEST
Chinatown's "first-ever" dumpling eating contest was held on June 28th, 2003 in Manhattan's historic Columbus Park* at the conjunction of Mulberry, Bayard, Baxter, Mosco and Worth Streets. The contest was part of Chinatown Summer Festival 2003, a celebration hosted by Asian Women in Business, firstname.lastname@example.org. I e-mailed AWIB for more information, along with a copy of Flavor and Fortune with the story about my dumpling eating marathon. To my happy surprise, the President of AWIB called and made me a Judge.
After weeks of rain, we had an exceedingly hot, sunny and windless Saturday. 1,000s of people filled the park throughout the day and evening. The wholesome dumplings, donated by Brooklyn's Twin Marquis, one of the largest commercial manufacturers of dumplings and noodles in the Northeast, were steamed at nearby restaurants and carried into the park.
On hand for the unique occasion were the Shea Brothers, founders of The International Federation of Competitive Eaters. IFOCE is a group most renown for revivifying Coney Island's Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating contest, which has been held at Nathan's Famous at Surf and Stillwell Avenues each year since 1916 when Nathan Handwerker heeded advice from entertainers Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante to open a hot dog restaurant.
The 4th of July tube-steak belt was held for many years by humongous U.S. men. Only one woman has ever been Champ, a German in the 1930s. Then, about five years ago, Japanese competitors started flying in for the event. They have been trouncing their three- and four-fold larger opponents ever since.
Nathan's, and the World's Record for hot dog eating stands today at 50 ½ hot dogs in twelve minutes. It's nearly double the amount that any Westerner has consumed. 25-year old record holder Takeru Kobayashi weighs around 130 pounds, and can gain 8 pounds during the event. Earlier this year Kobayashi competed in Fox TV's Man vs. Beast. He was bested by a Kodiak bear that mawed 50 franks in under two minutes.
In Japan, eating competitions are an older tradition, and extreme eating seems to be something of a Buddhist discipline. People there are well aware that 100-pound guys in top physical condition can easily out-eat quarter-ton Sumo wrestlers. It seems fat prevents the belly from being stretched to its total capacity. Alas, no Japanese professional eaters showed up in Chinatown but they had their reasons. After all, the next weekend was the big 4th of July defense. I guess Kobayashi stayed home, sticking to his pre-event regimen of stomach-stretching cabbage and water. He won the Nathan's contest again, but fell far short of last year's record intake.
There were six professionals in Chinatown, all of who must shop Rochester's. A slightly greater number of amateurs were also testing their gullets. All competitors were required to sign an "Acknowledgment of Risks and Waiver of Liability" including "personal injury, illness and possible loss of life" which might have resulted from participation in the contest. It's obvious that this freakish type of dining is gluttonous and in no part condoned by Flavor and Fortune's healthful approach to Chinese cuisine.
First of the big men to arrive in the park was Ed "Cookie" Jarvis, an affable-enough 37-year old who strategizes seriously. I got to chat with him before the crowds gathered. Cookie had already checked out the food of the day and liked the look. "They're well lubed," he counseled.
Cookie predicted he would eat 120 in the eight-minute contest, roughly six pounds. He entered the arena with a shiny metal scoop, but abandoned it in favor of a hands-on method, dropping to one knee when the bell rang, and standing up once or twice during the eight-minute bout to shake the al fresco luncheon deep down into his massive system. As it turned out, Cookie won the event with 91 dumplings, roughly one every five seconds over an eight minute span. Later he told me he had eaten a bowlful (20) before the first minute was over.
After he was announced winner, Cookie, who prefers to pound down sweets, left the stage only to reappear moments later, brandishing a large chocolate covered cannoli. He exhibited great pride when the audience gasped as he gnawed away at the Italian calorie-bomb just a few minutes after downing nearly eight dozen dumplings.
Effervescent showman George Shea of the IFOCE was resplendent in his much dry-cleaned blue blazer and straw skimmer. ESPN didn't fulfill their promise to cover the event, and the Guinness Book of World Records was conspicuously absent. Still, Shea remained unfazed at the mic, exhorting the expectant New Yorkers.
When the crowd counted down to zero and the frenzy began, the pros hunched their haunches and squeezed in at the middle of the table. The awe-striking sight made it clear was not going to be any old state-fair huckleberry pie contest.
The most shocking happenstance ensued about one minute into the out-of-doors contest, when the stage became permeated with the sickly sweet stink of gao choy, the pungent fully-grown green chive essential to Chinese dumplings. Gao Choy must be thrice again as pungent as the baby chives Westerners are accustomed to having snipped into baked potato with sour cream. The gnashing and gnawing kicked up the most intense food smell this reporter has ever encountered, surpassing olfactory-centric visits to Guangdong's Snake King Completely wild game restaurant; Durian fields in Thailand; even the Stinky Tofu department at Taipei's infamous Shi Lin Night Market.
The runner-up to newly-crowned Cookie was 34-year-old Eric "Badlands" Booker, who ate 85 dumplings, one at a time, left hand, right hand, left hand, right hand, all the time grooving to his Walkman. He slowed toward the end but never stopped. Eric's a hugely happy fellow with a baby-faced grin. You can see him scarfing massive quantities of food for national audiences during regular appearances on MTV's Carson Daley show. Booker, who is also world Burrito champ, thoroughly enjoyed himself, quickly covering his hands and arms to the hilt with glistening soy oil. Look for Badlands at his day job, conducting the #7 subway train - last stop, Flushing Chinatown!
There was but one female among the eight amateurs who filled out the pro field, none of whom ate more than 45 dumplings. Many of the rookies made the glaringly amateur error of chewing instead of simply inhaling the slithery crescents.
Next, a second contest, three minutes in length, was opened to the public. Many young men and women competitors stepped forward with gold and glory in their eyes. Enthusiastic entourages cheered mightily for favorite big eaters, but the youngsters couldn't keep pace with several middle-aged men who appeared in excellent condition. A couple of homeless men even joined the fray, but were soon outpaced.
The winner of the amateur competition, a slim and serious competitor, slurped at the same pace as the pros, managing to consume 47 dumplings in three minutes (less than half the time-span of the pro contest). A Latvian man, used to his native pirok, hung tough for a second place finish with 35. The rest of the field however, including many young kids who had bigger eyes than stomachs, turned in disappointing totals. Most looked the worse for the wear and tear.
There were plenty of dumplings left over and the organizers happily shared them with the quasi-hungry crowd. It's clear that many young and old people the world over have a great time watching eating contests of all description. It's also clear that many people don't.
The prizes, including trophies and canned Chinese bird's nest drink, seemed pale incentive in the face of the good old dumpling, a technique of cooking minced food in dough that is shared by dozens of international cultures. The accomplishment s of Cookie and the other competitors notwithstanding, the real hero of the day was the dumpling. The feeling in the air was capably summed up by Bret, age 9:
"Ode to Dumpling"
Dumplings are my favorite
I eat them all the time
In the sauce I dip it
I won't share, it's all mine.
The author thanks Esther Lee, Alyce Conrad and Bonnie Wong for their kindness. He had five dishes of dim sum on the day of the Dumpling Contest and regrets he was not in competitive form. If this competition becomes an annual event, however, look for him to doff his judge's robe, sign away his liabilities, and open wide for 'suey jow' - steamed Chinese dumplings.
*There are excellent early photographs of Columbus Park and environs reproduced at: http://www.geocities.com/synergy_two/chinatown/history/photos/columpark1.html and http://soothsayer.topcities.com/chinatown/history/early1900s.html
photo caption: Ed "Cookie" Jarvis (& 91 dumplings in his belly) accepts the IFOCE's Chinatown Dumpling Eating championship trophy from Mr. Terry Tang of Twin Marquis.