Going up against a pro
Last week, an old friend of mine traveled from his home in New York City to Chicago for the purpose of eating jelly doughnuts.
These weren’t just any jelly doughnuts — they were paczki, a Polish version of the confection, crafted by the master bakers at Bennison’s Bakery, which has been making them in the North Shore neighborhood of Evanston since 1938.
And he wasn’t there to just nibble on a couple of them with a nice cup of coffee. No, he and a friend had entered the bakery’s annual doughnut-eating contest, in which two-man teams have five minutes to eat as many of these things as they can.
He told me about it back in January, and I immediately began spending way too much time thinking about it.
I would call him up in the middle of the day to discuss strategy. “You should go out right now and eat a dozen doughnuts,” I said. “You think you can do that?” “Of course I can do that,” he said. My friend is a large man, though I believe he would not, for an American, be categorized as fat. He’s always had a voracious appetite — he’s a personal-pizza kind of guy who can inhale a sandwich, regardless of its size, inside of a dozen bites and I have never, not once, seen him leave a French fry on the plate. You should see the guy take down a burrito: It’s like watching a snake eat a baby pig.
When we were in college, I saw him knock out a dozen plates of beef and pork ribs during an all-you-can-eat feast at a joint called Luther’s. It was amazing.
We both felt he stood a good chance at Bennison’s. The record, he told me, set the previous year, was 14 paczki for the two-man team. While he wasn’t entirely sure about the prowess of his partner, Steve Matz, a guy he went to high school with in Philadelphia, he had confidence in his own abilities.
“I think I can eat 10,” he told me. We spoke on the phone nearly every day as the event drew near to work on his game plan.
“I read that the day before the event I should drink like two gallons of water,” he told me. “It will stretch my stomach — but if I do it to fast it’ll perforate.”
“Is that serious?” I asked him. “Yeah, pretty sure that’s permanent damage,” he said. “Oh.” I had an idea. “Maybe you shouldn’t eat any doughnuts until the competition, I said. “That way you won’t have had any doughnuts for like weeks, and you’ll be dying for one.”
“I thought about that,” he said, “but I want my body to get used to all that sugar.
Also, I was pretty sure he couldn’t go three weeks without eating any doughnuts.
I spoke to him before he boarded the plane to Chicago with his wife and baby daughter, who went along to cheer him on. He felt good, he said. Ready. He ate a light dinner the night before — a pulled pork sandwich — and a fruit smoothie for breakfast the day of the event.
And when he got to the bakery to meet his partner, he got the bad news.
“You see that guy over there?” his partner asked him, gesturing to a stocky guy in the crowd. “That’s the Bear. We got problems.”
Jamie “The Bear” McDonald, a competitive eater from Granby, Conn., had just one week earlier eaten 287 chicken wings in 31 minutes to win the Wing Bowl, held each year in Philadelphia. For the paczki competition, he had paired with one of the previous year’s winners, Dan Furjanic, and they came to do some real damage.
The appearance of the professional eaters dashed my friend’s hope of winning. The contest for him had become about something else.
“Steve just gave up right there, I think,” he said later. “For me, I just wanted to see how many I could eat in five minutes. I mean, how many could I really eat?” From the start, the pros began dunking their doughnuts in warm water and swallowing them without chewing.
“You should have seen what they were doing,” my friend said.
“They looked like they were covered in vomit.”
The ringers plowed through plate after plate of paczki, and due to a loophole in the rules, added 10 to their final tally by filling their hands with doughnuts before the final buzzer sounded —those would count towards their total as long as they finished them. They scored out at 39 paczki, annihilating last year’s record.
“Those guys,” he said, “you could tell they didn’t even enjoy the product.”
My friend and his partner downed a respectable 12 doughnuts — my friend had seven of them — and from the look of the pictures posted on Facebook, he ate them with gusto.
“They were delicious,” he said. “If I had time I think I could have eaten a dozen more.”
As the winners were crowned, my friend gathered his team together and they reflected on the competition and the pursuit of one’s personal best even in the face of certain defeat.
It was a good day, they decided. Then they went out for Mexican food.