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Suey Jow and How! A Chinatown Dumpling Eating Contest

by Harley Spiller

Dim Sum and Other Snack Foods

Winter Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(4) page(s): 15 and 16

Chinatown’s 'first-ever' dumpling eating contest was held on June 28th, 2003 in Manhattan’s historic Columbus Park; it is 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. I e-mailed them for more information and sent along with a copy of Flavor and Fortune with the story about my dumpling eating marathon. To my happy surprise, the President of this organization called, then appointed me a Judge.

Thousands of people filled the park throughout the day and evening. The wholesome vegetarian 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. This group is 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. This was held for many years by humongous men. Only one woman has ever been Champ, a German in the 1930's. 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 fifty-and-a-half hot dogs in twelve minutes. It is nearly double the amount that any Westerner has consumed. The twenty-five-year old record holder, Takeru Kobayashi, weighs around one hundred thirty pounds, and can gain eight 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 fifty 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 one-hundred-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 with cabbage and water. He won the Nathan’s contest again, but fell far short of last year’s record intake with a mere forty-four dogs, some thirteen thousand calories.

There were six professionals in Chinatown, and a slightly greater number of amateurs, also testing their gullets. All competitors were required to sign an 'Acknowledgment of Risks' and a 'Waiver of Liability' including personal injury, illness and possible loss of life, which might result from participation in the contest. It is 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 thirty-seven-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 are well lubed,” he counseled.

Cookie predicted he would eat one hundred twenty 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 ninety-one dumplings. That is roughly one every five seconds over the eight minute span. Later, he told me he had eaten a bowlful of twenty 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 cannolli. 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 International Federation of Competitive Eaters, was resplendent in his much dry-cleaned blue blazer and straw skimmer. ESPN did not 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 champing, gnashing and gnawing kicked up the most intense food smell this reporter has ever encountered, surpassing olfactory-centric visits to Guangdong’s Snake King, a 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 thirty-four-year-old Eric 'Badlands' Booker, who ate eighty-five 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 is 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 Booker at his day job, conducting the Number 7 subway train whose last stop at Main Street is in Flushing’s Chinatown!

There was but one female among the eight amateurs, none ate more than forty-five 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 could not 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 slurped at the same pace as the pros but this bout covered less than half the time-span of the pro contest. The slim and serious competitor managing to consume forty-seven dumplings in three minutes. A Latvian man, used to his native pirok, hung tough for a second place finish with thirty-five. The rest of the field, however, included many young kids who had bigger eyes than stomachs. They turned in disappointing totals and 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 is clear that many young and old people the world over have a great time watching eating contests of all description. It is also clear that many people do not.

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 accomplishments 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 nine, who recited an 'Ode to the Dumpling' which went:

Dumplings are my favorite
I eat them all the time
In the sauce I dip it
I won’t share, it’s all mine.

Excellent early photographs of Columbus Park and environs are reproduced and can be seen at their website: ww.geocities.com/synergy_two/chinatown/history/photos/columpark1.html and do take a good look at http://soothsayer.topcities.com/chinatown/history/early1900s.html
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, those great steamed Chinese dumplings.

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