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Life Lessons at a Hamantaschen Eating Contest

The quest for Purim glory

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As I mentioned last week, I entered a Purim Day hamantaschen eating contest sponsored by EL AL Airlines with the bounty of a free trip to Israel to the winner. First, I sought out the expertise of professional eater and pioneer Don “Moses” Lerman, then on Purim, I put his principles into practice against a number of amateur eaters as well as Jamie “The Bear” McDonald, the World’s #1 Independent Competitive Eater.

Below is a video of the event recorded by Tablet’s Stephanie Butnick and my account of the journey. May it inspire you.

If there is one thing I learned this past Sunday, it’s that I will never be able to eat 48 hamantaschen in five minutes. I will never marry Natalie Portman at the King David Hotel nor will I eat five pumpkin pies or 287 buffalo wings in just half an hour.

Every man fancies himself a warrior of sorts, possessor of a summoning spirit, harborer of an irreducible will and an iron fortitude, this very belief represents the constituent kernel of manhood itself–the idea that one could, if instructed by nature, force himself to devour more hamantaschen than the rest of a group of men beside him on a dais at a temple on Purim. It’s that simple. A man has to believe that.

But it’s a canard. Fate, too, like King Ahasuerus has a cruel gilded scepter. And when the scepter drops, an illusion drops with it. I am never going to slam dunk a basketball and, even with proper training, I will not eat many more than the 15.5 raspberry and apricot hamantaschen I ate less than two feet away from Jamie “The Bear” McDonald. On Sunday, McDonald ate his very first hamantaschen, an act he immediately followed by eating 47 more, leaving the rest of us amid the crumbs and chaff.

There were other dreamers too. There was Dimitry Shchupsk–the Ukraine Train–who bore Samson’s rat-tail and Magen David swag around his neck. He ate 33 and scored a free trip to Israel from EL AL. There was also Nathaniel–from parts unknown–who arrived like an apparition from the arid corners of Shushan and threw 34 hamantashen down the gullet of his 6’4” frame. He too would honored with a trip to the Holy Land. I asked him how he felt after seeming to surprise even himself at the competition and he was honest: “I’ve definitely felt better.”

There was also Kevin Sloan, an acolyte of The Bear, who placed third with about 25. For his efforts, Sloan won $500 toward a flight to Israel, a place he seemed unlikely to go.

Others were not so lucky. There was Josh Jaspen, who dressed as the Pope, only to resign in masticated failure. There was also Stephen Hillegass, a car parts salesman, who gassed up his van near his home in Oley, Pennsylvania, a suburb of a suburb of Reading (where he was a local burger eating champion), and drove 225 miles to Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to compete against the Bear.

Hillegass would not make it the full five minutes, he was disqualified after about two minutes by the official referee Dave “Coondog” O’Karma, himself a former contestant at Famous Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest and the author of a book of poems entitled “Wit and Whimsy of a White Trash Jesus.”

I was on the stage with Hillegass and hadn’t realized he’s been disqualified until after the event. When I approached the emcee Todd “The Hungry Genius” Greenwald and asked him why Hillegass had been DQ’ed, Greenwald laughed. Greenwald–who bore a striking resemblance to an older, retired version of Yankee slugger Kevin Youkilis and had earlier called an Israeli contestant Maria instead of “Moriah”–explained that Hillegass had suffered a reversal, which like dunking or dousing, was strictly outlawed.

“What is a reversal?” I asked.

I’ll spare you the language Greenwald used, but suffice it to say, when you reverse during an eating competition, it’s not a good thing. There are different types of reversals including half-reversals and nose reversals. Hillegrass had suffered a different type of reversal.

“He fully reversed.” Greenwald said. “It was a full reversal.”

Despite the disqualification, Hillegrass seemed pleased with his showing.

“I had to try and beat The Bear, you know?”

I think I knew. Hillegrass then made his way around the room, snapping a few pictures with The Bear and bidding farewell to his fellow competitors and the event’s publicist, who did not return his gaze.

Of course, the real star was McDonald. More a golem than a bear, McDonald has made a tidy sum on the competitive eating circuit, while maintaining the unlikely appearance of a svelte bodybuilder. Shortly before taking the stage, I watched him take out the chewing gum he used to prep his iron jaw and, without compunction, house a giant bowl of chocolate pudding, which he described to me as pure protein that he eats to counterbalance the sugar intake from contests involving sweets.

The children gathered around him, inspired by the vague understanding that he was some kind of celebrity, asking him to sign everything from EL AL hats to EL AL chair covers to EL AL rubber planes and t-shirts. More than one of the KJ children noted aloud that McDonald’s signature might fetch a handsome ransom on eBay; their parents seemed careful not to encourage or discourage them.

As the countdown began, I looked out into the crowd and felt very much like a sideshow for McDonald, whose casual and thorough destruction seemed preordained; 50 hamantashen had been placed before him on the altar–150 nervous corners about to be rounded off–while the rest had been given just 20. But that hardly mattered. During the sugar rush that accompanies a hamantashen binge, your eyes grow bleary as your will begins to soften like dough. But then you look down and see the triangles look like several six-pointed stars and, somehow, improbably, you carry on.

Earlier: Advice from a Professional Eating Champion

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Great article! One correction, my last name is spelled Shchupak, not Shchupsk.


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Life Lessons at a Hamantaschen Eating Contest

The quest for Purim glory

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