It was a greasy battle of enlarged stomachs and ancient rivalries. Family dynasties were both shattered and upheld.
On New Year’s Day, the last day of Chanukah, Noah’s Ark in Teaneck became the site of a starchy battle royale. This was the annual Teaneck latke-eating contest: The Chanukah Thunderdome.
For 10 years, I have participated in the annual Teaneck latke-eating contest. And each time I had been bested by one man: Shalom Krischer of Teaneck, who had won at least five of those contests. Would this year be different?
As we did our pre-contest stretches, I vowed that it would.
In addition to being the last day of Chanukah, it also was New Year’s Day. It was time to turn the page.
Eight contestants lined up, including three people from the Jewish Home at Rockleigh. It was a range of ages and capabilities. “We were so lucky we had our friends from the Jewish Home at Rockleigh participating,” Noah’s Ark co-owner, Shelly Sokolow, said.
Krischer was, of course, the early favorite. We lined up with a plate of five latkes and a bowl of applesauce in front of us. I pulled to an early lead as Noah’s Ark’s latkes slid down easily, aided by apple sauce and enough oil to light a single menorah for eight weeks. The first plate of five was soon gone.
My nemesis, Krischer, was about two latkes behind. Like the ancient Maccabees who were far outnumbered by the Greek-Assyrian army, I felt a glimmer of hope that perhaps I could triumph against insurmountable odds.
As my third plate of latkes arrived, I found that they weren’t going down as easily as they had in the beginning. Krischer had caught up. We were neck and neck. Hope began to fade as we tore into the third plate, fueled by the greasefire of our tradition.
As Noah’s Ark co-owner Noam Sokolow called time, Krischer and I had tied at 16 latkes each. In a competition where “sudden death” could be literal, we took a short break to stretch and fortify our stomachs. It would all come down to this:
Four latkes apiece. Two bowls of apple sauce. One minute. Easy as pie? A little sweet would have been a nice interlude, actually….
With a young onlooker shouting “Stuff your face!” I went to work. By this point my brain was about as fried as the potatoes in front of me. And we had been here before.
Two years ago — the last time Noah’s Ark hosted the contest — Krischer and I also had tied and gone to a runoff. As he had done many times before, he triumphed that year.
But not this time.
With a sudden burst of energy, I felt the strength of the Maccabees flowing through me. Or maybe that was something else…. Either way, it worked. As Sokolow counted down, I pushed the last latke in my mouth before collapsing on my plate, secure in being half a latke ahead. We were like Apollo Creed and Rocky at the end of Rocky II: two weary and beaten-down warriors.
But in the end, I edged Krischer out and claimed the title. Nine minutes. Nineteen latkes. One champion.
“My old nemesis, Josh Lipowsky, took the medal away from me,” Krischer said after the contest. “Watch out, Josh. Next year’s coming sooner than you think.”
As the Noah’s Ark employees reset the contest table for the younger division, Krischer called out to his 15-year-old daughter, Penina: “The family honor rests on your shoulders!”
No pressure? Penina, a sophomore at Ma’ayanot in Teaneck, had won the youth division of the contest at least three times already. With family watching from Israel via Facebook, Penina went to work. In the end, she emerged victorious. “It feels like my hunger is sated,” she said afterward. “The important thing is I upheld a family tradition.”
As for the secret to her success? “I’m a teenager,” she said. “I have a teenage complex of a bottomless pit for a stomach.”
This year’s contest returned to Noah’s Ark after a year off. The Sokolows spoke ebulliently about bringing the contest back to the restaurant. “We like being part of the community,” Shelly Sokolow said. “This is the place where we make real, homemade latkes.”
After the contest, I celebrated like any champion would: I peeled, grated, and fried up another five pounds of latkes. After all, I had to start training to defend my title next year.