|Yitzi Taber, Noam Sokolow, and Shalom Krischer (Josh Lipowsky)|
First PersonSudden death almost meant just that.
There we were, two weary warriors on a battlefield of gastronomic proportions, called into sudden-death overtime to determine who is Teaneck’s supreme latke-eating champion. Summoning up our reserves of strength, we sloshed applesauce on the five latkes set before us and set forth on our delectable task.
How had it come to this?
The day was Sunday, the fifth day of the Festival of Lights, aka Chanukah, aka Hannukka, aka Channukka, aka…you get the point – there are a lot of ways to spell Chanukah.
For years, Ma’adan, a store in Teaneck, had been the setting for a fierce competition to see who could devour the most fried potato pancakes. This year, the Cedar Lane Management Group, also in Teaneck, had taken up the mantle of latke contest host, and Noah’s Ark became the new battleground. Instead of gathering outside (bundled in warm coats and hats) at Teaneck’s pedestrian plaza, as we had in years past, we met in the back room at Noah’s Ark.
“When there is a need in the community, we are always happy to step up and do the right thing,” said Noam Sokolow, who owns the restaurant.
Four teenagers and four adults lined up along the tables, a bowl of five fresh latkes placed before each competitor. The teenagers would go first. New to the competition this year was 17-year-old Ephraim Taber of Bergenfield, who battled past teen champions Penina and Devora Krischer, 13 and 16 respectively, and his own brother, 19-year-old Yitzi, who had won the 2012 teen title.
The teenagers dug in and it seemed competitive for a while, but Yitzi Taber pulled ahead and claimed his second win with 13 latkes.
“It feels good,” he said. “Maybe it’ll be three times next year.”
His secret to success? “I just kept putting them in my mouth, two at a time,” he said. “They taste really good.”
Next up were the adults: past multi-year champion and father to Penina and Devora, Shalom Krischer; newcomers Sara Flaumenhaft and Adira Hilbig; and me. (We all live in Teaneck.) Though I have claimed the Pickle Licious pickle-eating title before, I never had won this competition. And it has hounded me like a dingo stalking a wombat.
Mr. Krischer had beaten me in several of the latke competitions over the years, while some amateur competitive eaters trying to make it onto the professional circuit had beaten us both recently. With only the four of us in the contest and no “professionals” in sight, it seemed like this could be my year.
Bowls of five latkes, applesauce, and pitchers of water were placed before us. “I’m going to win the prize for the least latkes eaten,” said Ms. Flaumenhaft, who obviously joined just for the fun of it. And with this many calories consumed, it should be fun, or else there’s really no point. Ms. Hilbig, knowing Mr. Krischer’s and my reputations, conceded that one of us would win anyway.
As a sign of sportsmanship and chivalry, we gave the ladies a 30-second head start into the five-minute time limit. As the two female competitors began, Mr. Krischer and I filled our water, lathered our latkes in sauce, and shook hands as worthy competitors, forever locked into our epicurean struggle.
Then it began.
Latkes in one hand and water in another, we kept pace with each other, biting off bits of fried potato. New bowls with another five latkes each were placed before us as we each finished our fifth. “Ten!” Mr. Sokolow called out. “Nine! Eight….”
As the countdown neared its finish, so did our respective bowls of latkes.
As time was called, both Mr. Krischer and I each had two clean bowls in front of us. Ms. Hilbig had eaten five latkes (plus one of Ms. Flaumenhaft’s afterward) while Ms. Flaumenhaft, true to her word, had eaten only three. Mr. Krischer and I had each finished 10. A tie.
But just as the Superbowl cannot end in a tie, neither can a latke throwdown. Two men enter, one man leaves. (Mel Gibson may be a rabid anti-Semite, but “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” still has one of the most memorable set-ups for a cinematic fight ever.)
After a two-minute break, fresh bowls of five latkes were set in front of us and we were given a new, shorter time limit. It was time for sudden death – and with this much grease, “sudden death” could have been very true.
Unfortunately, I was not in as good shape as the Road Warrior. I should have gone to the gym earlier that morning to give my metabolism a boost. Mr. Krischer and I kept pace on the first latke, but I found myself slowing down on the second and began to remember the rule that what goes down has to stay down to qualify as a win.
Time was called. In all, I had downed 12-and-a-half latkes. Mr. Krischer had finished 13.
“I was just watching my competition and staying ahead of them,” he said about his win. The latkes, he said, were “phenomenal.” And the three winners were really him, Yitzi, and Noah’s Ark, for making such great latkes.
We embraced as friendly competitors and pledged to meet again next year, and perhaps at the pickle contest.
“This was our most successful latke eating contest ever,” Mr. Sokolow said with a grin. After all, this was the first annual Noah’s Ark contest. He “definitely” plans to welcome the competition again next year though, and maybe they’ll even try jalapeno latkes, added his wife, Shelly, for whom the vegetarian restaurant across the street is named.
In the end, I may have taken second place, but the competitors were noble and the judging just.
As fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers used to say, there is always next year. And as Mr. Krischer said at the end of the contest, “Bring on the latkes.”