It was a cold crisp Sunday afternoon at the pedestrian plaza on Cedar Lane in Teaneck. People in black-and-white striped shirts were setting up tables with slews of sauce (of the apple variety) and layers of latkes with enough oil to light a menorah for eight days.
The author displayed superb technique, but it wasn’t enough to beat the competition. photo by James janoff
It could mean only one thing: Time for the fourth Annual Cedar Lane Potato Latke Eating Contest sponsored by Ma’adan.
Memories of last year’s contest haunted my dreams one latke off from the sudden-death finals. (And considering how much oil this contest used, "sudden death" could have been accurate.)
I spent the year since my defeat studying Takeru Kobayashi, Japan’s champion in the International Federation of Competitive Eating, who for six years had held the record in the Nathan’s Famous hot dog-eating competition until Joey "Jaws" Chestnut defeated him in June.
Still, he was my inspiration.
Shalom Krischer and Donny Furer took first and second place respectively in the adult section. PHOTO’00;by Josh lipowsky
I called Ma’adan two weeks ago to register. "Don’t forget the hat," said Stuart Kahan, Ma’adan’s co-owner. Although I had not won the year before, I had left an impression with my fuzzy blue-and-white menorah hat.
When I arrived at the contest this past Sunday, I was prepped. I had my hat with a picture of Kobayashi tucked securely inside so I could feed off his vibes as well as the latkes. I could almost hear him in my head, "You can do it! BONZAI!"
Allison Alt won the under-18 section. photo by James janoff
First the Under-18 section competed. Kahan had promised a twist in this year’s competition and he delivered. Before the round began, he asked the contestants and audience members a few questions about Chanukah, such as why we increase by one candle each night and what the oil symbolizes. The questions made the contest not just about eating latkes but also about increasing Jewish knowledge, Kahan told me.
"We were able to really bring in the meaning of Chanukah along with the contest by asking all those questions to the children and the adults," Kahan said after the contest. "I didn’t want it to just be a latke-eating contest. I wanted it to be meaningful and show a connection between what they’re for and what Chanukah means."
After the questions, a fat latke was placed in front of each child. They had two minutes to finish it and then eat as many mini-latkes as they could. It was a fierce battle but in the end, 14-year-old Allison Alt triumphed.
Then they called the rest of us up. I braced myself by the table, even as one of the judges spilled my cup of water, making my place almost too slippery for a solid bracing. I lathered up my latkes in applesauce to help them slide down. We also had two minutes to fill our gullets with as many latkes as possible, but there would be no mini-latkes for us. We had only the ultra-thick crunchy latkes that had been chilled by the winter air.
I eyed my competition. Teaneck Mayor Eli Katz, who had acted a referee in the earlier round, now stood poised to take the latke crown, as did seven other newcomers and veteran eaters, including last year’s winner, Shalom Krischer.
One of my hands hovered above the plate while the other was ready to go with the (refilled) cup of water. After asking the audience more Chanukah questions, Kahan called us to attention and shouted, "Go!"
I attacked the first latke as I thought Kobayashi would, working my way around the outside in. I soon realized, though, that I literally bit off more than I could chew. While I had digested four latkes in last year’s contest, this year’s batch were almost as thick as bagels and, with the additional handicap of cold weather, I struggled to get through my first. The second latke was going more quickly but it was too late. Kahan called "time" before I could finish.
Newcomer Donny Furer and Shalom Krischer, last year’s champion, had each finished three and went into sudden death. In the end, though, Krischer won again, retaining his title.
The 46-year-old Teaneck resident told the Standard last year that his secret was his lack of preparation; he just showed up to eat some latkes. After this year’s competition, he said, "There’s no secret, they’re great. I love those latkes."
Krischer has entered the contest three times and won twice. "You gotta enjoy what you do," he said. "They were very, very good."
Asked if he’s begun training for next year, he said yes: "By enjoying those latkes."
Perhaps that really is the secret: Just to slow down and enjoy them rather than attack them.
I’m armed now with a new strategy. Next year will be different. Kobayashi will reclaim his title as hot dog-eating champion and I will finally earn that title of latke-eating champion that has eluded me two years in a row.
This is for you, Kobayashi.