IJMC - Ya Matzo One, Ya Matzo All
Fortunately, I ate well tonight. So this story didn't even make me the
least bit hungry...although it's got me curious how long it would take me
to eat simply one of this deli's matzo balls...hmm, road trip? -dave
May the best mensch win
By Fred Kaplan, Globe Staff, 02/03/99
NEW YORK - It was while swallowing his ninth matzo ball that Russell
Machover's face turned purple, his eyelids fluttered, and it looked for a
moment as if he might pass out.
Then, the 41-year-old investment banker from Long Island - a graduate of
Harvard University, class of 1980 - took a couple of breaths, sipped some
water, and soldiered on to become the new Ben's Kosher Delicatessen
Matzo-Ball-Eating Champion of the World.
Machover ate 11 1/4 matzo balls in 5 minutes and 25 seconds yesterday
morning - beating out seven other contestants and tying one, another Long
Islander, Corey Barrett, not half his age.
A few minutes later, in the tie-breaking eat-off, Machover downed a
stunning 5 1/2 matzo balls in a mere 85 seconds - one full ball more than
Barrett could manage.
A diabetic, Machover then took a quick blood-sugar reading and a shot of
Nathan's in Coney Island holds a hot-dog-eating contest every summer.
Carnegie Deli in midtown Manahttan has an annual pickle-eating contest.
But Ben's, a deli empire with 11 locations in Manhattan, Queens, and Long
Island, is the only known establishment on the planet that hosts a race to
consume the most matzo balls.
There are good reasons for this uniqueness: Even by the standards of
food-contest mavens, anyone who wolfs down matzo balls at high speed has
got to be more than a little meshuggenah.
Machover himself described the experience after his victory: ''It's like
shoveling cement down your esophagus.''
Matzo-ball soup is a staple of every Jewish deli, the balls consisting of
matzo meal (from unleavened flour), baking powder, white pepper, salt, and
chicken fat, or, in some places these days, soybean oil.
Connoisseurs distinguish between two kinds of matzo balls - floaters and
sinkers. Floaters are big, airy, a little sweet, and go easy on the
stomach. Sinkers are smaller but hard, dense, and rip straight through the
Ben's matzo balls fuse the more awesome aspects of both worlds: big as
baseballs and nearly as heavy. To eat a bowl of soup at Ben's, with just
one matzo ball bobbing in the broth, is to consume a hearty meal.
''I don't know how they do it,'' Ronnie Dragoon, Ben's owner, said with a
laugh when asked about the contestants' feats.
Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels and a popular local
talk-radio host, has won Carnegie's pickle-eating contest several times
and regularly places third or fourth in Nathan's hot-dog eating contest.
''But nothing matches these things,'' he said, shaking his head solemnly.
''It takes a man's man to sit here and devour the matzo balls.''
Sliwa, yesterday's emcee, entered Ben's competition last year but was
disqualified for crushing the matzo balls into little slivers and leaving
behind the crumbs of one ball before going on to the next.
''I was the only gentile competing,'' Sliwa said. ''How am I supposed to
know the right way to eat a matzo ball?''
Machover, who has been eating at Ben's since he was a kid, boasted before
yesterday's contest that he had devised ''a secret technique'' for
''These are big, round, watered-down matzo balls, so what you need to
do,'' he explained, lowering his voice to a whisper, ''is cut one in half
with a fork, squish it in your mouth so it's almost like mush, then
swallow. You also have to wash it down with a lot of water.''
Yesterday's contest, which took place at Ben's midtown Manhattan branch,
brought together the winners of ''regional'' matches held last month at
five other Ben's delis in the metropolitan area.
The odds-on favorite was Bruce D. Stock, a postal worker from Howard Beach
and last year's winner (13 1/2 matzo balls in 5 minutes, 25 seconds), who
brought along his trainer and his nutritionist. But this time out, his
cool, steady approach proved no match for Machover's juggernaut intensity.
''Krazy Kevin'' Lipsitz, the president of a magazine-distribution service
in Staten Island, another regional winner, is well-known among
food-competition insiders for training with his dogs. ''I watch how they
chew and swallow their dog food,'' Lipsitz said before the contest.
''Matzo balls have about the same consistency.''
Ed ''The Animal'' Kratchie, the American hot-dog-eating champ, was
expected to compete, but he did not show up - which elicited hisses of
contempt from the audience. ''It may be that Kratchie's day is over!''
thundered Gersh Kuntzman, a New York Post columnist who calls himself
''the Homer of hot-dog-eating contests'' and served as a judge yesterday.
Machover, who wore a Harvard T-shirt underneath the standard-issue Ben's
apron, won a trophy cup and a $2,500 gift certificate from a local
appliance store. Through entry fees and sponsor donations, the contest
raised $5,000 for the Interfaith Nutrition Network, a feed-the-hungry
This story ran on page A03 of the Boston Globe on 02/03/99.