Slate's Human Guinea Pig: Matzo Ball Eating

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Slate human guinea pig Emily Yoffe goes head-to-head with a world-famous competitive eating champion, as she competes in this year's matzo ball-eating contest in New York City.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Every few months, we check in with Slate's Emily Yoffe, better known by her nickname the Human Guinea Pig. She takes on tasks most of us would never try. Emily has worked as a telephone psychic, a street musician and she was actually crowned Mrs. Washington, DC, as the sole contestant. For today's segment, the Human Guinea Pig enters the stomach-churning world of competitive eating.

EMILY YOFFE (Slate): At almost every Passover Seder I've ever been to, I've complained of being cheated when my chicken soup comes with a single measly matzo ball floating in it. This year, a few days before Passover, I got my comeuppance, having to swallow as many fist-size matzo balls as I could in five minutes.

Unidentified Man: Ladies and gentlemen, they say that competitive eating is the battleground upon which God and Lucifer waged war for men's souls.

(Soundbite of music)

YOFFE: As I got ready to gorge in the hallowed Milton Berle Room of the Friars Club in Manhattan, I hoped Dr. Heimlich was on call.

Unidentified Man: Let the contest begin.

YOFFE: Eating contests are nothing new. But in recent years, thanks to the International Federation of Competitive Eating, this kind of high-speed gluttony has been promoted as an actual sport. In December, I started scanning the federation's Web site for an eating contest that matched my skills. Then I saw that matzo balls were coming. I figured I would have an advantage since, one, I'm Jewish and, two, I love these boiled delights made ideally of matzo meal and chicken fat. And so on the Wednesday before Passover, I and 11 competitors gathered at the Friars Club. Before we started, I was feeling really confident.

My goal is not throw up and not be last. So we'll see how it goes.

Matzo balls are the least-favorite food of champions because of their post-competition expansion qualities. "Hungry" Charles Hardy, the 2000 titleholder, has compared them to ingesting five pounds of sponge or cement. The man to beat this year was Eric "Badlands" Booker, a New York City subway train conductor who's 420 pounds. He held the previous matzo record of 21 balls in five minutes, 25 seconds. Listen to how he was introduced.

Unidentified Man: The pea-eating champion of the world, the onion-eating champion of the world, the strawberry-eating champion of the world, the corned-beef-and-hash-eating champion of the world, the matzo ball-eating champion of the world, Eric "Badlands" Booker!

(Soundbite of "Crazy Train"; applause and cheering)

YOFFE: My introduction to this small crowd wasn't quite as impressive.

Unidentified Man: She can type 107 words per minute with no errors. I give you Emily Yoffe, known as Quirty.

(Soundbite of light applause)

YOFFE: I have no idea what that nickname meant. I sought advice from Crazy Legs Conti, an oyster champion, and Donald "Moses" Lerman, who holds the butter title with seven sticks in five minutes. I had this theory that as the only Jewish mother in the field, I had an advantage in matzo ball eating. Lerman said he also used to think Jews had an edge until African-Americans Hardy and Booker won the title. `A true competitor can eat anything,' he said. It was time for the contest to begin.

Group of People: (In unison) Five, four, three, two, one!

Unidentified Man: And they're off!

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

Unidentified Woman: Just slow. Slow. Go slowly but don't get fast. Slow and fast.

YOFFE: As I bit into the competition matzo balls, I tried to describe what the inside tasted like.

Sawdust. Drywall. Wallpaper paste.

Halfway through the contest, I had eaten only two matzo balls. Down the table, Crazy Legs Conti was doing just a little bit better.

Unidentified Man: Look at him go! He's like a squirrel on crack! He's...

YOFFE: I was worried I might experience what is known in the sport as an urge contrary to swallowing. `We don't use the V-word,' Crazy Legs had explained to me. I was falling badly behind.

Unidentified Man: We have just one minute left in this contest.

YOFFE: As the final minute was announced, I started shoveling them in.

Unidentified Man: Five, four, three, two, one--put down your matzo balls! Oh!

YOFFE: In the end, I ate six. I felt both surprisingly good and proud of myself until I discovered what "Badlands" Booker had done.

Unidentified Man: Ladies and gentlemen, with a new world record with 30 matzo balls in five minutes and 25 seconds, Eric "Badlands" Booker!

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

YOFFE: I, on the other hand, came in last. But Crazy Legs found a way to cheer me up.

Mr. CRAZY LEGS CONTI (Competitive Eater) ...six matzo balls ties the all-time female record set last year.

YOFFE: Really?

Mr. CONTI: So you are now, I believe, a co-holder in the female record. I...

YOFFE: Eating federation official George Shea confirmed this, but pointed out it was a pathetic attempt on my part to set an affirmative action standard for eating.

Mr. GEORGE SHEA (International Federation of Competitive Eating): However, we do not distinguish between men and women. Today, you ate six and the champion ate 30. We--there's no Title IX in our sport.

YOFFE: As I stared at the leftovers, I resisted a genetic imperative to grab about 50 matzo balls, stuff them in my purse and take them home for Passover. A few days later, I attended two consecutive Seders. At each, I was given my usual single-ball serving. The balls were fluffy and moist; both nights, I went back for seconds.

BRAND: Emily Yoffe writes the Human Guinea Pig column for Slate. You'll find her article with pictures from the contest at slate.com.

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