Gut Instinct: Down in the Dumps


Ooh, someone's feeling saucy!

"You can them in your mouth or put them in water, but if anyone vomits,” the cute Chinese event coordinator chirped, pointing to trashcans lined with I HEART NEW YORK bags, “they’re disqualified. Anyone have any questions?” Just one: Why did I enter Chef One’s sixth annual dumpling-eating contest? Answer: A little bit of hubris, a lot of jet lag and, naturally, no common sense.

By now, I’ve chronicled my dumpling adoration to death. Whether it’s crispy, juicy pork-and-chive pot stickers at dumpy Prosperity Dumpling (46 Eldridge St. betw. Canal and Hester Sts., 212-343-0683) or rich, slurp-friendly pork-and-crab soup dumplings at Flushing’s Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao (38-12 Prince St. at 38th Ave., 718-321-3838; Queens), I’m a bona fide fiend.

Fanaticism, though, does not trump the laws governing my stomach. I can only devour a dozen, maybe 15 dumplings before my belly tosses up a roadblock, issuing incoming pot stickers a stern warning:

“Come closer, and we’ll be forced to puke.”

My corporal defense mechanism keeps me from entering competitive-eating competitions, a “sport” that ranks several rungs beneath curling. There’s nothing exceptional about consuming your weekly caloric allotment in a couple minutes. Do you cheer on tubs of lard scooping up fifths at the Chinese buffet? Obesity doesn’t warrant a round of applause.

Naturally, I fell off my high chair of gluttonous hypocrisy during an October trip to China. I spent ample time in the eastern coastal province of Shandong. In the region, boiled dumplings—pork, minced greens or shrimp—are king. There they lose their appetizer status, served as a main course or a meal’s closing dish, arriving even after dessert.While visiting seaport town Yantai, I consumed dozens of plump beauties, my stomach growing as round and white as dumplings themselves. “You are a very hungry man,” my translator Lynn said as I polished a plate of 30. I’d bested my gag reflex.

How could I test my newfound talent? By entering Chef One’s competition, featuring a glittering $1,000 prize. It certainly pays to pig-out.

My flight home landed 18 hours before the event, leaving me with wickedly disorienting jet lag. “Are you sure you’re up for eating dumplings?” my girlfriend asked. My eyes were donut-glazed, my skin as clammy and damp as rotten fish’s.

“I’m gonna dominate! I’m the dumpling king!” I shouted. “That’s right, you’re the king, hon,” she soothed, folding me into a subway bound for Manhattan. Upon arriving at Sara D. Roosevelt Park’s Dumpling Festival, I checked in and sat in the holding pen. The contestants—40 males, 16 females—were split into two camps: the steely-eyed pros (“My technique is to get on my knees and not swallow,” said one amply bellied dude) and in-over-their heads amateurs.

“My only goal is to not vomit,” confided a contestant wearing sunglasses. Behind me, a student wearing a Karate Kid headband popped pills that recalled caterpillar cocoons. “Want a fat blocker?” he asked.

“I would rather not have undigested fat leak from my derriere,” I said, aghast.

“I have a high cholesterol,” he explained sheepishly. Then perhaps you shouldn’t be in a competitive-eating competition, I thought, as I climbed the stage. I was in the first batch of 10 male contestants, ranging from a short Mexican man to a bro with his hat spun backward. We lined up before bowls of 20 whole-wheat chicken dumplings—thick as a thumb, long as a middle finger—and planned our methods of attack.

The competitor to my right baptized his dumplings with water. The competitor to my left mumbled a prayer. I surveyed the deep, empty bin by my feet and, at the horn, inserted a lukewarm dumpling into my mouth. I chewed twice and swallowed hard. It went down like medicine. I paused and watched another contestant shove fistfuls of waterlogged dumplings into his hunger hole, smearing his face like a toddler, snorting like a bull. Half a bowl vanished in one messy bite, alongside a sizable chunk of his self-respect. Despite my China training, I knew I wasn’t in it to win it; I was in it to have lunch.

I leisurely popped dumplings into my mouth, one by one, masticating the doughy meat to delicious, digestible goo. In two minutes I devoured 13 dumplings. Winner “Gentleman” Joe Menchetti inhaled 53. His victory may have been sweet, but defeat tasted excellent too.