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.