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Kosher restaurant crowns new champion of matzah ball-eating

NEW YORK, Feb. 3 (JTA) — As the other eight competitors milled nervously around, the defending champion paced, his fists clenched tightly. It wasn’t the Olympics, the World Series or even the Maccabiah Games. No, this was a truly important test of athletic prowess — the matzah ball-eating contest at Ben’s restaurant in Manhattan. “I’m very excited. I’m psyched,” said defending champion Bruce Stock, who had a trainer and nutritionist on hand for Tuesday’s second annual event at Ben’s, a kosher eatery. The contest, he said, is a “matter of concentration. It’s a matter of speed and coordination.” Stock, a 40-ish resident of Queens, N.Y., who has worked for the post office for 19 years, said his wife is behind him. “She really likes the fact that if I win, I’m going to bring home a gift certificate that will allow us to have a new refrigerator,” he said, alluding to the $2,500 gift certificate to a home appliance chain that served as the event’s grand prize. The event is the brainchild of Ronnie Dragoon, the owner of Ben’s, which has more than 15 outlets in the New York area. Dragoon was discussing marketing concepts with an adviser when they came upon the idea of a matzah ball contest — and Dragoon was immediately hooked. After all, he said, other Jewish food ideas just wouldn’t work so easily. “How much goulash can you eat? That’d be hard to judge,” he said. Besides, he added, “You associate matzah balls with Jews, with Jewish cookery.” In addition to being a marketing event for Ben’s, the contest — in which contestants had to eat as many matzah balls as possible in five minutes and 25 seconds — had a more serious purpose: as a fund-raiser for the Interfaith Nutrition Network, which operates soup kitchens and homeless shelters on Long Island and in New York City. Streit’s Matzos also helped support the contest, which, all told, raised $5,000 for the nutrition network. But if the cause the event benefitted was serious, the event itself featured almost as much hoopla per game time as the Super Bowl. Complete with descriptions of the eaters as “world-class athletes,” the pre-game festivities stretched on for nearly an hour. Finally, the contestants — some with substantial paunches, some surprisingly trim, all of whom had won preliminary competitions — took their places. They sat in their seats, which were behind two long wooden tables. Nine places were set, with silverware and napkins and glasses of water. A Ben’s apron was draped over each chair for each contestant. As banners waved above the tables — one featuring a machine shooting matzah balls into an expectant man’s mouth — the contestants began to chow. Judges stood behind them to monitor their progress. The contest itself was a study in personality: Some of the participants stuffed their faces furiously, pieces of the matzah balls — floaters, not sinkers, said Dragoon — remaining around the corners of their mouths. Others, including defending champion Stock, actually used the utensils provided and ate properly, bearing a resemblance to guests at an English garden party. “Use the water, man. Use the water,” implored one fan. When the matzah meal had settled, two contestants had consumed 11 1/8 matzah balls each. Defending champion Stock was not one of them. The balls, he complained with a smile, had the texture of apples. But he vowed to return next year. In the sudden-death eatoff, Russell Machover, a 41-year-old trim, diabetic investment banker from Long Island, defeated his 19-year-old rival, Corey Barrett — although truth be told, Barrett looked a bit less peaked afterward. Together, Machover ate more than 16 matzah balls in the two rounds, most of which found their way back into the sick bucket. But he held them in for the required five minutes necessary to claim the crown. After his victory was declared, he pulled out his cell phone to crow to his wife. “If nothing more or less,” he said of his kids, “they can say I’m a matzah ball-eating champion.” As Machover told reporters the key to his success — something about staying focused on a goal — he confided what is perhaps the key to success in another aspect of his life, “My wife makes them better.”