Originally published in Northern Ohio Live magazine 2004
By Judah Leblang/2004
Slavic Village, Cleveland
“We got 24 people signed up for the Peeerogi eating contest,” announces the emcee, a heavyset man with a florid face and full, rounded nose. “We’re gonna have everyone introduce themselves and then they’ll be ready to start eating these delicious pierogi.”
He jumps around with a microphone and the crowd is quiet as contestants give their names, ages and hometowns. Most of the last names are Polish, and many are from the neighborhood. A crowd of a 150 people-maybe more-swarms around to watch the contestants, who sit at long tables joined together in an inverted ‘U.’ Soon teenagers pass around plastic plates of doughy pierogi, and the entrants are off – gobbling the pale white triangles with their thick potato and cheese filling.
The crowd squirms, cranes necks, points. One thirty-something man, tanned and lean, his muscled bicep sporting a ship’s anchor tattoo, pops pierogi like a stoker at the nearby mills shovels coke. Shove, two, three, a gulp of water and one goes down the gullet. Soon he’s eaten five, seven, ten and no one else is even close; he leaves them lost in his dust, or in this case, butter.
The teenagers circulate with more plates of pierogi, but most contestants don’t finish their first helping, the glue-like innards of the thick turnovers expanding in their mouths, choking off their air. The tattooed man stuffs, swigs, swallows and a second plate is passed down, and then a third, until he’s eaten 28 pierogi.
Finally, mercifully, time is called; three minutes are up. The winner smiles, shakes hands, exchanges high-fives with his admirers.
“I’m from Akron, I’m Polish, and I’ve come all this way for a good pierogi!” he says, drawing a smattering of applause from the crowd. He takes home the grand prize-tickets and a limousine ride to a Cleveland Browns football game, down at the new stadium on the lake.
The second [and third] place finishers hold a coin toss, as both ate 14 pierogi. One of the “winners” is a barrel-chested wide-stomached young man of 22, the other a 40 year old with a full beard and mumbled speech.
“He’s got no teeth,” says my friend, who lives in the neighborhood.
“C’mon,” I say, not quite believing him.
“Hey, living down here, we’re just lucky we have only four fingers and one thumb on each hand,” my friend says. I close my eyes and breathe, inhaling the fragrance of french fries, potato pancakes, kielbasa and smoke from the nearby steel mills.
“Hey, who wants a pierogi?” the emcee says. Thanking the crowd for coming, he reminds them that “Our neighborhood is coming back,” and passes around a plastic plate as the masses surge forward, buzzing around him until the plate is empty, the crowd has gone, and the plaintive sound of a slow waltz dances in the heavy air.