From Melville to Hemingway, man has fought a losing battle with the ocean’s great creatures. But last weekend, one Soviet-born Brooklyn resident claimed victory over the beasts of the sea — or at least over seafood.
The battleground was not the Atlantic or the Pacific, but the Manhattan Beach Jewish Community Center in Brooklyn.
The March 21 competition was part of the second annual “Mameloshen Forever Festival,” a month-long series of events designed to bring together Jews from the former Soviet Union. The festival’s debut last year presented what was believed to be the first-ever organized gefilte fish-eating contest. So say the unofficial historians at the New York-based International Federation of Competitive Eating, an organization with the motto “Nothing in Moderation.”
The match began with master of ceremonies Alex Gutmacher holding a microphone as he stepped to the center of the JCC’s basketball court. Russian disco music was blaring in the background. “Welcome,” Gutmacher said in a voice that would seem at home in any wrestling arena, “to the annual gefilte fish-eating contest!”
Nobody cheered. But everybody was curious.
The crowd of mostly Russian speakers surrounded two folding tables pushed together and laden with mini-bottles of Poland Spring water, plastic cups and platters of brown gefilte fish from the Langeron restaurant with horseradish on the side.
Anybody in the community was welcome to volunteer for the contest, but only two residents were courageous enough to compete.
Valeriy Tumaniam stepped to the table first.
“Do you like gefilte fish?” Gutmacher asked the spry Tumaniam, who bounced with excitement.
“Yes I do!”
Tumaniam’s challenger, Michael Lipovesky, came forward in a gray jumpsuit. He also looked ready for battle. When asked whether he had a yen for yidishe karp, Lipovesky replied: “Sure.”
The two combatants stood side by side as the crowd waited for the signal to start. “Go!” a voice declared. Suddenly, the two men were cramming as much gefilte fish in their mouths as humanly possible.
Tumaniam got off to an early lead, not surprisingly, given his experience in competitive eating contests; he has also raced to eat Russian ravioli, known as pelmeni, and registered a second-place showing in an ice cream face-off. The veteran vigorously took bite after bite. He swallowed the fish down with water, and occasionally dunked the fish in horseradish — and at one point he finished off a piece of gefilte fish with a lemon. His cheeks blew up and swelled with fish.
Lipovetsky ate more leisurely. Whereas Tumaniam was hunched over the table, Lipovetsky stood and casually chewed. He even exchanged a few jokes with onlookers.
When time was up, Tumaniam had devoured 11 pieces of gefilte fish—more than two and a half pounds — in 7 minutes. Lipovetsky had downed 10 pieces.
For a moment, Tumaniam looked weary. He squatted on the floor and stayed down for a few minutes. He rubbed his belly, which had taken on a distinctly more circular form than when he had begun the contest — like Paul Newman had done midway through his heroic attempt to eat 50 eggs in “Cool Hand Luke” (which Tumaniam reportedly has never seen). One of the audience members wondered if the champion would be sick. But he straightened up and raised his arm in victory.