Feb 18, 2015

Pączki-Eating Competition on Valentine's Day

This Valentine’s Day I found myself standing in a small crowd outside Bennison’s Bakery in Evanston watching eight men and boys compete in a pączki-eating contest. Mothers stood with babies and toddlers to cheer on their fathers, bundled against the icy, lacerating wind.  Plump pastries – in flavors of strawberries and cream, chocolate, praline mousse, prune, apple, apricot, cream cheese, or bananas and cream – are rapidly consumed down the line of tables as the crowd cheers, laughs, and murmurs “Oh my Lord…”

A pączki – pronounced “poosh-key” or “pawnch-key,” depending on who you ask – is a rich Polish donut with jam or cream filling. They’re truly wonderful, something that Bennison’s Bakery has specialized in since its opening in 1938. Bennison’s is packed and bustling today with orders for Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday is known as Pączki Day in some circles, after all.) The atmosphere is warm and intimate inside, with four coffee pots piping on burners behind the counter and the scent of baking sugar mingling with easy-listening jazz in the air.

Outside, things are a little colder and harsher but no less convivial. The competition is varied; some chew determinedly and take time to swallow, while others cram fistfuls of pastry into their mouths in between slugs of water. Patrick, a habitual competitive eater, eats with two hands bloodied by strawberry filling. After the five minutes are up, he is declared the winner with 25 pączki. Patrick then bites with exaggerated nonchalance into yet another pączki, to laughter and the soft thudding of mittened applause.

This is Bennison’s 6th Annual Pączki-Eating Contest, and one of today’s competitors was in fact the winner of the first. This year he brought along his 10-year-old son, Kyle, to compete with him as a team. Before the competition, Kyle predicted that he would eat three pączki and that’s exactly what he did. The other competitors ranged from lanky twenty-somethings to middle-aged men.

All proceeds from the competition will go to Phil’s Friends, a cancer support charity. Each contestant was sent home with a t-shirt, a Bennison’s gift card, and as many pączki as they could carry.

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