On a cold and gray Saturday afternoon in Evanston, the air outside Bennison's Bakery was swirling with equal parts snow flurries and powdered sugar.
Despite the chilly temps and driving snow, hearts were warm at Bennison's second annual paczki eating contest. Sixteen people in eight teams of two apiece took part in the lighthearted competition with a serious goal: raising funds for 10-year-old cancer patient Mason Parrish.
First time contestants Robert VanDevender and Jason Ffradelis, both of Evanston, said that they spent the week training by eating doughnuts. "The record is nine in three minutes," said VanDevender.
Not only were the two competing against the other teams present, they were competing with one another. "We did a burger eating competition once and he beat me," said VanDevender.
"It's personal," said Ffradelis.
Joe Moag of Evanston said he entered the contest on a whim. "I saw it on Facebook, and I thought why not. I feel like getting sick," he said. "My friends have an over-under on me of eight paczkis. I'm thinking four."
Paczkis (there are various pronunciations - some say "pooch-key," "potch-key" or "punch-key." All are said to be acceptable) are a Polish pastry that traditionally are served each year on the day before Lent, a period during which Catholics and Christians abstain from certain behaviors. Some of those behaviors center around eating, or not eating, particular foods, and paczkis were created to use up the lard and eggs which would be forbidden in the weeks ahead.
The paczki or "little package," is deep fried and filled with a variety of fillings, ranging from the traditional prunes to custards, apples, strawberries or cheese. In recent years, the treats have become synonymous with Fat Tuesday celebrations.
Bennison's first paczki eating contest was held last year on Feb. 13. Twelve participants in six teams managed to raise over $1,500 for the American Red Cross. The money was donated to relief efforts in Haiti to assist with earthquake relief.
The winning record set in 2010 by Dan Furjanic and Jeff Trzaskus is fourteen paczkis between the two of them. Furjanic said his strategy was to move from "Apricot to cream to custard" and train beforehand.
Steve Bartlebaugh of the Evanston Community Media Center hosted the event dressed in full Mardi Gras king regalia. After a 10 second countdown, the contestants were off and swallowing, each pair facing off with a tray of nearly 30 paczkis apiece.
"The Parrish's are friends of a friend," said Jory Downer, Bennison's owner. "We'll be donating a portion of the sales today, as well as taking donations. The staff is also donating all tips."
With the five minutes up, each team was allowed one additional minute to finish any pazckis they had in their hands. "That was the best rule," said John F. Kehoe, who along with Chris Herman won the contest, eating a total of 19 pazckis between them. At the five minute buzzer, Kehoe had no less than five pazckis in his hands, and then spent the next 60 seconds eating them.
The two won $100 apiece, and when asked for the secret to their success, Herman claimed a simple approach. "Whiskey," he said. "Specifically Jameson's." Asked how they'd be celebrating, Kehoe called over his shoulder as he walked away. "The bar," he said. "Right now."
The team of VanDevender and Ffradelis, though defeated, remained upbeat. In the post contest analysis, VanDevender explained the loss. "I was strong through the cream," he said. "But once I hit that apricot ..." he trailed off, shaking his head.
And as for the rivaly between VanDevender and Ffradelis? Did VanDevender avenge his loss during their personal burger competition? "I destroyed him," said VanDevender, beaming. "Destroyed him."
Editor's note: The first version of this article contained incorrect medical information, according to the family.