Nine teams of pairs competed in the 13th year of the annual Paczki Eating Contest at Bennison’s Bakery in Evanston on a sunny Feb. 10 Saturday afternoon.
The 2 p.m. eating contest drew regular and new spectators to what has become an Evanston tradition to kick off Mardi Gras. A couple of contest years were missed due to the COVID-19 pandemic or snow, but the temperatures for the outdoor sidewalk contest for 2024 were over 40 degrees.
At the corner of Maple Avenue and Davis Street, visitors could see the bakery store entrance decorated with balloons in the colors of Mardi Gras.
Paczki (often pronounced POONCH-key), a Polish pastry, is popular before Lent, when many celebrate Fat Tuesday, this year falling on Feb. 13, by not counting their calories before Ash Wednesday, which starts the Lenten fast until Easter.
At the timed paczki contest, participants were tasked with eating as many paczki donuts as possible in five minutes, with one minute allowed to finish eating the filled donut fully for it to be counted. The contest countdown began by airhorn courtesy of Jordan Podolsky of Skokie.
Spectator Daniel Choldin of Evanston was here to witness the “spectacle of consumption.”
The first-place team ate a combined 25 paczki, the second-place team finished 16 and third-place ended in a tie with two teams eating 14 paczki.
Trays of donuts held compact versions of paczki (slightly smaller than those sold at the retail bakery) and included flavors such as raspberry and blueberry dusted with colored sugar and white icing. A chocolate iced custard version is preferred often by contestants.
Of the Paczki Eating Contest, “It’s just fun to do,” said Jory Downer of Wilmette, owner of Bennison’s Bakery. “It creates a little excitement.”
By the time Lent begins, Bennison’s Bakery will have made about 25,000 paczki in one dozen different flavors this 2024 paczki season with strawberry whipped cream hailing as the most popular, according to Downer.
Versions of baby cake King Cake are sold, iced and decorated with Mardi Gras colors, along with festive beads.
“I bought 1,600 boxes (to hold individual King Cakes),” Downer said.
New to the contest were teammates Jack Conner, an Evanston firefighter/paramedic and Kevin Roche, Evanston’s fire captain.
Roche was supposed to participate in a year before the COVID-19 pandemic launched, but had to leave suddenly to go on an emergency call and leave the paczki eating post.
While Roche and Conner did not finish in first place, they did rank high in interest by well-wishers cheering on first responders.
“I’ve actually never had a paczki before,” Conner said shortly before the contest began. “Bennison’s been here for a long time. It’s a staple in the community and so, with us being in the community as well, it’s just a good thing to support.”
The charity partner this year is Border Tails Rescue of Northbrook (https://www.bordertailsrescue.org/).
Not-in-high-demand prune-flavored paczki are in good humor promoted to help fund the donation, but Bennison’s Bakery makes sure paczki season produces a worthwhile donation annually to benefit the charity partner chosen that year.
Upon hearing about the philanthropic paczki connection, Kevin Roche said, “That’s great, anything for charity, we’re always involved as much as we can.”
The first-place winner was the previous contest winning team of Frank Wach of Norwood Park and Teddy Delacruz of Wood Dale.
“It is a lot of fun,” Wach said. “My wife’s Polish so we always have paczkis.”
Father and son team Alan and Gabe Sanders of Evanston came in second place as return contestants.
“It was stressful but it was fun,” Gabe Sanders said after the contest.
“Chocolate’s the best,” Alan Sanders said of a preferred paczki flavor to eat before a crowd.
Another father and son team included Jeffrey Trzaskus of Evanston and Elijah Trzaskus, 15, a high school freshman. Elijah’s father has been a repeat contestant since the event’s start, Jeffrey Trzaskus said.
“It’s good fun…good tradition,” Jeffrey Trzaskus said.
Elijah likes the apple flavor and Elijah’s father likes both apple and chocolate paczki.
To Bennison’s Bakery, Elijah said, “It’s always nice to come here and get something nice to eat, a special treat.”
Kelly Carlton and Pat Van, both of Wilmette, were one of two third place teams and good sports.
It feels, “awesome,” Kelly Carlton said shortly after the competition.
To that, Pan Van said with a laugh, “Third place is first place to us.”
Karie Angell Luc is a freelance reporter with Pioneer Press.