Nine teams of couples competed in the 13th year of the annual Paczki Eating Contest at Bennison’s Bakery in Evanston on a sunny afternoon on Saturday, February 10.
The 2 pm eating contest brought new and returning viewers 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 temperatures for the 2024 outdoor sidewalk contest topped 40 degrees.
At the corner of Maple Avenue and Davis Street, visitors could see the bakery’s entrance decorated with balloons in Mardi Gras colors.
Paczki (often pronounced POONCH-key), a Polish pastry, is popular before Lent, when many celebrate Fat Tuesday, which this year falls on February 13, without counting their calories before Ash Wednesday, which begins the Lent fast until Easter.
In the timed paczki contest, participants were tasked with eating as many paczki donuts as possible in five minutes, and were allowed one minute to finish eating the filled donut completely to be counted. The contest countdown began with a horn, courtesy of Skokie’s Jordan Podolsky.
Spectator Daniel Choldin of Evanston was here to witness the “consumption spectacle.”
The first place team ate 25 paczki combined, the second place team finished with 16, and third place finished in a tie with two teams eating 14 paczki.
The donut trays contained compact versions of paczki (slightly smaller than those sold at the retail bakery) and included flavors such as raspberry and blueberry sprinkled with colored sugar and white icing. Contestants often prefer a chocolate frozen custard version.
Of the Paczki eating contest, “it’s 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 a dozen different flavors this 2024 paczki season, with strawberry whipped cream being the most popular, according to Downer.
Versions of the King Cake baby cake are sold, frosted and decorated in 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 fire captain.
Roche was supposed to participate a year before the COVID-19 pandemic began, but had to leave suddenly to take an emergency call and abandon the paczki food stand.
While Roche and Conner didn’t finish in first place, they did garner high interest among supporters cheering on the first responders.
“I’ve never actually had paczki before,” Conner said shortly before the contest began. “Bennison has been here for a long time. He is a staple in the community and since we are also part of the community, it is good to support him.”
This year’s charity partner is Border Tails Rescue of Northbrook (https://www.bordertailsrescue.org/).
Plum-flavored paczki that aren’t in high demand are promoted in good spirits to help fund the donation, but Bennison’s Bakery makes sure the paczki season produces a worthwhile donation annually to benefit that year’s chosen charity partner. .
Upon learning of paczki’s philanthropic connection, Kevin Roche said, “That’s great, anything for charity, we always participate 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’s a lot of fun,” Wach said. “My wife is Polish, so we always have paczkis.”
Father and son team Alan and Gabe Sanders of Evanston placed second as returning contestants.
“It was stressful but fun,” Gabe Sanders said after the contest.
“Chocolate is the best,” Alan Sanders said of his favorite paczki flavor for eating in front of a crowd.
Another father-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 start of the event, Jeffrey Trzaskus said.
“It’s a lot of fun… a good tradition,” Jeffrey Trzaskus said.
Elijah likes apple flavor and Elijah’s dad likes apple and chocolate paczki.
Elijah told Bennison’s Bakery, “It’s always nice to come here and eat something nice, a special treat.”
Kelly Carlton and Pat Van, both from Wilmette, were one of two third-place teams and good sports.
It feels “amazing,” Kelly Carlton said shortly after the competition.
To that, Pan Van said with a laugh: “Third place is first place for us.”
Karie Angell Luc is a freelance reporter for the Pioneer Press.