Racing to reach the bottom of a sundae dish


Losing is sometimes hard to explain.

I could offer several excuses why I finished last in the ice-cream-sundae eating contest held Friday at Lexington Market. But I won't because listing all my perfectly legitimate reasons for losing might be considered whining.

I could point out that the winner, Tony Pagnotti of TV's Channel 2, was bigger than I am and therefore had more room to put the giant bowl of ice cream that he polished off.

But that would be misleading. The size of an eater often has little correlation with the size of his appetite. Mammy Yokum, for instance, L'il Abner's mother and one of the great eaters of cartoon history, was just a slip of a girl.

And I could cry foul on a matter of etiquette. At least one of the other contestants who beat me -- Barry McKay of radio station 92-Star, Gary Murphy of radio station B-104 and Len Johnson of TV's Channel 45 -- used his hands to eat the ice cream. I simply used the plastic spoon. Fairness demands that I get extra points for good manners.

But raising such a picayune point might be considered bad form. Experience has taught me that getting involved in a squabble about etiquetteor the use of the English language is like throwing a boomerang. You think you have fired off a winning salvo, and "whammo!" your own words come back to clobber you.

I could have launched an official complaint about the inhumane conditions at the eating site. Specifically the lack of water. If you are going to require contestants to push down an oversized sundae, also known as a mound of sugar, simple human decency dictates that you provide a river or two of water to wash things down. There was no water.

But then again, none of the contestants received any liquid assistance. And none of the top finishers seemed worried about dehydration. Especially the winner.

I might note that if the contest had awarded points for knowledge of the field, I would have won, or at least done better than last.

I knew how the ice cream "sundae" got its name. Right before I went over to the Lexington Market I called up the International Ice Cream Association in Washington.

A researcher there told me that the sundae is so named because in the 1890s ice cream purveyors were getting a lot of heat from clergymen for selling their "sinfully rich" ice cream soda, made with -- hold onto your garters -- carbonated water.

So to clean up their image and get the preachers off their backs, the ice cream counter men stopped putting carbonated water in the ice cream sodas on the Sabbath. The resulting dish, became known as a Sunday. Eventually the spelling was changed to "sundae," and things like nuts creeped into the dish.

I couldn't wait to tell the world and the contest judges the "sundae" story. But no one was interested in oral history. In this contest, the only points you got for moving your lips were if they were wrapped around a scoop of ice cream.

I also suffered maraschino cherry overload. As soon as my sundae was plopped in front of me, I noticed that it had eight maraschino cherries. Everybody else had no more than four of the dreaded red cherries. I don't like maraschino cherries.

The maraschino cherry factor put me at an obvious disadvantage. And I thought about complaining. But I didn't. Complaining would have made me sound like a sore sport.

It also distressed me that while the ice cream was top quality, the syrup in the sundae was not my favorite. I did not want the caramel and strawberry syrup that was in the sundae. I wanted chocolate.

I was about to send my sundae back to its maker, when the contest started.

The action was pretty much a blur of white. I concentrated on pushing my white spoon through vanilla ice cream and white whipped cream. Any time I hit any item of color -- the inferior strawberry syrup or the loathsome cherries -- I was thrown off stride.

When the contest ended and other contestants had emptied their bowls, mine was still three-quarters full.

As they got up from the contest table, other competitors, including the victorious Pagnotti, swore they would never eat ice cream again.

Not me.

Which gets me to my final point. I might claim that I misunderstood the rules. The contest was a sprint, the first one to finish the sundae won.

I thought it was a marathon. And while the other guys may be holding their stomachs and groaning, I'm still spooning.

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