Contestants sat at opposite ends of six-foot tables around the Ansonia Armory. In front of each person were two boxes of pączki -- Polish jelly doughnuts. A city staffer sprinkled confetti and made sure each contestant had a few bottles of water.
Mayor David Cassetti set his timer for eight minutes, faded the music, and started or -- restarted -- the city’s pączki-eating competition.
In a year marked by loss, Ansonia found a way to bring something back: the pączki-eating competition, a Fat Tuesday tradition started over 20 years ago by the owners of Eddy’s Bakery, a downtown standby. The bakery changed ownership in 2017, and the new owners revived the contest for St. Patrick’s Day in 2019. But the bakery closed a few months later.
Then came 2020, no pączki-eating competition and the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, Cassetti decided it was time to bring back the tradition himself.
“In the trying times of this pandemic, I like to have feel-good events here in Ansonia,” Cassetti said.
Pączki, pronounced like punch-key, is a powdered, filled doughnut. But the filling isn’t always jelly, Cassetti explained.
“It’s filled with different [things] like Bavarian cream, lemon, raspberry and jelly.”
Ansonia and the Naugatuck River Valley have long been home to a Polish American population. The doughnuts mark a tradition of enjoying one last culinary indulgence before Lent.
Without Eddy’s Bakery to supply the doughnuts, Cassetti took it upon himself to sample pączki across the Valley to find the best. He landed on Big Y and ordered 120 of them, 12 each for 10 expected contestants.
Manny Cambra predicted he’d eat all 12. This was not his first pączki-eating contest -- he spent several years as a competitive eater, taking part in the old Eddy’s competition. Cassetti said the record to break was 12 doughnuts.
Cambra was not looking forward to the prune-filled pączki, which can be a challenge to eat quickly. When the competition was held at Eddy’s, Cambra said, one of the doughnuts had to have a prune filling.
“It’s not a bad consistency, I would just say it’s difficult,” Cambra said.
But as the pączki-eating contest got underway, Cambra was pleasantly surprised. “Absolutely no prunes, thank God.” However, in a few of them, it seemed like someone forgot to add the filling, he said.
And that worked out well for Cambra: He won with a final tally of 11 1/2 pączki.
Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Ali covers the Naugatuck River Valley for Connecticut Public Radio. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @ahleeoh.