january / february 2007:
The Chomping Champion
Moses Lerman can swallow seven sticks of butter in five minutes, yet he’s been unable to regain the revered matzah ball title. Meet the fastest eating Jew in America.
Story by Lilit Marcus | Photo by Chaim Jaskoll
If you know anything about competitive eating, it’s probably the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog eating contest held every Fourth of July in Coney Island. While this is the World Series of the sport, competitive eating has been gaining ground in the last few years, with a slate of events including food like oysters, cannoli, burritos, hard-boiled eggs, and even deep-fried asparagus. Nowadays, the Nathan’s Famous event is aired live on ESPN and competitive eaters have invaded the media from the small screen (MTV’s True Life: I’m a Competitive Eater) to the big screen (the documentary Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating). As younger eaters new to the sport get a lot of attention, many try to pay homage to the great eaters of the past. Long Island resident Don “Moses” Lerman is one of those legends of competitive eating. As a kid, he grew up devouring whatever he got his hands on, urged along by his mother, whom he calls “a lousy cook.”
The best baseball players have nicknames. Competitive eaters take it one step further, with not only a name but a persona. Don Lerman, one of the only Jews on the scene in the early days, quickly chose “Moses” as his moniker. He began showing up to events in full Charlton Heston gear. According to Ryan Nerz, author of Eat this Book: A Year of Gorging and Glory on the Competitive Eating Circuit, Lerman “has one of the best personas out there, maybe one of the best personas ever. He doesn’t drop it when he leaves the event. I almost think he is Moses.”
When I meet Lerman at a bar in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood, he’s in his “street clothes” — a pimped-out ‘20s gangster style suit with matching fedora. When he turns around, the back of his jacket reads “Don Lerman: Fastest Hands in Competitive Eating.” The words are flanked by the two hands clutching lightning bolts. Is he Moses, or is he Zeus? “In one year,” he tells me confidently, “competitive eating will be as big as the PGA tour.”
Although Lerman is in the autumn of his career, there’s one thing that is keeping him active on the circuit. Many of his friends, legends like “Hungry” Charles Hardy, have retired with a string of titles and records to their name. Lerman, though, is still stinging from the loss of the matzah ball title to Eric “Badlands” Booker, an African American subway conductor from Queens. “The day Moses Lerman lost the matzah ball title,” says Nerz, “something changed in the world of Jewish competitive eating. It’s a matter of pride … the Jews want that title back.” Lerman demurs when I ask if he has a particular Semitic vendetta about the loss of his title. “I never thought I was a Jewish champ. I’m a champ for everyone. A champ for the common man.”
Lerman wants to make it clear he has nothing personally against Booker, his longtime friend. “It’s hard, though,” he finally concedes. Unlike some on the circuit, he won’t refer to his friend as a “usurper.” Lerman, who can eat seven sticks of butter in five minutes and is renowned for his technique (he swallows them whole, letting them slide down his esophagus), says that his most difficult win was jalapeno peppers. “Twelve hours of agony,” is all he says, or needs to say. Although Lerman is a large guy now, he was slender back in his prime. He was one of the first eaters to keep up a rigorous fitness regime along with his eating. Now, all the young bucks do weight training and cardio in between sessions of scarfing hot dogs. Two years ago, Lerman broke his foot and gained 30 pounds in a month. He’s had to give up running and swears it’s the lack of exercise, not the volume of food, that’s keeping him above his old weight. Despite the change in his appearance, people recognize him all the time. He gets stopped on the street and asked for tips about getting onto the eating circuit.
Inspired by Lerman’s pioneering eating techniques, young Jewish eaters are now eyeing the matzah ball title themselves, saying it’s a victory for all members of the tribe. Whether it’s Moses who finally devours the matzah balls, or one of the younger eaters who grew up idolizing him, one thing is clear: the Promised Land is in sight.
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