Heavy clouds and the threat of rain didn’t keep more than 100 contestants and spectators from gathering at Peter’s Clam Bar in Island Park on Aug. 19 for the restaurant’s Clam Eating Contest, a tradition now in its fifth year.
The competition started as a post-Hurricane Sandy fundraiser for the Island Park Fire Department, which had suffered a catastrophic loss of equipment due to saltwater damage. Since then the event has morphed into a friendly competition among local fire departments, in which volunteer men and women test their mettle — and their stomachs — by ingesting thousands of raw clams for a good cause.
As the tables were being set and the sidewalk in front of the seafood eatery overlooking Barnums Channel readied for the mass consumption of crustaceans, Peter’s owner and contest organizer Butch Yamali mused in the restaurant’s foyer about who might take first prize. “We’ll see who makes the wall this year,” he said, pointing to a poster hanging on the wall featuring the faces of previous winners.
This year, nearly 4,000 clams were devoured and roughly $3,500 was raised, Yamali reported, for the Nassau County Firefighters Museum, the prime beneficiary of the contest. Competitors came from fire departments in Franklin Square, Hempstead, Lido Point Lookout, Long Beach, Lynbrook, North Lindenhurst, Rockville Centre and Stewart Manor, among others.
“It’s a great opportunity to spark competition and friendly rivalry between the different fire departments,” said Anthony D’Esposito, a Hempstead Town councilman and a former chief of the Island Park department, who emceed the event. “But most importantly is that we raise money for the museum.”
“It’s a great way to give back to our fire service,” said County Executive Laura Curran, D’Esposito’s co-host. She added that although she was a “big fan of crustaceans,” she would not be taking part — though she added that if it came to a choice between raw and baked clams, “You gotta go raw.”
“It’s a great honor,” said Firefighters Museum Chairman Angelo Catalano. “Butch has been a great friend of ours.” He thanked Curran and D’Esposito for their support.
In addition to elected officials, celebrity competitive eaters Takeru Kobayashi and Ed “Cookie” Jarvis returned to serve as judges in this year’s contest. The two have set records and won numerous eating awards, most notably at the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island.
Jarvis said that when it came to clams, “Everybody’s got a different technique. Some guys you’ll see with gloves, and some guys you’ll see with a fork. I personally like a fork.”
And, he added, when it comes to ingesting the freshly shucked creatures, there’s “no chewing necessary. There’s no time for chewing,” he laughed.
Kobayashi said that while he loved clams, sushi was his preferred choice of food to eat competitively — with the requirement that it be from his native country of Japan. His command of English limited, he simply gestured to his throat, indicating that swallowing clams whole was his preferred method of eating them.
This year’s contest was also notable because it featured three female competitors. Lilleen Ferraro of the Rockville Centre Fire Department made it to the final round, consuming a total of 92 clams. She said that while she had concerns about choking, the risk was worth it if it benefited her fellow firefighters. “Anything for the Fire Department,” she said.
Anna Christ, the only female member of the Bellerose Village Fire Department, which serves roughly 400 homes on the border of Queens and Nassau County, said she sought to beat the record of her department’s representative at last year’s contest, who consumed a measly eight clams. “I love clams, and I’m supporting the Fire Department,” Christ said. She ultimately put away 37 clams.
There were three qualifying rounds, and a fourth and final round to determine the champions. As the competition progressed, the participants struggled to maintain their composure as they slurped the clams, backed by a rousing soundtrack including Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone,” Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and “Gonna Fly Now,” from the “Rocky” soundtrack. Some turned pale, others gagged and many wiped the sweat from their brows as they ate.
Ultimately, returning champion Pete Adams, a 37-year member of the IPFD and a winner three years ago, prevailed, consuming a total of 164 clams. “It’s an opportunity to win money for the Fire Department,” Adams said. “Even though it’s been six years since Sandy now, we still need equipment.”
He added that as an older member of the department, he no longer responds to calls, but he was happy to do what he could. “When you get older, you have to give up the nozzle,” he said, “but you still do your part.”