Jerry Zezima, a Newsday assistant editor who writes a nationally syndicated humor column for his hometown paper, The Show More
For nearly three decades, my loyal, intelligent and, let's face it, masochistic readers have said that I stink. This time, they're right.
That's because, in a display of gluttony that did not, unfortunately, take my breath away, I participated in a garlic-eating contest.
This pungent event was the highlight of the Long Island Garlic Festival, which was held recently at Garden of Eve Organic Farm and Market in Riverhead.
As about 100 people crammed into a tent to get a whiff of the competition, which should have put the smell of fear in them but instead produced an air redolent with excitement, I stood at a long table with seven other contestants, all of whom could sniff victory and, more important from a dollars-and-scents perspective, the $100 grand prize.
"Did you practice?" asked Vanessa Hagerbaumer, an event planner who was the emcee for the contest.
"No," I said. "I figured nobody would want to come near me. Then again, if I started training this morning, I might have won by default."
"That would have been a good strategy," said Vanessa, who introduced the contestants and explained the rules: We would have two minutes to chew and swallow as many cloves of garlic as we could stomach. We could drink water to wash down what we ate. No spitting out or regurgitating garlic during the competition. A clove in the mouth as time ran out would be counted. Garden of Eve would not be responsible if we repulsed loved ones when we got home.
"Ready?" Vanessa said.
The crowd was breathless.
For the last time that day, so was I.
I popped a clove of garlic in my mouth and started chomping. I decided not to waste time by peeling off the husk, part of which got stuck in my teeth. The rest, along with the masticated clove, went down my gullet.
A split second later, I felt like a fire extinguisher had been set off in my mouth. The intense sensation blasted out my nose, eyes and ears. Undeterred, I ate another clove. Then another.
The onlookers, who probably could have used gas masks, were going wild.
Suddenly, it was over. I had inhaled 13 cloves of garlic.
I didn't even come close to winning. That honor went to defending champion Mark Lucas, a high school art teacher and drama director, who gobbled 22 cloves. His secret: "I used the palm of my hand to smash them on the table. Then I just swallowed them."
"I bet your students will pay attention to you tomorrow," I said.
"If they don't go home sick," Mark replied.
His victory last year was not without consequence.
"I went to a party afterward," Mark said. "A pregnant woman got nauseous, so I had to leave."
A similar fate awaited me when I got home.
"Whew!" my wife, Sue, exclaimed when I walked in the door. "I could smell you coming."
She had anticipated my odoriferous condition and bought a lemon, which I sliced and sucked on.
"Any better?" I asked, exhaling toward Sue.
"No!" she cried. "It's coming out your pores."
I chewed on some mint from Sue's garden.
"You still leave a backdraft when you walk by," she said, fanning her nose with her hand.
Finally, I tried a tomato.
"Tomato juice is used on dogs when they get sprayed by skunks," I noted.
"Even a skunk would smell better than you do," said Sue.
The tomato didn't do the trick, either. What might have helped was $100 worth of breath mints, but since I didn't win, I couldn't afford them.
My only consolation was that I got an "I Love Garlic" T-shirt. It was the only thing about me that didn't stink.