It took 14 minutes for 15 members of Long Island fire departments to eat 915 clams and raise more than $10,000 for a 7-month-old boy with a rare cancer Sunday afternoon in Island Park.
Each tackled the torrent of shellfish with his or her own technique: some squeezed lemons on the shellfish, others drizzled cocktail sauce; some loosened the clams with forks before the timer started; one man ate standing up; some ate with forks, others with fingers and straight to the mouth.
Firefighter James Sprizzo, 60, of East Rockaway emerged victorious, having downed 126 clams to win the fire department portion of the contest, the eighth annual clam eating contest at Peter’s Clam Bar.
Behind the gluttonous frenzy, Michael Graham, 37, of Oceanside helped keep the plates of shellfish flowing to ravenous mouths. It was for Graham’s son Cooper that so many stomachs had stretched themselves beneath the late summer sun.
“Just incredible for our family, it means the world to us,” Graham said afterward. Graham is a fire commissioner in Oceanside and works as an administrative assistant in Hempstead town government. Cooper was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the eyes, when he was 4 months old.
The diagnosis was “devastating, life-changing,” Graham said.
At an age when everything is new, the baby boy has gone through four rounds of chemotherapy and received stem cell treatment, his father said.
“He’s spent more time there [in the hospital] than he has at home,” Graham said. “We should be at Disney now but unfortunately we’re making sure we can get him home and keep him healthy.”
Graham said doctors told them the cancer is treatable and Cooper is responding well, but it can come back after going into remission. His wife and daughter stayed with Cooper on Sunday while Graham helped out with the event.
A separate competition followed for the general public, with additional proceeds and donations to go to the Grahams as well.
Every year the contest donates money to a different cause. Peter’s Clam Bar owner Butch Yamali, who donates the clams for the contest, said he approached the Grahams about making this year’s event for their son.
“This poor little kid,” Yamali said.” These are really good, down-to-earth people.”
Organizers said they raised $10,572 on Sunday and expected additional donations to come in online. The public portion of the contest saw one person eat 232 clams for the win.
While members of the fire departments had rallied around Cooper, they also wanted to have a good time to beat the competition.
Before the eating began, Livier Pelinsky, 53, an emergency medical technician from Island Park and the only woman contestant, said she had skipped dinner and breakfast to have an empty stomach.
“I’m hungry,” she said. “I’m just going to pace myself to make sure I don’t choke.”
No one did, but most looked a little sluggish by the time it finished.
After his win, Sprizzo said he “didn’t practice or anything” for the contest.
His technique? Use “two hands” and eat “like there’s no tomorrow.”
Sprizzo said he wasn't finished eating for the day, he was on his way to "have dinner, my wife's waiting for me."