Fresh lemon juice was squeezed. Plates of clams were piled up on the tables. The crowd was warned to step back. The stage was set, and the countdown began.
“Five, four, three, two, one,” shouted Anthony D’Esposito, a Hempstead Town councilman and former chief of the Island Park Fire Department. “Let’s eat some clams.”
Thus began the sixth annual Long Island Clam Eating Contest in Island Park on Sunday. A crowd of more than 200 spectators watched 50 contestants chow down thousands of raw clams in a matter of minutes with admiration, disbelief and some degree of discomfort.
“You will never catch me doing this,” said Evan Schatzberg, 40, of Plainview. “I can eat maybe two or three. This is too much.”
Schatzberg came to support the event for the first time to show appreciation. He is a drummer for the Nassau County Firefighters Pipes and Drums band, which is the beneficiary of this year’s event at Peter's Clam Bar, an iconic establishment owned by Butch Yamali, president of the Dover Group in Freeport.
The contest began six years ago to raise money for South Shore firehouses damaged by superstorm Sandy. Later, donations from the public and registration fees for the contest went to different local charities or nonprofits.
“Each year, we do it. It’s great. It brings everybody here. Local leaders and people travel from near and far to compete,” said D’Esposito, who helped organize the gluttonous spectacle. “Brooklyn has the Coney Island hot-dog eating and Island Park has clam eating.”
The firefighter who wolfed down the most clams Sunday was the defending champion, Pete Adams, 58, of Island Park, who finished 134 clams in five minutes spanning three rounds. He said he would donate the $2,500 prize to the Island Park Fire Department and the firefighters band.
The first contest was limited to firefighters. A second contest for members of the public was held later in the day.
Adams, who also won the firefighters 2015 contest, called this year’s win a bittersweet moment because Sunday marked the 28th anniversary of the death of his mother, Katie Adams.
“I did it for my mom,” Adams said, adding he had thought of not participating. “It's a little emotional. ... But it’s for a good cause, and I thought I’d give it a shot.”
Sunday’s event also marked a tradition that many hope will continue. For some who attended, clam-eating was part of growing up on Long Island.
“When I was a kid, me and my uncle would go get clams out of the bay for family parties. So I just kind of grew up with it,” said Kevin Elfast, 28, of West Babylon. “You had baymen for generations. That was their living. … But that’s kind of died out. So it’s nice that the tradition lives on.”
For Anna Christ, 21, and her father, Doug Christ, 61, both representing the Bellerose Fire Department, the contest was a new culinary challenge. While the father and daughter didn’t win this year, they would like to come back to try again.
“Now," Anna said, "it’s a tradition.”