Our Stomachs, Ourselves

This story was written by Justin Rocket Silverman and originally appeared in Heeb’s “Food Issue” (May, 2010).

“Krazy” Kevin Lipsitz once knew what victory tasted like—kosher pickles. The magazine subscription manager from Staten Island took first place in the Carnegie Deli Annual Pickle Eating Contest by masticating 3.5 pounds of the cured cucumbers in just 5 minutes. The glory of championship has eluded Krazy Kevin ever since, but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped hunting for that rare blend of athletic prowess and abject gluttony that is competitive eating.

“I still have a barrel of pickles from the 2000 contest in my refrigerator at home,” he reveals without dishonor. “I’ll eat one every few months, just to remind myself of the winning day. Sometimes they get a little white mold on them from being kept so long, but I just wash it off and they still taste as good.”

One of the only Jewish contenders in the Carnegie Deli pickle contest, Krazy Kevin had the pride of his brine-loving people riding on his attempt to recapture the title. He sat with the other athletes at a long table on the sidewalk outside the storied deli. A bowl containing 5 pounds of large kosher sours was set in front of each competitor. It was not yet noon.

To hear Krazy Kevin’s story is to understand that he loves food the way some men love football. His favorite cuisine is the all-you-can-eat variety and he traces his talent for (over)eating back to family vacations high in the mythical Catskill Mountains of upstate New York.

“I was about 10 years old. The Jewish resorts had these all-you-can-eat dinners, and one night I ended up eating 23 ears of corn. The chef came out to see who was sending back all these eaten cobs. He was amazed when he discovered it was just a little kid. That was when I first realized I had some of the magic.”

About three minutes into the pickle eating, it became clear that the magic wouldn’t be with Krazy Kevin this year. Another favorite, Arnie “Chowhound” Chapman, who once inhaled 100 chicken wings in eight minutes, was attacking his kosher sours with unmatched fury. When the time was up, there was little doubt which contestant had the fewest pickles left in his bowl.

With golden pickle trophy in hand, Chowhound attributed his win to a particular style of “oral motor technique.” He rejected the notion that Jewish competitors suffered any kind of handicap in the sport, although the current rankings of the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) suggest otherwise. No Jews occupy the top 20—a list headed up by Takeru Kobayashi, who set the world hot-dog eating record in 2004 by plowing through 53.5 of Nathan’s Famous in 12 minutes.

“There is a rumor that you’ll never see a Jewish hot dog champ,” says “Beautiful” Brian Seiken, a long-time competitive eater who is ranked 33rd in the IFOCE charts. “The Jews have really not fared well in the Nathan’s contest.”

Of course, there are competitors like Don “Moses” Lerman, who was at one time ranked in the federation’s top five. Moses Lerman is depicted on his website parting a Red Sea of burgers, hot dogs, chili peppers and sticks of butter, and was once featured on the Daily Show alongside a refrigerator stocked with gefilte fish. But even Lerman doesn’t believe the tribes of Israel have what it takes to eat like a champion.

“The Jews just can’t compete; they will never be able to eat as well as the Midwesterners,” Lerman says. “I used to think being Jewish helped me in the matzo ball competitions, but when I saw the non-Jews consistently winning, I realized I was wrong.”

Krazy Kevin tries not to think about any possible Hebrew handicaps during the contest, entering instead what competitive eaters describe as a Zen-like chewing trance. “But when I looked over at Chowhound’s bowl and saw how much he had eaten, I realized it didn’t matter how much I loved pickles, I had lost.”

* * *

Krazy Kevin’s food lust should come as no surprise. Think of the climactic moment in the 1985 film The Goonies when the treasure-seeking adolescents are re-united with their families and Lawrence “Chunk” Cohen’s parents dash towards their son brandishing a box of pizza. Yes, we all know that Jews love to ingest, but sometimes overlooked are is their inability to digest. It’s the worst kind of tragic poetry as the people with such a soft spot for swallowing, an hour or so later, end up groaning in pain even after a normal meat-and-potatoes dinner. A number of digestive maladies seem to affect Jews in disproportionate numbers—Crohn’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, some food allergies and even lactose intolerance have all been referred to as Jewish ailments. Dr. Burrill Crohn, who would name the horribly debilitating disease he discovered after himself, recognized Crohn’s as a particularly Jewish disease. Crohn infamously joked to other doctors that the ailment was brought on by Jewish genes, Jewish food or Jewish mothers.

Zach Stewart, a 29-year-old Miami schoolteacher, knows too well how it feels to own a digestive system undermined by genetics. Around the time of his bar mitzvah, and after “a billion and one tests,” Stewart was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. There is still no definitive explanation for what causes the illness, yet even today the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America stipulates that “American Jews of European descent are four to five times more likely to develop [Crohn’s] than the general population.”

Stewart has heard the disease is more common in Jews, although that’s little comfort when you’ve spent your high-school years in and out of hospitals and hooked up to nightly IV drips to prevent your body from starving to death. The digestive-tract inflammation caused by Crohn’s can make eating even the blandest foods an exercise in self-torture, leaving the body perpetually undernourished.

“I’ve gotten really good at gritting my teeth and waiting out the pain,” Stewart explains in a tone of resignation. “The first thing you do whenever you go out is scout the location of the nearest restroom.”
With Crohn’s, much like with arthritis, the body’s own immune system overreacts to what it considers a foreign invasion. In the case of Crohn’s and similar diseases, that “foreign invasion” is food, which causes painful sores to form in the digestive tract.

“Abscesses have had to be removed,” Stewart says, “which was literally a pain in the ass. And for a long time, I was wearing menstrual pads because there was pus coming out of my rear.”

Stewart’s condition is an example of one of the most painful and debilitating ways that the Jewish body can go wrong—a single slice of white bread can be the equivalent of a hot knife to the gut.

“We laugh about having to run to the bathroom and that stuff, but Crohn’s is more than that. It’s all about pain and weakness,” says Dr. Frank Sileo, a psychologist in Ridgewood, New Jersey, who suffers from Crohn’s himself and wrote a children’s book about the disease.

***

Unlike Crohn’s and its sister ailment ulcerative colitis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome cannot be so readily diagnosed. IBS does not cause intestinal bleeding or lead to colon cancer. It’s not fatal the way complications from Crohn’s can be. But when you are suffering from the same regular sprints to the toilet, it’s hard to feel like you’ve gotten off easy.

Adam is a 28-year-old programmer from Boston who asked that his last name not be used. He remembers well the joy of sitting down to massive holiday dinners. It wasn’t exactly competitive eating, but multiple servings of brisket and kugel were always a source of pleasure. That all changed around a decade ago, returning from a family trip to Disneyworld. Adam had been “holding it in all day” at the park. Driving away from Epcot, he downed a large container of orange juice in the car and suddenly found himself screaming at his dad to pull the car over. He didn’t know it then, but his belly would never be the same.

“You feel like you have to go to bathroom all the time,” he says. “The most I can wait now is a few hours between trips to the toilet. It has impacted the way I live my life.”

Adam found himself shedding pound after pound in the first years of his IBS. “When you can’t eat pizza anymore, you are going to lose a lot of weight.” His diet now consists of measured portions of carefully selected foods. He curses the TV dinners he used to microwave on a daily basis, thinking they might have had something to do with poisoning his stomach. Adam also found that stress makes the pain worse—in strong enough doses, anxiety becomes the equivalent of an express ticket to the bathroom.

* * *

Lactose intolerance often accompanies IBS, and sure enough Adam’s gut also rejects cheese, ice cream, butter— anything associated with dairy. Painful cramps and yet more trips to the toilet follow even the smallest shmear of cream cheese.
Lactose intolerance refers to the body’s inability to digest the sugar found in cow’s milk, and nowadays hundreds of “lactose free” products are marketed to the afflicted millions. Only 10 percent of Caucasians in the U.S. are lactose intolerant. And the Jews? Well, let’s just say that 60 percent won’t be getting in line at Ben and Jerry’s for Free Cone Day.

Dairy-deprived members of the tribe can take solace knowing that their struggle is shared by something like 90% of Native Americans and 70% of African Americans. The astute reader will discern a trend here, noting that fair-skinned folks have the ability to digest milk—and thus absorb vitamin D—far better than their darker counterparts.

The common explanation for the Jewish tendency towards lactose intolerance is conveniently tidy. Living in the sun-bleached Holy Land, the old Hebrews got plenty of vitamin D from the sun’s rays, over time losing their ability to get it from milk. Even after centuries in chilly Poland, Ukraine and New York City, in significant ways Jewish genes still seem poised for a spring day in Tel-Aviv.

Unfortunately for the irritable Jewish mind, there’s no analogous evolutionary explanation for the cause of Crohn’s or IBS. A myriad of theories about the maladies split along classic “nature versus nurture” lines—does the problem arise from genetic programming or from cultural conditioning?

In the nurture corner, is the reasoning that Dr. Crohn’s joke about Jewish mothers and their “eat, tatteleh, eat” ethics might not be such a joke after all.

“There is a theory that young Jewish men and women develop eating disorders as a reaction to a culture in which food is so central,” says Abigail Natenshon, a Chicago-based psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders. “In the Jewish tradition food is all around, and the archetypal Jewish mother is always presenting food and imploring her children to eat.”

Claudia Roden explores the origin of this archetype mom in her 650-page tome, The Book of Jewish Food, which looks back on the shtetls of Europe, from whence many a modern Ashkenazi Jew in America (not to mention Jewish stereotype) originates: “Because of its scarcity, food represented a mother’s love— and that was the one thing Jews did not lack. The yiddisheh mammeh manifested her unbreakable and unconditional love by constant and solicitous overfeeding.”
The dangers of over-consumption are well known to some medical professionals, especially those that routinely use words like qi and “life force.” Al Stone, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner in Los Angeles who treats bowel diseases with herbs and acupuncture, suggests that the Jewish neuroses about food can lead to digestive disorders.

“Within the Jewish culture there is a heightened emotional sensitivity,” Stone says. “We become obsessed with our own feelings and sometimes walk around as though we are constantly being chased by a bear. That’s where digestion basically shuts down.” Stone calls the resulting problems “self-inflicted IBS,” and says many symptoms of the ailment are directly tied to a distressed mental state.

“There are more nerves in the brain that connect to the digestive system than connect to each other,” says Stone. “That means that in some respects there is more energy being directed toward digestion than there is to thought. So if there is anything wrong with the nervous system, it’s going to affect the digestive system profoundly.”
 Lending credence to Stone’s theory is the fact that Western doctors now treat irritable bowel symptoms with antidepressants. The very same pills commonly prescribed to help quit smoking or prevent someone from killing a roomful of fellow postal workers, are now prescribed to alleviate the need to go #2 every few hours.

While the effectiveness of Prozac on IBS has been well documented, the reason it works is less certain. Most doctors maintain that antidepressants offer purely physiological relief for the irritated digestive system. They point out that the dosages recommended for IBS are insufficient to actually affect serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain. Adam, the IBS sufferer in Boston, says the low dose of the antidepressant he takes daily is not enough to impact his mood. “The pills get to the neurological system of the stomach, which has its own brain.”

Zach Stewart, for one, has found relief through a drug called Remicade, an anti-inflammatory medication that has nothing to do with combating anxiety. And after two years on Remicade, he is heavier and healthier than he has ever been since his diagnosis.

* * *

If history has taught the Jews anything this past century, it is about the dangers of genetic finger-pointing, but the Jewish tendency towards gastrointestinal dysfunction seems to be a simple case of ‘it’s in the genes.” Geneticist Ernest Abel suggests that, if anything, culture can only be blamed for indirectly affecting the genetic makeup of a people. As Abel points out in his Jewish Genetic Disorders, A Layman’s Guide, kosher laws made it impossible for European Jews to eat with, and by extension, marry non-Jews. Whatever inherited illnesses were present in Jewish communities were passed down through the generations, undiluted by intermarriage. The author points specifically to Crohn’s as a mutation that began as a genetic adaptation to unsanitary conditions in the European Jewish ghettos. Over years of isolation, the trait was amplified into the debilitating disease we know today.

Zach Stewart and Adam have little time to consider scientific debates, cultural analyses and the hidden hereditary time bombs lurking in their DNA when they’re jolting to the john. But perhaps what is even more tragic is that they will most likely always be pained by the thought of food. That ancestral genetic adaptation of theirs, meant to protect them from bad foods, has now become an overactive guard dog, aggressively transforming a people’s love for food into a love of aloe-covered toilet paper.

“I would do anything not to live like this,” says Adam of his IBS. It’s like having a monkey on your back. A monkey you can’t get rid of. No matter what you do.”

Perhaps Krazy Kevin shouldn’t beat himself up for his failure to rise to the hallowed halls of competitive eating’s upper echelon. Maybe he should move on to a sport in which he’s more likely to excel—like basketball.

 

 

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