Mastering matzo: Reflections of a cook-off champ

PAW’s student contributors have a range of hobbies outside the classroom that often inform the reporting that they do for the magazine. For example, last month Eric Silberman ’13 wrote about healthy eating in Princeton’s dining halls in an On the Campus column. Last week, he made headlines for his own work in the kitchen, winning a national cook-off sponsored by the kosher food manufacturer Manischewitz. Below, Silberman explains how family history — and some helpful Princeton voters — propelled him to the top prize.
 
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Eric Silberman ’13 (Photo: Habin Chung ’12)
By Eric Silberman ’13
 
There’s an old Jewish saying that’s used to simply describe the celebration of Jewish holidays: They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat. In my family, we observe the principles of that saying, and more: Eat now, talk later, the tradition of my father’s family. Eat now, talk now, the tradition of my mother’s family. Talk now, eat when everyone else is finished eating, the tradition of my youngest brother.
 
When, over winter break, I entered the 6th Annual Man-O-Manischewitz Cook-off, my entry was resting on more than the fact that all it seems my family does is eat and talk—my entry of “Mod” Matzo Ball Soup, a hearty vegetarian version of the traditional Jewish penicillin, chicken soup with matzo balls, rested on the fact that eating and talking, just like Manischewitz and matzo ball soup, are Jewish traditions that have continued throughout the years, and will continue for many years to come.
 
But, like certain Jewish foods, especially if they contain prunes, my excitement about entering the competition passed quickly, and by the time I was driving down the highway in Tennessee (visiting a friend over intersession) and received a call from the public-relations company associated with Manischewitz, I had long forgotten that I had even entered. I was quite surprised to hear that I had been named a semifinalist in the competition, which meant that I would be one of five contestants up for online voting to become the fifth of four pre-selected finalists in the live cook-off.
 
And so I realized that if I wanted to move on in the competition, I would have to do a lot of, well, talking. So thanks to my generous listserv spamming, the campus quickly became acquainted with the matzo ball—the “mod” matzo ball, that is. During the two-week voting period, my spamming became such a time-intensive extracurricular activity that I considered putting it on my résumé. Instead, I won the voting, and was soon named the fifth finalist in the competition, an accomplishment in and of itself! 

At the live cookoff, which was held last week at the Jewish Community Center in New York City, I had to prove my dexterity in keeping to my younger brother’s tradition of talk now, eat much later, all while cooking. But to me, the cooking competition atmosphere was not a foreign one. In fact, cooking competitions are something I do quite often, when my family gets together over breaks from school, bakes small cakes in the shape of cars, and, using frosting and candy as decorating tools, battles for the title of best-in-show.
 
Still, I was up against some tough competition: Jacquie, a mother and educator who cooked gnocchi; Andrew, a father and accountant who prepared a vegetable torte; and Jennifer and Ronna, veteran cooking competition pros, who made chicken with cherries and puff-pastry-wrapped chicken, respectively. At the venue, each contestant was given a station stocked with ingredients and supplies, an hour to cook, and a room packed with spectators consisting of family and friends (my parents and younger brother included), local Jewish mothers, media correspondents, celebrity judges, and of course, the head honchos of Manischewitz.
 
Between chopping vegetables and forming matzo balls, I juggled numerous questions from the spectators about my recipe, my family, me, and how many classes I was missing for the event (answer: four), all while the spectators had the chance to try each of the competitors’ dishes, as prepared by a catering service. In my cooking frenzy, I didn’t have a chance to try the other dishes, but of course, I peeked over at their stations from time to time to scope out my competition. I have to admit, the other dishes looked quite mouth-watering.  
 
After a fault-free hour of cooking, I presented my dish to the judges, headed by Food Network chef Claire Robinson. I told them about the numerous traditions associated with my dish, and closed with and appropriate comedic reminder: “The ball is in your court.”
 
The announcement soon came that I, 21-year-old college student and amateur chef, was the winner! I was shocked, but I reminded myself, who doesn’t love matzo ball soup? I was presented with a large glass trophy, and a flurry of pictures followed.
 
I was so honored and excited to win. Going into the competition, I knew that — win or lose — I would be having a ball. This way, I got to have my ball and eat it too. And of course, after all was said and done, there was one thing left to do, as my parents and grumbling stomach reminded me: “Let’s eat!”