Local halušky-eating thoroughbred Milan Šikeť moments after eating the lion' s share of his team's three liters of bryndzové haluš#ky.
photo: Matt Reynolds

Life is normally serene and simple in Turecká, a picturesque country village nestled between two towering mountains fifteen kilometers north of Banská Bystrica and a stone's throw from where the High Fatra mountain range meets the not-so-low Low Tatras. But once a year an explosion of festivity in honour of the Slovak national dish, the World Championship of Cooking and Eating Bryndzové Halušky, befalls its one hundred and forty permanent residents.

This year over a thousand people descended upon the small mountain village June 12 - 13 to watch the fierce competition which has grown up around this simple mixture of shredded potatoes mixed with flour, water, and salt.

With national pride at stake, the competition is stiff and serious. At this year's festival, for example, the local favourites, known as the "Poppy Cakes", pinned their hopes of ending a four-year drought on the substantial shoulders of newcomer Milan Šikeť. Moments before eating, Šikeť seemed undaunted by the pressure, addressing the crowd via a cordless microphone, saying, "I'm very hungry and I just hope I get enough."

In an interview later, Šikeť seemed pleased with his team's performance. When asked if he had done any special training leading up to the performance, the 168-kilo Šikeť chuckled and said, "No, unless you count an unusually light breakfast in the morning."

The action officially began at 10:30 a.m. and finished around 4:00 p.m. Saturday.

The rules were simple. Each team consisted of four members, one cook and three eaters. As teams and onlookers cheered, the seasoned halušky chefs raced to pour a mixture of two kilograms of shredded potatoes and two kilograms of flour through small, wooden strainers into boiling water. When the mixture rose to the top, they whisked it out and mixed it with bryndza cheese, sour cream, and small cubes of bacon.

After a short break for the halušky to cool and be judged for taste, the time-keeping resumed. Four faces and spoons crowded into each large bowl, casting away manners and the limits of human appetite. Penalty seconds were assessed later for poor taste, or appearance of the halušky, and poor hygiene (sliced fingers during frenzied potato grating being a common example). The team with the shortest aggregate time won.

While the eating took center stage, the day's activities went well beyond calorie intake and extended long into the night. The one modest path through town was lined with five makeshift wooden gaming areas, and opposite them food and crafts booths selling everything from balloons to beer as far as the eye could see. Throughout the day, live bands entertained from a large wooden stage in the town's center. There was even a side contest- a search for the heaviest man and lightest woman. The winners weighed in at 198 kilograms and 39 kilograms, respectively, and received their weight in potatoes and flour as prizes.

Most of the town's inhabitants, who work mainly in factories in Banská Bystrica or in the local logging industry (a popular ski resort closed down shortly after privitisation), seemed to love the excitement and modest fame that this and a winter sledding festival has brought. The competition was started five years ago as a means of attracting attention to Turecká, making a little money, and in general having some fun in the face of difficult economic times. Originally it was run by one man, but a ten-person committee now oversees planning and execution.

"Every year the competition has grown in size and scope," said Milan Makovník, the committee's chairman.

At six o'clock the dancers and musicians took a short break and the crowd gathered in tight for the awards ceremony. After a few words from the town mayor, the top ten teams were announced. The Poppy-Cakes finished a disappointing ninth (out of 42 teams) but seemed to take it in stride, perhaps bolstered by Šikeť's second place showing in the heaviest man contest. An upstart Czech team threatened to take the crown away from Slovak soil but settled for an impressive sixth place finish instead. In the end it was a local group from Banská Bystrica, Mišiak Motor Sports, that won the championship, finishing with a total time of eight minutes and fifty one seconds -a new world record!

When asked about future plans for the competition, Makovnick responded that he'd like to keep expanding the event to provide activities for the whole family. "This year we instituted the heaviest man/lightest woman competition, and we plan on adding additional events in the future. We just want to keep growing, keep having fun, and if we can, spreading the popularity of our Slovak national dish."