Story by Kristina Hoti
Although Sun., Sept. 3 started out as a gloomy, rainy day in the Warwick Valley, perfectly on cue, at 4 p.m. as the crowd finished gathering for the 10th Annual Pine Island Onion Eating Contest at the Polish Legion of American Veterans Pavilion on Legion Rd. in Pine Island, the rain ceased, clouds cleared, and the sky brightened as the sun burst forth.
The Pine Island Chamber of Commerce hosted the event and contest, in cooperation with the Annual Onion Festival, and with additional sponsorship by the Orange County Vegetable Growers Association. The event featured a concert by local legend and 18-time Grammy winner Jimmy Sturr and his orchestra, and a dance performance by the Pokolenie Dancers, a Polka Dance troupe based in Pine Island.
A “Kitchen Menu” was available for purchase at very reasonable prices, consisting of traditional Polish fare such as stuffed cabbage, pierogi, kielbasa hero, and potato salad. Pine Island Brewery served beer on tap, and Frank & Tony’s New York Style Red Onion Sauce was on hand to add some extra onion flavor to the day.
The Onion Eating Contest is held to promote and support the onion industry in Orange County. Onion farming is most prevalent in the hamlet of Pine Island, home to the “black dirt” region, settled long ago by Polish immigrants who recognized the valuable soil and made the area their home. The Pine Island community has grown and today remains rich in agricultural commerce, home to hundreds of farms of all sizes.
Jimmy Sturr’s Orchestra & the Pokolenie Dancers Perform
Jimmy Sturr’s orchestra and the Pokolenie Dancers provided upbeat entertainment for event-goers while they enjoyed local food and beer under the PLAV Pavilion. It was hard not to smile and tap your feet as the colorful whirlwind of the Pokolenie costumes swept onto the dance floor. The energetic, smiling faces of this talented group range in age from seven to 45, and among the dances they presented were the Oberek, which is one of the national dances of Poland, the Hot Scotch, the Blue Star Polka, and the Hopak.
Under the direction and coaching of Joe Morgiewicz, the group was formed in June of 2012 with about 25 members.
“Traditional Polish music is hard to come by,” Morgiewicz said. “The U.S. Polka is not ‘traditional.’ If you go to Poland and do these dances, they…wouldn’t know what you are doing.”
He went on to explain that polkas from Poland are more like skipping. With slightly fewer members today, the Pokolenie Dancers are always looking to grow with new members. While the group sometimes struggles with accommodating everyone’s schedule for rehearsals, the more they perform, the more closely bonded they become.
It is looking to be a great fall season for this group, as they also performed on Sun., Sept. 10 at the Minisink Valley Kiwanis 3rd Annual Orange County Sweet Corn Festival, and have future performances coming up on Sun., Oct. 1 in NYC for the Pulaski Day Parade, and on Sat., Oct. 14 for the Annual Polonaise Ball for the Middletown Elks. The group also travels to perform in upstate New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Gillespie Wins Onion Eating Contest
As the main event of the day got under way, a total of seven contestants prepared to devour their allotted single, six-ounce, raw onion. Town Supervisor Michael Sweeton, of Warwick, Kolby Kapetanakis, of Sussex, NJ, Robert Gillespie, of Washingtonville, NY, Nick Napolitano, of Middletown, NY, Bill Kennick, of Greenwood Lake, Ray Wesolowski, of Pine Island, and Travis Coleman, of Pine Bush, NY, who was the youngest of the group, faced the crowd of on-lookers, standing behind a long table in front of the bandstand. The onion eaters were permitted some time to prepare their onion in whatever fashion suited them, and were given a plastic fork and knife to aid in their preparation.
Perhaps little could prepare for the reality of what they were undertaking. Upon the conclusion, contest winner Robert Gillespie reported, “Half-way through, it burns! It’s stupid, but you just have to keep going.”
He said that as supporters shouted their encouragement, it helped a great deal in getting him to the finish. Gillespie competed this year for the first time and became interested in the event when his co-workers on the farm where he works bet him $5 to eat a raw onion. He did, but never got his $5. It worked out for him, as it led him to learn about the Onion Eating Contest.
This time, as the winner of the contest, he took home a plaque provided by the Orange County Farm Bureau, a jug of Pine Island Brewery Belgian Blonde, and a check for $100, provided by the Orange County Vegetable Growers Association. Prizes were presented by Association President and Pine Island County Legislator Paul Ruszkiewicz, Event Organizer Russ Kowal, and Grammy winner Jimmy Sturr.